Transliteration refers to the pratice of writing language in an alphabet that is different to the original. For example, the Japanese word for “thank you” is:

  • ありがとう

But you could also write it in the English (Latin) alphabet, like this:

  • arigatō

That ¯ on top of the o is called a macron, and sits over vowels to show that they’re long. Without it, the transliteration would be inaccurate, because a short o and a long o would look the same. This matters because the point of transliteration is to capture pronunciation.

Unfortunately, because of the difficulty of writing special characters like ō and and é on computers, people have had to come up with transliteration systems that look ugly but are easy to type. Instead of tōkyō (“Tokyo”), which is easy on the eyes, you’ll see toukyou. Some languages are worse than others: in Arabic, words like ṣabāḥ (“morning”) are written as SabaaH or, as in Arabic chat and texting, 9abaa7. The same thing happens even in languages that use the Latin alphabet: in Italian, città (“city”) is sometimes written as citta’.

For those who prefer the traditional approach, I want to show you a quick and painless way to type special characters for the sake of both typographic beauty and clarity.

Some examples

Here are some words in Arabic with their transliterations. Notice the diacritics (dots, lines, etc. above or below the letters) and other interesting characters used to show the pronunciation:

توت عنخ آمونtūt ʕanx āmūnTutankhamen
فصحى التراثfuṣḥā-t-turāθClassical Arabic
فصحى العصرfuṣḥā-l-ʕaṣrModern Standard Arabic
الشرق الأوسطaš-šarqu-l-ˀawsaṭthe Middle East

To most people this might look terrifying, but to a student of Arabic, it’s a precise way to represent Arabic pronunciation in Latin letters. Here you can see diacritics on letters like ā, , ġ and š, as well as entirely different characters like ʕ and θ.

First, we’ll look at how to type diacritics.

How to type diacritics

Some diacritics can be accessed by holding Option (⌥) and pressing certain keys. For example, to type á, hold Option and press E, and you’ll see an accent (´) mark, waiting for you to type the letter below it. Now press A. If you want an umlaut (¨), press Option + U; for a circumflex (ˆ), press Option + I. A list of these shortcuts is available here.

Unfortunately, you can only get a couple of diacritics this way. The rest of them are all available in the Character Viewer, which is in the menu of most apps under EditSpecial Characters… (you can also access it by clicking the language flag on the top-right part of the menu, if it’s there). Of course, doing that every time you want to type a special character would be frustrating and inconvenient.

A better option is to change your default keyboard layout. Instead of the standard U.S. layout, switch to U.S. Extended. This can be done under System PreferencesKeyboardInput Sources.

U.S. Extended uses a different layout for the Option key alternatives, with a lot more diacritics. Here’s a sample of the extras:

  • Press Option + A for a macron: ō.
  • Press Option + W for an overdot: ġ.
  • Press Option + X for an underdot: .
  • Press Option + L for a stroke: ħ, đ, ł.
  • Press Option + V for a caron: ě.
  • Press Option + C for a cedilla: ȩ.
  • Press Option + B for a breve: ă.
  • Press Option + Z for a hook: (then space if you want it by itself: ˀ).
  • Press Option + J for a double acute: ő.

This allows you to type, for example, the four different tone marks in Mandarin, which are not all accessible from a standard U.S. layout:

The U.S. Extended layout also allows you to add “combining” diacritics to a letter that has just been typed. This means you can type more than one diacritic on the same letter, which is handy for languages like Mandarin:

  • nǖ
  • nǘ
  • nǚ
  • nǜ

To do this, press shift along with the normal key combination for your chosen diacritic. This will add it to the previous letter, and if there’s a diacritic on it already, it will go above/below it.

Extra-weird characters

What about those special phonetic characters like ʕ and θ? Some languages have sounds that are too different to be represented by a modified Latin letter. One example is the Arabic consonant ayn ع. This is a beast of a sound that is produced by constricting the pharynx, similar to the sound one makes when being strangled. Many people use 3 for this sound because it looks like the letter ع, but a more linguistically satisfying choice is ʕ, which is the phonetic character specifically used to represent the sound that linguists call a voiced pharyngeal fricative, i.e. ع.

Similarly, θ is a phonetic character which represents the [th] sound as in thick. (It even looks like a tongue between teeth). While you could write th for this sound — and many do — you run into problems with words that have a [t] sound followed by an [h] sound, like the Arabic فتحة fatḥa, which has a very different pronunciation from faθa.

(In general, if you can get away with it, it makes linguistic sense to use one character for one sound. The more combos like sh, th, dh and ch that you use, the more potential for confusion. Some popular single-character alternatives are š, θ, ð, and č — to see which ones are typically used in your target language, search for “Romanization of [language name]” on Wikipedia.)

How do you type characters like ʕ and θ? Don’t use the Character Viewer. Don’t copy and paste them from a website every time. The smart way is text expansion.

You may have heard of software like TextExpander or the cheaper aText (my choice). They are programs that allow you to type shortcut codes and have them automatically “expanded” to text of your choice. For example, you can type ;date and it magically changes into Friday, September 12, 2014, or type ;ph and it becomes 022-918-4182.

These apps save a lot of time and effort for typing emails and filling out forms, but they also shine when it comes to typing special characters.

I have aText configured so that when I type \3, it becomes ʕ. When I type \th, I get θ. This makes transliteration very fast.

This technique is also handy for niggly things like the opening apostrophe (), which is used phonetically in languages like Hawai‘ian and sometimes Arabic. It’s also great if you teach English pronunciation and want to type a schwa (ə).

Once you get the software set up, here’s how you can set up your own linguist’s typographic paradise (I’m assuming you have OS X 10.7 (Lion) or later):

  • Click where you want to type your character and make sure you can see the cursor there. Open the Character Viewer (EditSpecial Characters…). Make sure you’ve got the large version by clicking on the top right button after it opens.
  • Click on the gear icon on the top left and choose Customize List….
  • Scroll down and check Phonetic Alphabet as well as any others you want, including foreign scripts.
  • Click Done and then click Phonetic Alphabet in the menu.
  • Find the character you want, then double-click it to insert it where your cursor was.
  • Save it as a new text snippet in your text expansion app, and Bob’s your uncle. Repeat for other characters until your arsenal is complete.

Finally, a word of warning: different fonts contain different numbers of special characters. If you have a character that isn’t in the current font, it will be displayed in another font, which looks dreadful. Some of the most comprehensive fonts are Arial Unicode MS, Arial, Baskerville, Times New Roman, Lucida Grande, Tahoma, Courier New, Menlo and Microsoft Sans Serif.

For a pair of free fonts that have a huge set of characters and look great, try Google’s Noto Sans and Noto Serif.