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What Is Romanization?

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  • Written By: Tara Barnett
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 05 September 2016
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Romanization is the process of representing a language in Latin script. Languages that use scripts that are not Romanized are sometimes put into Latin script to make language learning easier or, in some cases, to reduce the amount of knowledge needed to write in a language. There are usually regular systems for romanization in a language that make reading Romanized texts much easier, but sometimes there is more than one system in use. While this technique is often used as a teaching tool, romanization as a permanent change in orthography is also sometimes proposed.

When coming up with a system of romanization for a language, several factors much be considered. The likeliness of the Romanized text to produce correct pronunciations when read by foreign language students is important, as is the clarity of the divisions between sounds. New writing systems used primarily for teaching must in some way match the actual writing system in use for a language if students are to ever make a transition into the original orthography.

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There are often regulated standards for romanization for a particular language, which can be very important for institutions like libraries that must catalog documents in only one script. Changes in strategies for putting text in Latin script can result in future cataloging problems. For example, in Chinese, different romanization systems represent the same sound with either a "p" or a "b." These different systems may produce the same approximate sound in people who have been taught to read Chinese through Romanized text, but they have major consequences for alphabetic filing and cataloging.

Sometimes, Latin text is used within a country to teach native speakers a standardized form of a language. This is usually helpful when dialects vary wildly and the writing system is not easily segmented. In languages like Japanese that already have a syllabary, it is somewhat rare to use romanization as a teaching tool within the country. These countries do, however, often have a familiarity with Romanized text and may use this form of writing on signs or other identifying markers used by foreign language speakers.

Among the many problems with romanization as a permanent orthographic solution, the loss of the original writing system is certainly a consideration. While writing systems are known to change over time, it is sometimes the case that a foreign system might be seen as more friendly than the original. In very specific circumstances, such as libraries and language learning, romanized text can be not only useful but essential.

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