Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Hepburn Romanization: Transcribing Japanese for the West

As tomorrow is the birthday of James Curtis Hepburn, we thought we'd take a look at perhaps his biggest contribution to languages, Hepburn Romanization. However, first we'll tell you about the man himself.

Born in 1815 in Milton, Pennsylvania, Hepburn studied at Princeton, then earned his M.D. at the University of Pennsylvania before returning to Princeton to earn his Master's degree. He initially went to China as a medical missionary in 1840 and from 1843 to 1845 he worked on Amoy Island, again as a medical missionary until his wife's poor health forced his return to the US.

It wasn't until 1859 that Hepburn and his wife went to Kanagawa, Japan, where he would start studying the Japanese language. His research led to his focus on creating a Japanese-English dictionary, which he would complete in 1887.

The Japanese language is written using a variety of writing systems. Kanji is a system of logographic characters borrowed from the Chinese writing system, while the Hiragana and Katakana writing systems are syllabic.

Hepburn's most widely recognised work is his system for representing the Japanese language using the Latin alphabet. As you may know, despite many languages using the Latin alphabet, not every character in every language is pronounced the same. In fact, in many languages, not every character in the Latin alphabet has a single used phoneme. As Hepburn was American, it is understandable that Hepburn Romanization is based on English phonology.

While Hepburn Romanization helps English speakers pronounce words in the Japanese language, a competing system, Nihon-Shiki Romanization, was devised by Japanese physicist Aikitu Tanakadate. It was created with the goal of completely replacing the traditional Japanese writing systems and allowing Japan to compete with the West. If you have learned any Japanese recently, you will be aware that this did not happen.

Nihon-Shiki Romanization would be developed into Kunrei-Shiki Romanization and adopted by the Japanese government in 1937. However, Hepburn's original system is still commonly used today for a variety of applications and its use is permitted alongside Kunrei-Shiki Romanization by several Japanese governmental bodies. Many students learning Japanese as a foreign language still learn a modern variant of Hepburn's original system.

Are you learning Japanese? Have you used Hepburn Romanization in your studies or elsewhere? If so, tell us about your experiences in the comments below.