On Romanization (1)

by Terence MacNamee

In the late 18th century, Sir William Jones went to India and discovered Sanskrit. He realized that the language was related to the ancient and modern languages of Europe. This was the beginning of Indo-European linguistics. It opened a new phase of European contact with the civilisations of Asia – at last there was a bridge between the two continents.

Jones went on to write his “Dissertation on the Orthography of Asiatick words in Roman letters” in 1794. If Europeans were going to study the sacred, learned and literary books of the East, they were going to have to find a reliable way of transcribing words, because these languages used other writing systems.

Jones must have been looking at Sanskrit works on phonetics like Panini. He realised that there were two approaches to transcription: one that gives the surface pronunciation, and one that incorporates the etymology and the morphology that bind word forms together. Today we would say: a phonetic and a phonemic transcription. Jones was the first to see this and state it clearly.

After Jones, Romanization became a key tool for studying the Asian world, and it fed back to European linguistics in the form of more and more sophisticated phonetic transcription.

Then the question also arose: would Romanization be a good idea for the languages of the East? Should they adopt the Roman alphabet? A few Asian languages made the leap under European colonial domination, like Vietnamese. The question of Romanization as part of modernisation also arose for the Chinese, and even for the Japanese, but in the end they never went that far. Pinyin Romanization remains as a useful auxiliary tool which nevertheless has not replaced Chinese characters.

Romanization was the major issue for European linguists in contact with Asia, because they framed all problems from their own Western perspective. When they proposed sweeping Romanization, Europeans were under the assumption that alphabetic writing as in the Roman alphabet was the pinnacle of all possible writing systems. It did not occur to them that it was no accident that other civilisations had their own writing systems and stuck to them because they happened to be the best way of writing those languages.