Transliteration of Oriental Alphabets

Updated May 14, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Transliteration of Oriental Alphabets

The system of transcribing Oriental words with Roman types, adopted by the translators of the Sacred Books of the East, is, on the whole, the same which I first laid down in my Proposals for a Missionary Alphabet, 1854, and which afterwards I shortly described in my Lectures on the Science of Language, Second Series, p. 169 (ninth edition). That system allows of great freedom in its application to different languages, and has, therefore, recommended itself to many scholars, even if they had long been accustomed to use their own system of transliteration.

It rests in fact on a few principles only, which may be applied to individual languages according to the views which each student has formed for himself of the character and the pronunciation of the vowels and consonants of any given alphabet.

It does not differ essentially from the Standard Alphabet proposed by Professor Lepsius. It only endeavours to realise, by means of the ordinary types which are found in every printing office, what my learned friend has been enabled to achieve, it may be in a more perfect manner, by means of a number of new types with diacritical marks, cast expressly for him by the Berlin Academy.

The general principles of what, on account of its easy application to all languages, I have called the Missionary Alphabet, are these:

1. No letters are to be used which do not exist in ordinary founts.

2. The same Roman type is always to represent the same foreign letter, and the same foreign letter is always to be represented by the same Roman type.

3. Simple letters are, as a rule, to be represented by simple, compound by compound types.

4. It is not attempted to indicate the pronunciation of foreign languages, but only to represent foreign letters by Roman types, leaving the pronunciation to be learnt, as it is now, from grammars or from conversation with natives.

5. The foundation of every system of transliteration must consist of a classification of the typical sounds of human speech. Such classification may be more or less perfect, more or less minute, according to the objects in view. For ordinary purposes the classification in vowels and consonants, and of consonants again in gutturals, dentals, and labials suffices. In these three classes we distinguish hard (not-voiced) and sonant (voiced) consonants, each being liable to aspiration; nasals, sibilants, and semivowels, some of these also, being either voiced or not-voiced.

6. After having settled the typical sounds, we assign to them, as much as possible, the ordinary Roman types of the first class.

7. We then arrange in every language which possesses a richer alphabet, all remaining letters, according to their affinities, as modifications of the nearest typical letters, or as letters of the second and third class. Thus linguals in Sanskrit are treated as nearest to dentals, palatals to gutturals.

8. The manner of expressing such modifications is uniform throughout. While all typical letters of the first class are expressed by Roman types, modified letters of the second class are expressed by italics, modified letters of the third class by small capitals. Only in extreme cases, where another class of modified types is wanted, are we compelled to have recourse either to diacritical marks, or to a different fount of types.

9. Which letters in each language are to be considered as primary, secondary, or tertiary may, to a certain extent, be left to the discretion of individual scholars.

10. As it has been found quite impossible to devise any practical alphabet that should accurately represent the pronunciation of words, the Missionary Alphabet, by not attempting to indicate minute shades of pronunciation, has at all events the advantage of not misleading readers in their pronunciation of foreign words. An italic t, for instance, or a small capital T, serves simply as a warning that this is not the ordinary t, though it has some affinity with it. How it is to be pronounced must be learnt for each language, as it now is, from a grammar or otherwise. Thus t in Sanskrit is the lingual t. How that is to be pronounced, we must learn from the Prâtisâkhvas, or from the mouth of a highly educated Srotriya. We shall then learn that its pronunciation is really that of what we call the ordinary dental t, as in town, while the ordinary dental t in Sanskrit has a pronunciation of its own, extremely difficult to acquire for Europeans.

11. Words or sentences which used to be printed in italics are spaced.

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