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Romaji - Meaning - ローマ字 - Romanization and Transliteration of Japanese

Wednesday, August 10, 2016
If you've ever started learning Japanese or dealt with any Japanese words you might have heard about the mysterious romaji ローマ字. That thing which is... something. Some people can only read romaji, others don't like romaji, and you can't say you know Japanese if all you know is romaji. But what is romaji exactly?

Simply put, romaji is a way to write Japanese words using the latin alphabet. A perfect example of romaji is the word romaji itself. You don't write romaji in Japanese, in Japanese you write ローマ字, but people who can't read Japanese can't read that. So what you do? You write the romaji instead just for them.


If you don't get it yet, let me try to make it more clear.
  • The hiragana ね sounds like ne
  • The hiragana こ sounds like ko
  • Thus ねこ sounds like neko
  • The word neko means "cat" in Japanese.

Do note, however, that in Japanese there are three "alphabets:" the hiragana, katakana and kanji. There is a romaji representation for every hiragana and katakana. For kanji, it's a bit more complicated. Words written with kanji have readings, that is, the right way to read them, which are written with hiragana in Japanese, so the romaji of a word is the romaji of the reading of the word. For example:
  • The  word 漢字 is read as かんじ.
  • The romaji for か is ka
  • The romaji for ん is n.
  • The romaji for じ is ji.
  • The romaji for 漢字 is kanji.

Literally speaking, romaji means "roman letters," the latin alphabet. The roma ローマ part means "roman" and the ji 字 means "letters." The word kanji 漢字 means "Chinese letters." And the word suuji 数字 means "numerals," or "number characters."

Learning Japanese with Romaji

One great thing about romaji is how it can help you learn Japanese.

Let me tell you how it does it: it does not.

To begin with, romaji was created exactly for the people who couldn't bother with learning Japanese but wanted to communicate with Japanese speaking people. So there's fundamentally no way you could ever dream of learning Japanese with it.

The first step into learning Japanese is not romaji, it's hiragana ひらがな. Not learning hiragana means you can't read Japanese. You're literally a Japanese illiterate. So you can't look up words in dictionaries, you can't read Japanese blogs, you can't even read Japanese manga!

What's the point of "knowing" Japanese if you can't read manga???

Pronunciation of Romaji

Remember when I said romaji means "roman letters"? Yeah, well that's important.

Why? Because Roma didn't speak English!!!!!

This means that the pronunciation of romaji doesn't match the English pronunciation. I mean, whatever you imagine the English pronunciation is because the English pronunciation and spelling is a mess.

Notoriously, some loaned words which look like they'd be like this because the romaji looks like the English word are actually like that because the pronunciation is closer to Spanish, Italian or Portuguese.

For example. The word "gay" in Japanese is gei ゲイ. That is, "geh-ih." If you thought "gay" would be gai ガイ, you'd be wrong, because gai ガイ in Japanese is loaned from the English word "guy," not "gay." The word "bus" isn't busu ブス, it's basu バス. The word "ice" isn't ise イセ, it's aisu アイス.

Conversely, trying to get the right pronunciation from romaji is difficult. For example, rareriroru ラレリロル might not be pronounced like you expect, since the ru in batoru バトル actually comes from the English "battle."

Some people say you should avoid romaji because of this. Honestly as long as you know hiragana and the right pronunciation it doesn't really matter. As a Brazilian and Portuguese native-speaker, I've always had to deal with English different pronunciation which used the exact same letters as Portuguese. If you were to write "bus" in Portuguese, it'd be "bâs" with "a" not "u." So I'm sure you can handle romaji once you know the right pronunciation of the letters in Japanese.

Romaji vs. Furigana

People who can't read any Japanese at all need romaji to be able to read the words. Interestingly, people who know some of the Japanese alphabet, including the people of Japan itself, need furigana to read difficult words.

This is because the each kanji 漢字 can have multiple readings. The verb "to read," for example, is yomu 読む in Japanese, but a "reader" would be dokusha 読者. Note how the 読 kanji has both yo and doku readings.

Transliteration

So, to help those people who don't know all words in Japanese (that would be everyone on the Planet), writers often have the hiragana transliteration of difficult kanji written beside them. A transliteration is writing the same word in a different alphabet. Which is what happens when you get 漢字 and make it かんじ.

Romanization

But then we have those people who can't even read basic Japanese, so even the basic Japanese alphabet wouldn't help. Then we have to transliterate to the latin alphabet, that is, romaji. When we transliterate to the latin alphabet specifically we call it romanization. So kanji is the romanization of both かんじ and 漢字.

Systems for Romaji

Transliterations, including romanizations, aren't perfect things. You can't always transliterate a text to a different alphabet keeping the same sounds.

If you tried to transliterate from English to Japanese, for example, you would notice there is no syllable starting with L or V in the Japanese alphabet. The word "level" would become reberu レベル for example.

Though romaji isn't that extreme, there are different systems of romanizations that romanize certain sounds differently. Some of these systems are:
  • Hepburn
  • Nippon-Shiki
  • Kunrei-Shiki

Differences

The most extreme difference is in the syllables ぢ and づ, which are rare to find. One system says they are ji and ju, other says they are di and du, and the last zi and zu. The し can be romanized as shi or si depending on the system.

Notice how they are more or less the same thing, a change in the romanization system doesn't change how the word sounds, after all. Here are some word examples:
  • ローマ字 (ろーまじ)
    romaji
    roomazi
    rōmazi
  • 先輩 (せんぱい)
    senpai
    sempai
  • 後輩 (こうはい)
    kouhai
    kōhai

As you can see, there is no right way to write these words with romaji. There is a right way to write them in Japanese. With romaji, you're just trying to make sure a person can actually read them without knowing Japanese.

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