The Japanese language utilizes its own alphabet with its own unique characters, so it is frustrating to know that much confusion has risen as far as how these sounds are to be interpolated into the English language. The Hepburn System was a Romanization scheme developed by James Curtis Hepburn when he began transcribing the sounds of the Japanese language back in the late 1800's. Though it has gone through several revisions, many people use a mixture of these different Romanization schemes in presenting Japanese text in the romanized alphabet, which may create some form of confusion as far as spelling (i.e. the kana spelling) and pronunciation are concerned.
A brief treatment of the different styles of Romanization can be found here, but it should be important to know that being familiar with the different variations may be important when dealing in situations where attempts to Romanize the Japanese language are made, as not everyone uses the same style of Romanization.
For all intents and purposes, the two more common forms are the Revised Hepburn (used by the Library of Congress) and the Modified Hepburn (used by the Oxford University Press). From personal experience (and personal preference), the former is somewhat easier to understand and allows a more or less "faithful" representation of Japanese phonetics as compared to the latter. For this reason, I prefer to use the Revised Hepburn system in presenting romanized Japanese letters.
Take the time to read through this, as it will be important in your further studies of the Japanese language. Take note, too, that I will be using the Revised Hepburn System along with the wâpuro variation of Romanization in this group, as I feel this is the most useful form for learning purposes.
The important characteristics of this Romanization scheme include the following:
The character he (へ) is written as "e" when used as a particle.
The character ha (は) is written as "wa" when used as a particle.
The character wo (を) is written as "o" when used as a particle.
広島へ行きました > hiroshima e ikimashita
俺は学生だ > ore wa gakusei da
日本語を習いたいです > nihongo o naraitai desu
2. Long Vowels
Long vowels of o and u are indicated using a macron above the letter (e.g. a long "o" is written as ō). In addition, when a macron is not available for input in a keyboard, a circumflex may be used instead (e.g. a long "o" with a circumflex would be ô).
東京 > tōkyō or tôkyô
練習 > renshū or renshû
Japanese and Chinese words with long e and i vowels are extended as ei and ii, respectively.
先生 > sensei
楽しい > tanoshii
All foreign loan words with long vowels are indicated with a macron (or circumflex when not available).
3. Syllabic n
The syllabic n remains the same regardless of what follows it. Traditionally, "n" becomes "m" when followed by closed-mouth consonants (i.e. b and p), but to prevent misconstruing "m" as a different letter, the "n" is retained:
新聞 > shinbun and not shimbun
Furthermore, an apostrophe is placed after the "n" when it precedes a vowel or the letter y. This is to avoid making it appear like the "n" is part of the next vowel (e.g. assuming "jin'en" in the following example is made of the characters "ji", "ne" and "n" instead of "ji", "n", "e" and "n").
腎炎 > jin'en
4. Double consonants
All consonants are doubled, except for sh, ch and ts, which appear like so:
sh > ssh as in 出身 > shusshin
ch > tch as in ばっちり > batchiri
ts > tts as in っつーか > ttsûka
An important addition to these already stated rules is what is known as the wâpuro style of Romanization, which simply preserves the kana of the original characters. This is especially significant for long vowels and double consonants, as we can see in the following examples (wâpuro in bold):
東京 > tōkyō becomes toukyou
練習 > renshū becomes renshuu
ばっちり > batchiri becomes bacchiri
I, personally, prefer using the wâpuro style for typing, since it is much faster. Another reason is because typing in characters using Japanese input systems on a Western style keyboard follows the wâpuro system, as well, hence its popularity. Suffice it to know, however, that the aforementioned Hepburn style is more present in printed publications, hence the value of knowing such.
I addition to these, several other notable peculiarities in Romanization are worth mentioning:
The character づ is commonly written as "du" or "dzu" to differentiate it from ず. This Romanization is interesting in that it is quite similar to the actual pronunciation of this character, which is rather distinct from the latter.
続く > tsuduku or tsudzuku
Similarly, the character ぢ is commonly written as "di" to differentiate it from じ.
Some people opt to leaving the particle を as "wo", as it is somewhat closer to the true pronunciation of this character.
Spacing between characters in the Hepburn System is totally arbitrary. By convention, most people separate words systematically by dividing them into their individual parts (i.e. nouns, particles, verbs, etc.). Though this is completely unnecessary, it aids in reading for beginners.
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