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I’m becoming more and more impressed with Wikipedia, the way it has become a living repository of knowledge. I still think the idea of the Wiki is at risk of abuse, but I haven’t seen much evidence of that there. On Wikipedia, an article on a sensitive topic may be at risk of becoming an wide-open argument, but I’ve seen this risk avoided by a “disputed” stamp, and (in one case so far) a separate discussion page attached to an article.

On a more genteel topic, Wikipedia has cleared up a topic that has confused me a little; the way the Japanese language has been represented in Roman lettering, under the general heading Rōmaji. For as long as Japanese has been a subject of study in the West, we’ve had three main systems of Romanizing it:

Those pages have much more detail on each, and the more recent JSL method, if you want it. In my study the older systems are not all that important to me; reading them is pretty easy, but my classes started by learning Hiragana script, which we use almost exclusively. Katakana is mostly used for imported words, mostly of Western origin. I won’t be doing much writing where Romaji will be needed formally, unless I write a tutorial book one day. Instead, the end result will usually be proper Japanese script, entered and checked on the computer.

It turns out that I’ve been using rōmaji kana henkan (ローマ偗かな倉惛), also known as wāpuro rōmaji (ワープロ ローマ偗), all along. This is what I need for working on a computer with with a UK or US keyboard, not a proper Hiragana keyboard, and I find it still works for the notes I take in class, which is about the only time I use Rōmaji today.

The Wikipedia article’s title exposes some of the limitations on other methods, most notably the requirement for diacriticals (markings above letters). Since wāpuro rōmaji is all about entering Japanese text without diacriticals, why not use that system for rendering it too? The ā and ō show a lengthening of the vowel, so why not just say waapuro roumaji? Well, you can, but the “simple” lengthening of the vowel in this way is a western import, like the words wāpuro (for “word processor”) and rōmaji. They have no native Japanese pronunciation, no Hiragana equivalents, and it’s no coincidence that none of my Japanese-related computer programs handle that form correctly.

Instead, these are always rendered in Katakana, which has evolved to cater for imported words like these, with the ー mark to denote the lengthening. so in wāpuro rōmaji you have ワー(wā) and ロー(rō). The detail on the Wikipedia page makes the situation look more complicated than in is, because the exceptions and special circumstances mostly relate to translations from other existing Rōmaji systems. Since I’ve learned to read Hiragana, and am starting on Katakana, I seem to be going straight from the keyboard into Japanese without most of the complications of Rōmaji.


Written by brian t

June 6, 2005 at 9:46 am

Posted in language, web 2.0

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