Writing Semitic languages with original scripts or transcription
by Bo Isaksson
The following document offers some advices to students and scholars on how to write Semitic languages in the MS Windows operating system. (If you use Mac: fonts and keyboards can be downloaded from Macdownloads; for handling Hebrew on Mac click here).
All the fonts and keyboard packages mentioned below follow the Unicode standard. Except for the low-cost program Keyman Desktop they are free.
- South Arabian
- Aramaic (Syriac)
- Transcribing text in Semitic languages: Practical advices
For writing with Arabic characters use the Arabic language available in Windows. Use one of the national standard keyboard layouts ("input languages") included in Windows, for example "Saudi Arabia" and your usual hardware keyboard.
Good freeware Arabic fonts can be downloaded from SIL International (www.sil.org). If clear and separated vowel signs are important, an exceptionally good font, suitable for pedagogical use, is Lateef from SIL. A good-looking and professional font for printed material is Arabic Typesetting (included in Windows Vista and Windows 7).
For transcription of Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) or Classical Arabic see the Transcription of written Arabic (PDF-format).
For transcription of dialect material, see dialect transcription (PDF). Dialects usually require a larger stock of transcription signs than Standard Arabic (do not worry, all are available with LingfilSemitica, see below).
For qualified PMs, exam papers and scientific work a good transcription font should be utilized. For typing transcription characters in MS Windows consider the font Charis SIL or the most recent versions of Times New Roman and Arial that are included in MS Windows Vista and Windows 7.
Easy typing of transcription characters with an English or Swedish/Finnish (hardware) keyboard requires LingfilSemitica, see Practical advices, below.
Simplified transcription of Arabic: for e-mail and simple non-academic communication the simplified transcription of Arabic can be used. It should not be used in exam papers or qualified PMs.
For further information on transcribing Arabic to Latin characters, see Romanization of Arabic (Wikipedia).
For the transcription of Epigraphic South Arabian (Sabaic) and its alphabetic script, see Sabaic alphabet. Unfortunately there is no unicode standard for writing the original South Arabian scripts. In the meantime we recommmend the font Sabaen44. It must be used writing from right to left the hard way using the arrow key.
Transcription of South Arabian inscriptions can be made with LingfilSemitica.
For writing modern Hebrew it is sufficient to use the national standard Hebrew keyboard layout ("input language") in Windows and the font Times New Roman. Both are included in the Windows operating system.
For qualified writing of Biblical Hebrew consider using the font Ezra SIL from SIL International. For optimal results you will need to install:
- The unicode font Ezra SIL.
- The keyboard layout Ezra SIL Unicode keyboard which can be downloaded on the Ezra SIL Hebrew Unicode Fonts Download page or directly from the keyboard download link. This keyboard layout requires that you have first installed Tavultesoft's Keyman Desktop.
When transcribing Classical Hebrew, follow the guidelines in HAL, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, ed. by Koehler & Baumgartner (Study Edition 2001, section "Transliteration", p. LXVII ff.). All the characters needed can be typed with ease using LingfilSemitica (see below).
The scripts of Syriac are best written with the freeware (but professional) package Meltho, which includes fonts in the Serto, Nestorian and Estrangelo scripts, as well as suitable keyboard routines. For Biblical Aramaic and Imperial Aramaic (Elephantine dialect), see Biblical Hebrew above.
Transcription of Aramaic is as easy as Biblical Hebrew transcription if you use LingfilSemitica.
For the indigenous Ethiopic script (writing for example Gəʿəz and Amharic) use the freeware Abyssinica SIL Unicode fonts and keyboards from SIL International. For transcription use LingfilSemitica.
Although not a Semitic language, Semitists are often required to write Greek, especially Septuagint text specimens. For the purpose of writing ancient Greek we recommend the freeware Galatia SIL font and keyboard from SIL International (to be used with Tavultesoft Keyman Desktop).
If you just want to copy and paste a few characters into your document, try to do it from the webpage Latin character picker, or install the program BabelMap, from which you may pick the character you need. This is a tiresome procedure if you want to transcribe more than just one word or two.
For more than occasional writing of transcription characters you will need a good font that contains all the special characters you need. Fortunately, this is easier today than a few years ago, thanks to Microsoft's new versions of Times New Roman and Arial that are included in Windows from the Vista version (also Windows 7).
In addition, to get those signs easily into your document, a specialized keyboard layout is required. This is why I created the LingfilSemitica.
LingfilSemitica is produced for regular writing of English or Swedish. You will never perceive that there is something special with LingfilSemitica until you want to write some special transcription characters. Then they are all there available for you: the whole register of special Unicode Latin characters at your fingertips.
Although LingfilSemitica was created primarily for Semitic languages, it is excellent for Latin transcription of any non-Latin script language, as well as for regular writing of all Latin based languages (all European languages except Russian and Serbian).
You can also with ease write International Phonetic Alphabet signs (IPA) with LingfilSemitica.
LingfilSemitica complies with the international standard Unicode 5.1.
In sum, for regular writing of transcription characters in Windows you will need:
- A good Unicode transcription font, for example Charis SIL.
- The LingfilSemitica keybard layout together with Tavultesoft's Keyman Desktop.
LingfilSemitica is compatible with any Unicode font that contains the characters you need, such as the most recent versions of Times New Roman (from v. 5.0) and Arial (both supplied in Windows Vista and Windows 7).