Working Group on Romanization Systems meeting
Czech Geodetical & Land Survey Office, Prague, Czechia, 7th April 2017
The Working Group on Romanization Systems (WGRS) met at a joint meeting with the Working Group on Exonyms (WGE), which was attended by c.25 participants including from Austria, Croatia, Czechia, Denmark, Finland, Latvia, Hungary, Japan, Korea, Norway, Poland, Slovenia, Spain and United Kingdom, as well as the Convenor, Mr Peeter Päll (Estonia).
The Convenor welcomed the participants and thanked them for their attendance. He also thanked Mr Peter Jordan for organizing this combined meeting of WGRS and WGE, noting that combining the two working group meetings had proved successful. Mr Päll also thanked the Czech Geodetical & Land Survey Office for hosting the meeting.
The WG studied and approved the proposed agenda:
- Introductory remarks.
- Romanization in a changing world (Paul Woodman).
- Preparations for the 11th UNCSGN (status of various romanization systems).
- Romanization of Arabic.
- Proposal to measure the implementation of UN-approved systems (continuation from the Bangkok meeting).
- Any other business.
1. Introductory remarks
The Convenor noted that WGRS was one of the most longstanding UNGEGN working groups. Its role was to provide feedback to donor countries wishing to get Romanization Systems approved by the UN. This approval could currently only occur at UNCSGN (every five years) but the proposed changes to the schedule of UNGEGN sessions might result in this opportunity being available every two years.
The principal criteria to be considered when approving Romanization Systems were:
a) The system should be based on scientific principles
b) The system’s degree of reversibility
c) The extent on the system’s implementation (on cartographic products)
2. Romanization in a changing world (Paul Woodman)
Mr Paul Woodman presented his paper, which provided an overview of the changes in toponymic romanization issues over the past four decades and considered the wider context of romanization, rather than focusing on the technical aspects. The three main changes were:
- The end of the Cold War: Political issues and an atmosphere of suspicion had affected the work of UNGEGN, including romanization systems but the romanization focus had now moved away from political issues, and “them and us” attitudes.
- New international toponymic identities: The examples of Bulgaria, China and Iran were given as cases where toponyms romanized using an endonymic romanization system had played a role in projecting a national brand identity in the international arena.
- The democratization of toponymy: Thanks to the Internet and social media, more people than ever had become involved in toponymy in the 21st century, albeit indirectly. The influence of this popular involvement on the romanization systems used for toponyms was noted.
The paper concluded that “UNGEGN and UNCSGN should acknowledge these developments by adopting romanization systems which marry scientific credibility with popular acceptability.”
3. Preparations for the 11th UNCSGN (status of various romanization systems)
The Convenor would prepare a report on the last five years work of the WGRS.
There were currently 45 languages/scripts on the WGRS’s agenda, for which status reports were available on the WGRS website. These included:
a) 30 UN-approved romanization systems (although with differing levels of implementation)
b) 15 languages/scripts not yet covered by the UN.
The number of UN romanization systems could increase with countries putting forward systems for indigenous languages, e.g. Inuktitut in Canada.
a) UN-approved systems
Of interest to the WGRS here were:
- Arabic: The UNGEGN Arabic Division had proposed changes to the UN system (see agenda item 4)
- Hebrew: The UN system had been amended in 2007 (resolution IX/9) on the basis of a decision by the Academy of the Hebrew Language taken in November, 2006. However, there was no evidence of the amended system being implemented in Israel.
- Macedonian Cyrillic: The currency/implementation of the UN-approved system was in doubt. More information was required.
b) Languages/scripts not yet covered by the UN
- De facto romanization systems: Dzongkha, Japanese, Kirghiz, Korean (ROK), Maldivian
- Draft systems, yet to achieve legal status: Armenian, Georgian, Korean (DPRK), Lao, Sinhalese
- Languages officially transitioning to Roman-script: Kazakh
- Languages for which no national system existed
The Convenor and members of the WG provided updates on the status of some systems:
- Lao: Developments regarding a romanization system for Lao since the 29th UNGEGN Session were available on request.
- Sinhalese: At the 29th Session an expert from Sri Lanka reported that a romanization system for Sinhalese was being developed. The Convenor had requested a draft be provided to the WGRS.
- Japanese: Dr Kohei Watanabe reported on use of the Kunrei and Hepburn systems in Japan. Some government departments used Kunrei, which was more scientific, others used the more English-compatible Hepburn system. Dr Watanabe reported that Hepburn was gaining usage as were being taken to make Japanese names on signage comprehensible to foreigners, in light of the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. Several WG members reported having noted a shift towards the Hepburn system. Mr Päll noted that Kunrei was the official Japanese system and the ISO system, while Hepburn was de facto.
- Korean: Mr Sungjae Choo reported that while the MOCT system, officially adopted by ROK in 2000, was in wide official use, it was not necessarily being used by private individuals. The situation in PDRK was uncertain. Centralized government made it likely that the PDRK’s official system was in use consistently but there had been no opportunity for talks between ROK and PDRK regarding romanization since 2007.
4. Romanization of Arabic
The proposed changes to the UN Romanization System for Arabic were considered. The obstacles to implementation of a Romanization System for Arabic across the Arab world were discussed.
The differences between Beirut 1972 System (current UN System) and the ADEGN 2007 System (approved at the 3rd Arab Conference in 2007) were discussed. The issues highlighted included:
- The choice of sub-macrons instead of cedillas to indicate the emphatic letters – sub-macrons were not considered to be visually the best option.
- Romanization of the Arabic character ظ as d͟h rather than z̧ – the d͟h was not easy to reproduce given existing Unicode options.
- Capitalization of the definite article.
- Use of -iyyah (rather than -īyah) for the adjectival ending.
- Use of the slash to distinguish digraphs from separate letters, e.g. s/h vs sh was strongly discouraged by WGRS because the slash was used traditionally to separate name variants, e.g. in bilingual names. If there were a strong need to disambiguate some combinations of letters, a middle dot (·) was recommended.
- The proposal to change the romanization of the Alif Maqşūrah to combining comma above right (a̕) or combining horn (a̛) was not favoured by WGRS as the proposed romanization could be confused with a + hamzah and was not so easy to reproduce as the existing á.
The WGRS would compose a letter to ADEGN containing its recommendations on the 2007 System. Those members with knowledge of Arabic gathered with the Convenor in the break to draft this letter. The Convenor would first circulate the draft letter to this group and then to the wider WGRS for comment before sending the WGRS recommendations to ADEGN.
5. Proposal to measure the implementation of UN-approved systems (continuation from the Bangkok meeting)
The group discussed a proposal to measure the implementation of romanization systems, which considered the following points:
a) What is implementation? – This could refer to national or international use and would not necessarily be restricted to mapping, rather it encompassed the wider use of place names, e.g. on signage.
b) Implementation on a wider scale that purely toponyms might be considered a bonus, e.g. use for personal as well as place names might indicate a stronger status.
c) Who should be the judge?
Mr Paul Woodman commented that while it is reasonable to request evidence of implementation, judging implementation was problematic. For example, mapping might be provided but how would the WGRS assess what was actually happening on the ground.
Dr Kohei Watanabe expressed reluctance at the mention of personal names. The WGRS agreed to change the wording in this regard to ‘elsewhere, e.g. in passports’.
6. Any other business
- Publicising the benefits of Romanization – Mr Liu Lianan.
- Cooperation with other UNGEGN working groups and Task Team for Africa on areas of mutual interest.
- The UN resolutions relating to romanization systems were available on the WGRS website (http://www.eki.ee/wgrs/resolutions.htm).
- Mr Päll had been the WGRS Convenor for 20 years and was looking for a replacement.
- The report of the meeting would be circulated among participants for comment, as would the draft WGRS comments on the ADEGN 2007 Arabic Romanization proposal.
Notes taken by Becki Maddock.