Meeting of the UNGEGN Working Group on Romanization Systems
Tallinn, 9–10 October, 2006
The UN Conferences on the Standardization of Geographical Names that are held every five years provide an opportunity to adopt resolutions that guide the international community in matters of geographical names. Regarding romanization, the resolutions approved so far concern recommendations to use individual proposed romanization systems for international use, and some resolutions on principal matters (I/9 on single romanization system for each language, IV/15 on principles in considering new romanization systems for international use).
As far as individual systems are concerned, it seems likely that at least one or two such systems are going to be recommended at the Ninth UN Conference, among these most likely the Ukrainian system of romanization which is vigorously promoted by Ukraine.
But it seems equally important to consider adopting resolution(s) that address the issue of implementing the systems approved for international use. One of the tasks of the WG is to monitor implementation of romanization systems both in donor and receiver countries. There are problems in both ends of this spectrum but two cases deserve special attention.
1. There are systems that have been approved in advance, without going through the phase of implementation. Unfortunately these systems have never been implemented as is exhaustively described in the document The Romanization of Toponyms in the Countries of South Asia by the PCGN. The question for discussion is what to do in such a situation:
So a wide range of options is open and each solution has its advantages and shortcomings. When considering the options, attention needs to be paid also to the content of the Report on the Current Status of United Nations Romanization Systems for Geographical Names, i.e. what would the respective language/script sections look like after adopting any resolutions. It would perhaps not be possible to simply exclude any language sections on our agenda from this report.
2. Other systems are those that have been proposed and/or used by donor countries in the past but at present the countries themselves have retreated from using these systems and are either actively or passively promoting alternative systems that sometimes are radically different. Although resolution IV/15 calls on countries to refrain from revising systems previously adopted for international use, this does happen, and in some cases new resolutions have been adopted to approve modified versions of previous romanization systems (e.g., Thai 1967 and 2002, Bulgarian 1972 and 1977).
Cases where donor countries have revised significantly their internationally approved romanization systems include Khmer and Bulgarian, also perhaps Amharic if we consider omitting diacritical signs and apostrophes as a significant modification of the existing system.
Each of these cases deserve individual attention and perhaps there is no uniform solution. Urging the countries to adhere to systems previously adopted for international use would not be very productive but it seems logical that before accepting any revised systems there needs to be a conviction that these systems really are stable and well implemented, and not so dependent on the balance in any country’s political structure.