The Arabic Transliteration System Used By The Military

If you don’t speak Arabic, Arabic characters are of little help. Sometimes the technology just goes on strike and cannot display Arabic letters. In such cases, Arabic letters must be converted into another alphabet. In this guest article, Reginald Hefner takes a historical look at a system that was used by the military in the pre-digital era – but is rarely used today: SATTS.

💡 Notice the difference:

  • Transliteration means changing written characters into another script using a system. That is the universal solution. Transliterated words are easier to understand if you know Arabic. Classical Arabic is usually transliterated.
  • Transcription means writing down spoken words. So you write the Arabic word as if a native English, German, or French speaker would pronounce it – and eventually get different versions. Transcribed words are easier to read if you don’t know Arabic. Dialects are usually transcribed.

Introduction to Arabic Transliteration

Transliterating Arabic words means converting them from Arabic script to Latin letters, allowing people to read, write, and pronounce Arabic without knowing the Arabic alphabet. Different systems are used for this, each with its own complexity and purpose. Here are some common systems:

  • SATTS (Standard Arabic Technical Transliteration System): Focuses on representing written Arabic letters with English characters, without providing pronunciation clues.
  • Buckwalter Transliteration: A one-to-one transliteration system used primarily in computational linguistics.
  • ALA-LC (American Library Association – Library of Congress): Widely used in library catalogs and academic publications, providing accurate representation and aiding pronunciation.
  • ISO 233: An international standard providing systematic and consistent transliteration.
  • DIN 31635 is a standard of the German Institute for Standardization (DIN) for the transliteration of the Arabic alphabet, adopted in 1982. It is based on the rules of the Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft (DMG) as modified by the International Orientalist Congress in Rome in 1935. A major difference from systems used in countries where English is spoken is the transliteration of the Arabic letter ج as “j” is pronounced differently in German and English.
  • Hans Wehr System: Generally used in dictionaries, it emphasizes capturing the pronunciation of Arabic words.

Each system represents Arabic script differently based on its own rules and is used for various purposes, from technical to academic.

Transliteration of جَمِيلٌ

Here is how the Arabic word جَمِيلٌ (beautiful) is transliterated using the different systems mentioned:

Buckwalter TransliterationjamIluN
ISO 233jamîl
DIN 31635ǧamīl
Hans Wehr Systemjamīl
Transliteration of جَمِيلٌ

What is SATTS?

Imagine writing Arabic words with English letters, but without any extra symbols to indicate pronunciation. That’s SATTS (Standard Arabic Technical Transliteration System) in a nutshell. It simply replaces each Arabic letter with a specific English letter.

  • SATTS has historical roots in Morse code and teleprinter systems. It was used by military and communication units in Western countries to handle Arabic text without requiring native fonts or special software.
  • SATTS employs all the Latin alphabet letters except P, plus four punctuation marks, resulting in a total of 29 symbols.
  • Unlike other transliteration systems that try to capture how Arabic sounds are spoken, SATTS keeps things simple. It focuses on just representing the written Arabic letters with English characters. This makes it easy to type Arabic using a regular keyboard, but it doesn’t provide any clues about pronunciation.
  • Is it still used today? Not as widely as some other systems. SATTS is handy for technical purposes where pronunciation isn’t a big deal.

The development of SATTS

The Cold War, arguably best represented by John le Carré’s 1963 best-selling novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (and later adapted for the Silver Screen in the 1965 eponymous movie by Director Martin Ritt and starring Richard Burton; the actor, not the early translator of Alf Leila wa Leila) spanned the years from 1947 to 1991.

The period from the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 until the end of the nineties could equally have been represented by a novel entitled Spies Left out in the Cold, had such a novel ever been written. During this period vast scientific and technical progress had been made, including in the computer field.

Nonetheless, even as late as 1996 a computer could not win a chess match against a human chess Grand Master (GM), in sharp contrast to Bobby Fischer who had defeated six of the best GMs in the world at the time by a score of 6-0 in the Candidates matches for the World Championship. Nobody has done this since then. In 1997, however, a computer called Deep Blue managed to defeat the then reigning World Champion Garry Kasparov but only with the help of GM Joel Benjamin.

Let’s go back in history. The National Defense Education Act (NDEA) in the United States enacted in response to the “surprise” launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957. The problem was that none of the U.S. scientists could read Russian, in which many articles had appeared in anticipation of this satellite launch; later Senator Paul Simon (not the musician Paul Simon known for Simon and Garfunkel) would write a book decades later entitled The Tongue-tied American about the still rather rare foreign/world language competence of U.S. citizens in the United States.

This dearth of computing capacity during this period extended to the inability of computers to adequately represent such Category IV languages (languages deemed the absolute most difficult for native English-speakers to acquire) as Chinese, Japanese and Arabic, especially for transmission of reams of printed data quickly and easily.

This goes way back. In order to overcome this hurdle, manual (and later machine) Morse Code was developed by Samuel Morse and was first successfully demonstrated by him on 24 May 1844, when he sent the message, “What hath God wrought?” from Washington, D.C. to a train station in Baltimore, Maryland, to demonstrate this electric telegraph system. What hath God wrought? is a translation of a phrase from the Book of Numbers (Numbers 23:23)1. It is an expression of wonder and marvel at something.

Until fairly recently, Morse Code was required to receive a Ham Radio License in the U.S., though this requirement has since been discontinued and the former Boy Scouts of America (now called Scouting USA) required its scouts to learn it. More famously, a U.S. Prisoner of War (POW), Jeremiah Denton, in North Vietnam during a television interview blinked the word “torture” in Morse Code, feigning trouble with the bright lights, which was the first indication that the North Vietnamese were using torture on its POWs.

Eventually schemes were worked out to send Morse Code to represent other languages like Russian and Arabic using various transliteration systems of English letters of the alphabet and punctuation marks arbitrarily to represent sounds not in the English alphabet.

For Chinese series of four-digit numbers called Standard Telegraphic Code (STC) to circumvent the problem of transmission of Chinese characters; these series of four-digit groups would represent the most frequently used seven thousand characters (Taiwan used a series of three alphabetic letters in English called a Ming Code).

Because of the bandwidth required for Morse Code was more efficient than the bandwidth for human voice, a great deal of information could be sent very quickly (and in wartime rapidly coded and decoded). For manual Morse the fastest and most accurate operators could usually only transcribe at most 20 words-per-minute (wpm).

At any rate, because of the proliferation of Morse code various working aids2 for scientific and technical information were compiled for the sake of operators who would receive and transcribe the letters and symbols. Then hand it off to Arabic linguists who would convert the letters by hand to Modern Standard Arabic (Fusha/MSA), then they translated the text on MILS (military typewriters that only used capital letters and a row for punctuation marks) – and even as late as the 1980s, they send seven-ply translations via pneumatic tubes for distribution by all-women secretarial pools.

Some examples

Here are a few examples of Arabic words transliterated using the SATTS (Standard Arabic Technical Transliteration System):

Arabic words transliterated by using the system SATTS

These examples illustrate how each Arabic letter is replaced with a specific English letter or sequence, maintaining a one-to-one correspondence between the Arabic script and the Latin alphabet. However, as noted, this system does not provide pronunciation clues.

  1. The Book of Numbers (from Greek Ἀριθμοί, Arithmoi, lit.: numbers; Biblical Hebrew: בְּמִדְבַּר, Bəmīḏbar, lit.: in (the) desert is the fourth book of the Hebrew Bible and the fourth of five books of the Jewish Torah. ↩︎
  2. For example, Ten Thousand and One Arabic Names, even in July 2008, e.g., WFAEin SATTS=وَفاء ↩︎

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