Understanding Arabic Transliterations to Enhance MENA Investigations

How can investigators without Arabic proficiency distinguish their Mohammeds from their Muhammads and their El-Khourys from their AlKhourys? Arabic’s non-Latin script, unique voweling system, the influence of colonial languages, and regional dialects can all cause different English transliterations of the same name, whether human- or computer-generated. When searching for and disambiguating transliterated Arabic names, these disparities may cause confusion for investigators without Arabic proficiency.

Luckily, there are some basic guidelines that can help you search all variations of transliterated Arabic names within public records and know whether or not the various spellings you see are simply a matter of differing transliterations or indeed two different people, ultimately speeding up your investigation. Use the guidelines below as a starting point to make sure you are not missing any possible hits on your subject’s name.


Transliteration of Arabic vowels

Arabic uses three short and three long vowels that can result in a difference of only one to two letters between transliterations of the same name, but that might be enough to give a non-Arabic speaker pause during their investigation.

The first short vowel, known as a fatha and pronounced as a light ‘ah’, can be translated as either ‘a’ or ‘e.’ A couple of the most common Arabic names investigators will recognize are perfect examples — Ahmed (أحمد) and Muhammed (محمد). The name Ahmed will often be transliterated as Ahmad and Muhammed as Muhammad. 

The second short vowel is the kesra —it is pronounced as a light ‘i,’ as in ‘pit,’ and is often transliterated as such. Arabic speakers use ‘bin’ (ين) to mean ‘son of,’ as in Abdullah Bin Hussein, the current King of Jordan. However, the kesra used in Bin can also be transliterated using an ‘e,’ especially in francophone Arab countries, as in Ahmed Ben Bella, the former Prime Minister of Algeria. Common names like Qasem and Naser can also be written as Qasim and Nasir, respectively, because of how one might transliterate the kesra

The third short vowel that can lead to varying transliterations of the same name is a damma. The damma is pronounced as a short ‘u’ or ‘o.’ The Arabic name Hussam (حسام), for example, can also be translated as Hossam. Muhammed also carries a damma over the first letter, which can lead to it being written as Mohammed, which leaves us many transliterations of Mohammed if we consider the fetha as well. 

Long vowels — alif (ا ), wow (و), and yaa (يـ) — are often transliterated the same as short vowels, but are elongated when spoken. They too cause various transliterations of the same name. For example, Zuhairy (زهيري) ends in a yaa, pronounced in this case as ‘ee,’ but it can be transliterated as Zuhairi. The name Awni (عوني), which contains the wow, can also be written as Aouni. 


Colonial influence on transliteration

Transliterations of Arabic names in former French colonies, such as Lebanon and Tunisia, carry their own unique attributes that investigators should use when searching for their subject. In these jurisdictions the definite article (الـ) will often be transliterated as El-, rather than Al-. El-Khoury is one such example. 

Some transliterations might drop the definite article entirely, therefore it is important for investigators to search using El-, Al-, with and without the dash (i.e. El/AlKhoury), in addition to the surname with the definite article removed entirely (i.e. Khoury). 

Another linguistic mark of French influence is the use of ‘g’ instead of ‘j’. For example, Gibran in Lebanon is pronounced as Jibran despite the ‘g.’ In other Arabic-speaking jurisdictions it might be transliterated Jibran.

Finally, French influence can often affect the transliteration of the Arabic letter ‘sheen’ (شـ) Although typically written as ‘sh,’ some former French colonies in the Middle East write ‘ch’ (i.e. Bashar/Bachar).


Influence of regional dialects

Beyond vowels and colonial influence, the various Arabic dialects present their own quirks in Arabic transliteration. In Egypt, the Arabic letter that is formally pronounced as a ‘j’ (جـ) is pronounced in Egypt as a ‘g,’ therefore you might see the name Jamal transliterated as Gamal in the Egyptian context.

Closer to the Gulf you will often find the ‘qaaf’ (قـ) transliterated using a ‘g’ because they pronounce it as such (i.e. Gargash). Moreover, the ‘qaaf’ across all Arabic-speaking jurisdictions can sometimes be written with a ‘k’ due to the similarity in pronunciation and there being no latin equivalent (i.e. Qasem/Kasem). 

Given the differing transliterations caused by Arabic’s vowels, colonial influence, and regional dialects, investigators need to consider all possible transliterations to avoid missing their subject within public records. The difference between Muhammed and Mohammad or El-Khoury and AlKhoury could be the determining factor in your investigation.

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