Title page


The report will aim at clarifying the present status and the degree of implementation of the United Nations romanization systems used for converting geographical names from other writing systems than Roman. Since 1967, the United Nations conferences on the standardization of geographical names have adopted resolutions recommending romanization systems that cover 28 languages: Amharic, Arabic, Assamese, Bengali, Bulgarian, Chinese, Greek, Gujarati, Hebrew, Hindi, Kannada, Khmer, Macedonian Cyrillic, Malayalam, Marathi, Mongolian (in China), Nepali, Oriya, Persian, Punjabi, Russian, Serbo-Croatian Cyrillic, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Tibetan, Uighur, Urdu. Not all of them have been implemented on equal level, both nationally and internationally.

It has been agreed that one of the general aims of the international standardization is "to arrive at an agreement on a single romanization system, based on scientific principles, from each non-Roman alphabet or script, for international application" [Resolution 9 of the first UN Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names (1967)]. The Fourth United Nations Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names (1982) also adopted the resolution 15 which called for guidelines governing the consideration of romanization systems. The resolution also stated that

In the reports of the UNGEGN Working Group on Romanization Systems and elsewhere it has been put forward that the process of adoption of a romanization system by the UN involves the following prerequisites:

  1. Sufficient time is required for appropriate consultations and an expression of all views on technical matters between the sponsoring country and the WG members.
  2. Specifically, the group considers whether the romanization system is based on sound scientific principles, the system's degree of reversibility, and the extent of its implementation on cartographic products (maps and charts) by the proposing country.

There are many aspects that one should consider when adopting new romanization systems for international use. These concern both the nature of the system itself, practical considerations and expectations on its future usage.

The romanization systems would benefit from the following.

  1. The system should be reversible, i.e. it should be possible to reconstruct the original non-Roman script form on the basis of romanization.
  2. The system should be as simple to use as possible. E.g. if a plain character table is not adequate, the notes to the table should clarify all aspects of usage. It would not be to the advantage of the system if one should consult dictionaries and other sources to get a correct romanization of names, or if the rules would allow for variations in the romanization of the same original script form.
  3. The romanized name forms should be as easy as possible to write, read, memorize and e.g. store electronically. That would mean the minimization of the use of diacritical marks, avoiding difficult and unusual character sequences, etc. A systematic representation of phonetic features is also to be recommended.

If the above conditions should be irreconcilable as is sometimes the case, it is the practical aspects that are the most decisive. For writing systems which would not allow for practicable and easy-to-use reversible romanization systems, it is often necessary to adopt two different romanization methods. The transcription method is the one recommended for wide usage, incl. in the romanization of geographical names which is the area of interest for the United Nations. The second method, transliteration, could be applied for rendering the original script forms e.g. in bibliography. Such systems fall into the sphere of activities of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). For one such language there may exist two totally differing systems, as e.g. for Thai (UN system 1967, and ISO 11940:1998), or these two can be combined into one integral system, as e.g. for Greek (UN 1987, ELOT743) where there are two versions of romanization: one for general purposes, and the other for documenting, i.e. a reversible one. Reversibility is achieved by adding diacritical signs in case there could be ambiguities.

A new romanization system is typically submitted by the proposing country in form of a resolution to the next full United Nations Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names. When the resolution is adopted, the subject romanization system becomes the United Nations standard.