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Transcription (linguistics)

Transcription is the conversion of the spoken word into the written language. This may be the transcription of a complete conversation, e. g., the proceedings of a court hearing, or of a single word.

In the latter case, transcription is the process of matching the sounds of human speech to written symbols using a set of standard rules, so that these sounds can be reproduced later. Usually these rules are organized on a phonetic basis and are specifically constructed in order to be maximally simple. Standard transcription schemes include the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), and its ASCII equivalent, SAMPA. One can see numerous examples of transcription on the Common phrases in different languages page (in this particular case, using the standard English spelling rules).

Specialised sense: Transcription from one language to another

In a more specialised sense, a transcription is (a system of) writing the sounds of a word in one language using the script of another language. Any reader of the latter language should be able to pronounce the transcribed word (almost) correctly. As the word may contain sounds that are unknown in the latter language, this goal is not always reached completely.

Transcriptions are used to write for the general public. For example, a newspaper; a general-purpose encyclopedia.

Transcription should be distinguished from transliteration in a narrow sense, q. v. However, transcription is sometimes also called transliteration.

The same words are likely to be transcribed differently under different systems. For example, for two transcription systems for Mandarin using the Roman alphabet, the Chinese capital is: Wade-Giles transcribes to Peking, while Pinyin transcribes to Beijing. See also transcription of Chinese, transcription of Russian[?].


Russian text Борис Николаевич Ельцин
Typical transliteration Boris Nikolaevič Elcin
English transcription Boris Nikolayevitch Yeltsin
French transcription Boris Nikolaïevitch Ieltsine
German transcription Boris Nikolajewitsch Jelzin
Italian transcription Boris Nikolaevic Eltsin
Dutch transcription Boris Nikolajewitsj Jeltsin

Transcription can be done into a non-alphabetic language too. For example, in a Beijing Newspaper, president Bush's name is transliterated into two Chinese characters that sounds like "Bshū" (布殊) by using the characters that mean cloth and weird.

After transcribing

After transcribing a word from one language to the script of another language:

  • one or both languages may develop further. The original correspondence between the sounds of the two languages may change, and so the pronunciation of the transcribed word develops in a different direction than the original pronunciation.
  • the transcribed word may be adopted as a loan word in another language with the same script. This often leads to a different pronunciation and spelling than a direct transcription.

Especially evident is this for Greek loan words and proper names. Greek words are normally first transcribed to Latin (according to their old pronunciations), and then loaned into other languages, and finally the loan word has developed according to the rules of the goal language. For example, Aristotle is the currently used English form of the name of the philosopher whose name in Greek is spelled  ̓Aριστoτέλης (Aristotélēs), which was transcribed to Latin Aristóteles, from where it was loaned into other languages and followed their linguistic development. (In "classical" Greek of Aristotle's time, lower-case letters were not used, and the name was spelled ΑΡΙΣΤΟΤΕΛΗΣ.)

Pliocene comes from the Greek words πλεῖov (pleîon, "more") and καιvóς (kainós, "new"), which were first transcribed (latinised) to plion and caenus and then loaned into other languages. The historising latinisation of <κ> by <c> refers to the times where Latin pronounced <c> as [k] in all contexts.

When this process continues over several languages, it may fail miserably in conveying the original pronunciation. One ancient example is the Sanskrit word dhyāna which transcribed into the Chinese word Ch'an through buddhist scriptures. Ch'an (禪 Zen buddhism) was transcribed from Japanese to Zen in English. dhyāna to Zen is quite a change.

Another complex problem is the subsequent change in "preferred" transcription. For instance, the word describing a philosophy or religion in China was popularized in English as Tao and given the termination -ism to produce an English word Taoism. That transcription reflects the Wade-Giles system. More recent Pinyin transliterations produce Dao and Daoism. (See also Daoism versus Taoism.)

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