3,000 years of East Asian history in Korea, China, Japan, Mongolia, and Russia




Romanization, also known as transliteration, is the process of using the Roman alphabet to spell foreign words as close to their actual pronunciation as possible. Each language has its own unique method of accomplishing this task.

In 1859, Sir Thomas Francis Wade published a method to "transliterate" Chinese characters by using the Latin alphabet to "spell" the proper pronunciation of Chinese.  Cambridge professor Herbert Allen Giles modified this system in his Chinese-English Dictionary (1912).  Once established, the Wade-Giles System became the preferred method for Chinese transliteration among English-speaking countries.
Chinese attempts to romanize the language began in the early 16th century and eventually yielded over 50 different systems.  On February 21, 1958, the National People's Congress of the People's Republic of China replaced the Wade-Giles and Lessing transliteration systems with the Chinese Phonetic Alphabet System - Hanyu Pinyin Fangan - known as PINYIN (pin-een).
PINYIN uses a modified Roman alphabet to phonetically spell the proper pronunciation of Chinese characters.  Even though Chinese sounds only roughly correspond to the English pronunciation of Pinyin, it closely corresponds to China's standard phonetic system.  Since its inception, Pinyin has become a generally recognized standard for romanizing the Chinese language throughout most of the world.
In 1979, China officially adopted a clearer version of Pinyin known as "Hanyu Pinyin Wenzi."  Notable examples of this change;  "Mao Tse-tung" is now Mao Zedong;  "Chou En-lai" is now Zhou Enlai;  and "Peking" is now "Beijing."  China is still "China" in English.  In Pinyin it is "Zhongguo."  Certain words have kept their familiar form.  For example the Yangtze river retains that name rather than the Pinyin form, "Chang Jiang"; Chiang Kai-shek and Sun Yat-sen, both of whose names are familiar in the West are usually referred to by these familiar forms.

The generally accepted standard for transliterating Japanese is the Hepburn Romanization System, first published by Reverend James Curtis Hepburn in his "A Japanese and English Dictionary" (1867).
The Japanese have one native language, but write it using three different scripts;  four if you count the Roman alphabet.
KANJI, the elaborate pictographic characters borrowed from China, is used to represent ideas or objects.
HIRAGANA, a simpler cursive script, is used to express grammatical relationships between ideas and objects and to write Japanese words not expressed by Kanji.
KATAKANA is commonly used to write foreign "loan words" and to express emphasis like the English use of italic script.
ROMAJI uses the Roman alphabet to transliterate Japanese for the English-speaking world.

Despite its compact alphabet, the Korean language is difficult to transliterate. For years, the most popular transliteration method for English speakers was the McCune-Reischauer System, first developed in 1939 by Japanese scholars. This system writes words more or less as they sound to the American ear based on a Japanese transliteration of Korean. English does not have some of the vowel and consonant sounds of the Korean language however, and many Korean words sound quite different in McCune-Reischauer than they would in Korean.
The Korean Ministry of Education System, first adopted in 1959, was used exclusively in Korea until its revision in 1984 along the lines of the McCune-Reischauer System.
In July 2000, the Republic of Korea officially adopted the Hangeul system, developed over a five-year period by the National Academy of the Korean Language, as a replacement for the outdated McCune-Reischauer System of Korean romanization.

The Mongolian People's Republic first started using a modified Russian Cyrillic alphabet in 1940, and it has been in widespread use ever since 1944. The Cyrillic alphabet remains the major vehicle for written communication in Mongolia.
The variety of romanization techniques used to transliterate Mongolian caused such confusion that a loose standard was adopted in 1987. As a result, Mongolia's capital city, previously written as Ulan Bator (Russian spelling), is now Ulaan Baatar. Although Mongolian can be transliterated using the Roman alphabet, Cyrillic gives a much better representation of Mongolian sounds.

Unlike other East Asian languages, Russian words are transliterated according to their pronunciation, not their spelling.  Because there are no letter combinations that make any other sound but that defined by their own sequence, Russian words are read just as they are written.
The pronunciation of transliterated Russian is only approximate.  Some Russian sounds do not occur naturally in English and pronunciation depends on the placement of Russian letters in a word.  An effective transliteration system, such as the United States Library of Congress system or the British Library system, maintains a consistent correspondence between Russian and Latin letters, irrespective of sound.


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