A Brief Guide to Arabic Transliteration

Is it “Enta Omri” or “Inta Omri”?

“Habibi” or “Habiby”?

“Baladi,” “Balady,” “Beledi,” “Beledy,” or “Belady,” or “Beladi”?

What about “Laylat Hob”? Or is it “Laylat Hobb,” “Lailet Hob,” “Laylet Hob,” or “Lailat Hobb”?

If you don’t read or write Arabic, it can be incredibly frustrating to try to find an Arabic song that you love, or maybe YouTube video of a singer performing that song you just discovered and need to hear right now. If you read and write the language, you can type it into the search bar in Arabic and voila! There’s that song you’re obsessed with.

But if you have to search in Roman script… things get a little tricky.

The Art of Transcription

We English speakers learn that there is a correct and incorrect way to spell a word. A word is always spelled the same way, and we’re discouraged from taking creative liberty with alternate spellings.

But then we enter the wild and wooly world of transliterating Arabic, or, more accurately, transcription. That is, taking the sounds of Arabic and writing them in Roman script.

Transcription is a little bit art, a little bit science, and a lot of understanding how Arabic and its dialects sound when spoken.

The Academic Way

There are actually several ways that academics transcribe Arabic into Roman script, but the one that I encountered the most in my studies is the “Hans Wehr” method, named for the system used in the Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic by (you guessed it) Hans Wehr.

This method uses limited diacritical marks under letters to indicate their Arabic equivalent. So, س, which is basically our “S,” would just be S, but ص, which is pronounced more in the back of the throat and has a heavier sound, would be Ṣ. Note the little dot under the letter.

Hans Wehr also distinguishes long vowels from short ones. Short vowels, such both instances of “a” in the word baladī, are not emphasized, and in popular writing, are not written in Arabic. But notice the little line over the i. That indicates a long vowel.

That’s the difference between: بلدي and بَلَدي . The little “dashes” indicate the “a” sound in “baladi.”

Writing in this way is only possible if your computer has this capability. Mac users can take advantage of these special letters by using the “Emoji and Symbols” section of the Character Viewer.

The Arabic Chat Way

As SMS and texting become more common, Arabic speakers adapted to the Roman script of SMS by adapting certain Arabic letters into numbers.

This is why when searching for a song on YouTube you might what looks like a random 7, 9, or 2 in the middle of a word. These are used to indicate letters that exist in Arabic but not in English script. The numbers have been chosen because they look most like the Arabic letter equivalent.

The Phonetic, Maybe, Way

Most dancers tend to go with the “Phonetic, Maybe,” way, that is, trying as best they can to write Arabic words or phrases as phonetically as possible.

This is where we get at least 6 ways of writing baladi, 5 ways of writing “Laylat Hobb,” and a few different permutations of “Enta Omri.”

Song titles are often transcribed phonetically, which means that we’re relying on the pronunciation, accent, and dialect of the singer. While انت عمري might be transcribed by an academic as Inta ‘Umrī, we hardly ever see this spelling on albums or used by dancers themselves. We tend towards Enta Omri, which, if you follow the academic translation system is a bit of an abomination, because the cardinal rules there say that we should never use the letters “E,” “C,” or “O,” when writing Arabic in Roman script.

So why does this happen? The answer is simple: That’s how Egyptians pronounce it.

Transcriptions are also affected by the era in which that song was first introduced to the English-speaking world. Enta Omri is a bit antiquated, just like the transliteration of muslim into “Moslem.” But the song is a classic, and we’re all mostly familiar with this E-O spelling, so we use it, and that’s perfectly acceptable for our needs as dancers.

Some Arabic Transcription Examples

Let’s take a word we know, like “habibi.”

  • Arabic: حبيبي.
  • Hans Wehr: ḥabībī
  • Arabic Chat: “7abibi.” 7 looks a lot like the aspirated ح or Ḥ of Arabic.
  • Phonetic, maybe: Habibi, habiby

Let’s now look at “baladi,” meaning either “my country” or “from the country(side).”

  • Arabic: بلدي
  • Hans Wehr: baladī
  • Arabic Chat: baladi
  • Phonetic, maybe: baladi, balady, beledi, beledy, belady

And one more, qamar, meaning “moon.”

  • Arabic: قمر
  • Hans Wehr: qamar
  • Arabic Chat: 2amar, qamar, gamar, 9amar, or kamar
  • Phonetic, maybe: qamar, kamar, ‘amar, ‘amr, qamr

As you can see, there isn’t really any exact science when transcribing Arabic words into Roman script.

However, belly dancers need to be aware of this system so that we can be more educated and aware of how the language works, and also why there are so many spellings of our favorite song titles. And if you understand how a word might be transcribed, you’ll know which spellings will be the most common if you’re searching for a song on YouTube or other platforms.

I hope this helps you in your next music search!


Hi! I'm Abby!

Welcome to my blog!

Here you’ll find my thoughts on everything from history and culture, to fusion and hybridity, to performance and training tips. I’m passionate about excellence, curiosity, and education in dance… in the studio and beyond.

In addition to holding Level 5 (Teaching Certification) in the Salimpour Formats, I also have an MA in Dance Studies at Mills College.

While belly dance and its related forms are my first love, I also teach American Modern Dance History at Mills College.

As director of the Salimpour School Berkeley, I hold weekly community belly dance classes in Berkeley, California.

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One Response

  1. I’m wondering why on earth all the Arabic books I see use the WRONG pronunciation markings, like for alif. I refuse to buy one until the markings are correct. For many years the pronunciation markings over the letter A have remained unchanged. A horizontal line over an A is the long A (sounds like “ay”). This has been the proper phonetic way for a LONG time, but by hearing many Arabic speakers on Youtube it’s obvious that alif sounds like “AH-lif”, not “AY-lif”, rendering those books’ pronunciation marking dead wrong. I want to learn Arabic, but not incorrectly. Not buying those books.

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