Reading the Quran: Why Transliteration is Not Enough

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| By Tabassum Mosleh |

Having a three-syllable name is somewhat of a disadvantage, especially if the name seems to be somewhat difficult to pronounce. Thus I’ve been called Tambasum, Tabasum, Tabachchum and so on at different times, and after several failed attempts at correcting I finally tell people to abandon the name altogether and call me by my nickname. It’s pretty annoying, yeah. But it makes you wonder at the diversity of human speech.

For adults who haven’t ever studied the Arabic alphabet or who have forgotten their childhood lessons, the first step they usually take is to try to read the Quranic text through transliteration. The same goes for memorizing duas and the dhikrs of prayer. And there’s no denying that it is a good first step; it enables you to recite Allah’s Book without learning any new skills.

But it’s only appropriate as a first step, not as a lifelong habit. That’s because transliteration is not really reading the Book of Allah. It’s not that it’s obligatory to read the Quran in Arabic alphabets, not at all. In fact, the Quran wasn’t revealed as a physical book but as speech. So from that aspect it doesn’t matter whether you use Arabic alphabets or English or Chinese or Bengali.

The problem lies somewhere else. It lies in the variations in the fundamental properties of different languages. English is different from Arabic in many ways. One of them is the number and composition of its phonemes.

A phoneme, according to famous psychologist Dr. Sternberg, is “the smallest unit of speech sound that can be used to distinguish one utterance in a given language from another…. These sounds are produced by alternating sequences of opening and closing of the vocal tract.” /b/, /p/, and /t/ are English phonemes.

(There’s a difference between phonemes and letters. All phonemes might not be represented by a letter, eg. /ʒ/, the sound for the s in delusion, and /ŋ/, the ng sound in thing)

Now here’s an interesting point about phonemes. Most (if not all) people are “phoneme-deaf” to some extent. For a person who knows only English, he is only familiar with the English phonemes. If he hears a phoneme from a different language that is absent in English, he won’t even hear it properly. His brain will transform it into the next closest phoneme present in the English language.

Phonemes are pretty difficult to understand. I mean, how can you understand something that you can’t hear? So let’s try to understand it from the opposite angle. Let’s look at two sounds which English speakers can hear but Arabic speakers can’t.

There is no p sound in Arabic, and so, when an English speaker says pun, an Arabic speaker will actually hear bun.

Let’s look at how much difference replacing one phoneme with another makes:

“They bit the buns from the bin.”

“They pit the puns from the pin.”

 

Here are some phoneme approximate counts for the two different languages:

Consonents Vowels
Arabic 28 6
English 24 20

(Wikipedia)

There are about nine phonemes in Arabic that are not found in English.

Among the letters that are difficult to pronounce for an English speaker are:

Arabic letter Usually pronounced in English as Academic transliteration
خ C in can Kha
ص S / س Ṣād
ض D/ Dwa / د
ط T/ Twa / ت Ṭā
ظ Dha/ Dhwa/ Za /ز /ذ Ẓā
ع A in car / أ ‘Ayn
غ G in game Ghayn
ق K/ q/ك * Qāf

 

(*Notice how you say “queen” or “quote”. It’s actually the same sound as k with a leaning towards u. the Arabic qaf is completely different; it originates from a different place in your mouth (makhraj).)

 

Now let’s look at how mispronouncing phonemes can transform the meaning of the words:

كَلب Dog قلب Heart
ضل go astray دلّ Guide
صَلْب Crucifixion سَلْب thievery
ساء To be evil صاع Weight

 

Learn to Read Quran with proper pronunciation in 20 hours at Understand Quran Academy.

Tabassum Mosleh is a freelance writer and a student of al-Salam Institute. She likes animals, natural beauty, reading novels and researching interesting topics. She shares her reflections at the blog sections of Understand Quran Academy, IIPH and Ibana. Contact: tabassum_mosleh@hotmail.com

 

 

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