Working Group on Romanization Systems meeting

29th Session of the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names,
Bangkok, 29 April 2016

The Working Group on Romanization Systems met in the final session of the week, and was attended by c.25 participants including from Algeria, Austria, Cambodia, China, Finland, France, Greece, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Netherlands, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States as well as the Convenor, Mr Peeter Päll (Estonia).

The Convenor welcomed the participants and thanked them for their attendance. The WG studied and approved the proposed agenda:

  1. Preparations for the 11th UNCSGN
  2. Liaison with ICANN and ISO TC 46/WG 3
  3. Proposal to measure the implementation of UN-approved systems
  4. Any other business

Under the item: Preparations for the 11th UNCSGN

The Convenor invited a brief overview and discussion from each of the relevant experts from Jordan, Cambodia, Kazakhstan, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Particular points arising in each instance were as follows:

Romanization of Arabic:
Dr Awni Moh'd Kasawneh, Chair of the Arabic Division, described the ongoing work on the formulation of a modified system of Arabic. Mr Atoui noted the UNCSGN Resolution VII/4 that recommended any proposed system be considered by the Arab League before being brought to UNCSGN. It was noted that it would be procedurally efficient if the proposed system were presented to the WGRS for review of a number of outstanding technical issues before the formal stages of approval be initiated.

Romanization in Cambodia:
Mr Ith Sotha, Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, described the development of an updated system for Khmer, noting that the current system, which anyway had not been widely implemented, was not well-viewed in Cambodia, given its age and French-style romanised results, and additionally that it was felt that the resulting romanisations had too closely the appearance of Vietnamese orthography, which was felt to be undesirable given that the languages were not otherwise close.

Mr Amirkhan Äymenov, Director of the National and Cartographic Fund, described the progress of the transition from Cyrillic script to Roman script for the representation of the Kazakh language. The experts described the programme and confirmed that the transition should be completed by their deadline of 2025.

The Convenor informed the participants of the Toponymy Manual in the Lao P.D.R. approved in 1998 and 2003, updated version of which has been currently submitted for approval at the Ministry of Home Affairs. The Manual in Lao contains romanization guidelines for Lao geographical names.

Romanization in Sri Lanka, particularly of Sinhala:
Mr D. N. D. Hettiarachchi, Senior Deputy Surveyor General, explained that there was no approved method for romanizing Sinhala and thus the representation in Roman-script of that language was done on an ad hoc basis, leading to phonetic transcriptions which were not consistent. He further mentioned that the Committee appointed for the standardization of geographical names was working on developing a Romanization system for the Sinhala language and had plans to introduce the new system within the year 2016. The WG encouraged Mr Hettiarachchi to propose a system to the UNCSGN, and exposed their interest and willingness to assist in a system's formulation. It was the expressed goal that any approved system would be implemented for Sinhala-language names and that the currently used 'English-language' names would be replaced.

Under the item: Liaison with ICANN and ISO TC 46/WG 3

Romanization in Thailand:
Ms Nitaya Kanchanawan, Associate Professor, Royal Society of Thailand, described ongoing work in Thailand to address the romanisation of a number of scripts used for minority languages in Thailand.

Under the item: Proposal to measure the implementation of UN-approved systems

The working group considered the question of implementation of romanization systems, one of the requirements before a system could be considered for adoption by the UN, and particularly the interpretation of this term and methods of measuring implementation. The Convenor noted the Resolutions that mentioned implementation and the WG recognized that assessing implementation was a nuanced issue, not least in judging who might make such an assessment, and the degree to which a system would have to be implemented to be judged with approval. The Convenor described the various measures that might be used to judge implementation, including national and international. The WG would continue to consider this question.

Under the item: Any other business

Mrs Élisabeth Calvarin (France) and Mr Brahim Atoui (Algeria) expressed their interest in collaborating on the formation of a working group to assist in the development of transcription systems for unwritten languages in Africa. Previous work on this topic from a working meeting held in Bamako, 1967, for languages of the Sahel, was noted. Mr Atoui had proposed this idea in the plenary session, and was enthusiastic that Mrs Calvarin would assist, expressing the desire that she might take on a role of convening the group. It was noted that orthography development was not a core activity of the WG but that the group would be pleased to support the Task Team for Africa in this endeavour.

Mr Liu Lianan (China) noted that publicizing the benefits of romanization could be a useful task for the WG, and the WG agreed that widening public understanding of the purpose of romanization would be beneficial to the work of the group and to the users of geographical names. The Convenor requested that the WG consider this topic and provide suggestions on how the subject could be publicized.

The Convenor noted the possibility of a WGRS meeting to be held in conjunction with the WG Exonyms in April 2017. The Convenor closed the meeting thanking the participants for their input, particularly those who had reported on ongoing romanization activities.

Notes taken by Catherine Cheetham