On Romanization (Pt.3)

So we’ve established that cataloging is a bit messy when it’s decided whether or not to include the vernacular in addition to romanized forms. But who decides what this looks like?

In short, it’s the American Library Association and the Library of Congress. They’ve produced tables for 75 different languages and/or scripts, although certain documents combine languages that use a single script (Hebrew and Yiddish, Non-Slavic Languages [in Cyrillic Script]), while other separate out languages that use these same scripts (Judeo-Arabic, Russian, etc.).

In some cases, the romanization scheme has been very thoughtfully constructed by all parties involved. For example, in 2012, the library world collaborated with the Cherokee people to produce a romanization scheme that was amenable to all. In other cases, however, the scheme was clearly assembled by people with little knowledge of the language involved.

If, for example, you look at the non-Slavic languages in Cyrillic script chart, you see that there has been no consideration for how each language behaves. Instead, there was merely a failed attempt to assign every possible Cyrillic letter a Romanized equivalent. If the scheme had been successful, that would be one thing, but it’s horribly inconsistent. Take a look at some of the following:

  • Tatar, Syriac, Kazakh ә is romanized as ă
  • Tatar-Kryashen, Mari, Karelian ӓ is romanized as ă
  • Khanty ӓ is romanized as ä
  • Chuvash ӑ is romanized as ă

Knowing what I know about these languages, the only two romanizations I can agree with are for Khanty and Chuvash; these are the romanizations that most linguists would use. For Tatar, Mari, Kazakh, etc. I would use ä. The romanization scheme is inconsistent – either provide a 1-to-1 romanization for all possible Cyrillic letters or treat each language individually.

As I just noted, scholarly treatment of these languages rarely aligns with ALA-LC. This is because

  1. ALA-LC attempts to create a 1-to-1 system whereby you can easily work out the vernacular form from the romanized form
  2. ALA-LC has attempted to create an internal consistency based on script and not language (see the Cyrillic examples above)

For scholars working on minority languages, especially, it can be frustrating trying to locate materials in these languages when the romanization in the catalog does not align with the rest of the scholarly literature.

It’s bad enough to annoy scholars, but what about actual speakers of a language? What happens when they have their own Romanization schemes? What happens when a language shifts from one script to a Latin-based one? This has happened several times in the former Soviet Union. Azerbaijani, Turkmen, Kazakh, Crimean Tatar and Uzbek have all converted from a Cyrillic script to a Latin-based one. While neither Tatar nor Belorussian have made this shift, both groups have definitive preferences for how their languages should be presented in Latin script. As an example, here are some of the mismatches you’ll encounter when comparing ALA-LC to the official Latin standard for Azerbaijani:

CyrillicALA-LCOfficial Latin
Ҹ ҹ jc
Ч ч chç
Ә ә ăə
Ҝ ҝġg
Ө ө ö

This disconnect is less that ideal because it means that a native speaker of Azerbaijani not only has to know the Latin script that is currently taught in schools and the Cyrillic script that was used up until the early 90s, but also has to learn the ALA-LC Romanization that is used in American and British libraries. And if that same speaker were to go to Germany, they would have to learn the system used there!

I’m not opposed to romanization. While we do have access to input methods for most of the world’s languages, they are still imperfect. I, for example, have no problem reading Cyrillic, yet still have a hard time typing it. Romanization makes things easy.

However, the current system is broken. There is not internal consistency and the wishes of native speakers are overlooked. I have a few suggestions for how to proceed, and I’m describe them in the next post.

On Romanization (Pt. 2)

I mentioned in the previous post that current standards allow for the inclusion of only certain vernacular scripts. Most of these are scripts that do not have an easy 1-to-1 mapping to Latin script.

In the case of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, this is because these writing systems employ Chinese characters (called kanji in Japanese and hanja in Korean). The Chinese writing system is logographic, which means that a word or a part of a word is represented by a single character. Over time, these characters have lost much of their relationship to pronunciation, and there exist many characters that sound the same but which express different ideas. For example, 烔, 罿, and 硐 are all pronounced tóng, but mean “heated”, “bird net” and “grind”, respectively. This presented a problem for catalogers because there was no way to work backward for a Romanized version of Chinese to the original. Korean has largely dropped the use of hanja, which simplifies matters somewhat as Korean uses an alphabet that is arranged into syllabic blocks. Japanese is even more complicated because they still employ kanji, but also use syllabiaries called katakana and hiragana, meaning that a single sentence or title could potentially have three different alphabets in it. Therefore, there is no way to map between Romanized titles (or names) and the vernacular in these languages.

Other scripts that have presented a problem are Hebrew and the Perso-Arabic scripts. Neither writing system requires the writing of vowels. Although there are optional vowel symbols, there are typically not written except in children’s books and language-learning materials. For example, תל־אביב is Tel Aviv, yet the e in Tel is not written. Likewise المغرب‎ is al-maġhrib “Morocco”, yet the a and i are not written. Again, this prohibits the existence of a 1-to-1 relation between the Romanized and vernacular versions.

To remedy this, in 1979 the Library of Congress worked with a few other library groups to implement the JACKPHY initiative (Japanese, Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Persian, Hebrew, Yiddish). In practice, this expanded to include all languages using any of these scripts (Urdu, Kurdish, various Jewish languages, pre-French Vietnamese). The result of this was that cataloging for materials in these languages would include not only a romanized version, but also a vernacular version.

Later, the Library of Congress added Greek and Cyrillic (Russian, Bulgarian, Kyrgyz, etc.) to its list of approved languages, likely due to the large number of materials available in the West that were published in languages using these scripts.

In practice, this looks like this:

In this image, there are linkages between the romanized and vernacular versions of this title, which is taken from the OCLC cataloging software Connexion. This catalog entry is in MARC format.

While this looks like a good solution, look what happens when we look at how library software actually translates this:

The vernacular has been shifted down to a series of 880 fields called “Alternate Graphic Representation”. This is because pure MARC doesn’t allow for the kind of linking seen in OCLC; instead it uses a complex series of codes to link the fields.

The result of all of this is that romanized versions of data are prioritized, whereas the vernacular is an afterthought. There is, in fact, no mandate for the inclusion of the vernacular.

Here’s where standards come into play. PCC, the Project for Cooperative Cataloging, sets cataloging standards in the US. Under its purview are four sub-groups that specify standards for other materials.

  • BIBCO: monographic records (books and other one-time publications)
  • CONSER: continuing resource records (serials, journals, etc.)
  • NACO: name authority records
  • SACO: subject authority records

Of these four groups, only BIBCO allows for the inclusion of (potentially) any script in a catalog record. The rest require that any record use only characters from MARC-8 character sets. This has a chilling effect on BIBCO, as the vast majority of records do not take advantage of the fact that non-JACKPHY+ scripts may be used.

For most libraries there is no requirement that they follow PCC guidelines; they could potentially enter data in whatever script they want. However, most libraries also do not have catalogers dedicated to foreign languages. Because catalog records are shared, and because PCC libraries are overwhelmingly well-funded and influential, most library records are produced by, or standardized by, libraries following PCC standards.

As a result, tons of languages with rich literary traditions do not see their vernaculars represented in library catalogs. Most of these are from South Asia (Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Tamil) and Southeast Asia (Thai, Lao, Khmer). We also lose out on Armenian, Cherokee, Georgian, Tibetan, Mongolian, Berber, Inuktitut, and many other languages with non-supported writing systems.

All of the languages I have mentioned are fully supported by UNICODE, yet the library world’s dependence on MARC-8 means that they can’t be represented. Granted, BIBCO records could (and sometimes do!) have vernacular representation of these languages, yet is far too rare.

On Romanization (Pt. 1)

As I’ve shown in previous posts, cataloging multilingual library materials is not so simple. For the next few posts, I plan to discuss my issues with Romanization (i.e. the converting of foreign scripts into Latin characters). As with MARC-8, there is a long (and very good) historical precedent for Romanization. Also with MARC-8, technology and interconnectedness have advanced to the point where Romanization has become a problem. I propose that we stop Romanizing and instead enter data in the vernacular form, leaving it up to algorithms or other forms of automation to Romanize should this be necessary. A few of the problems I have with Romanization are as follows; each will be discussed in later posts.

  • Current standards allow for the inclusion of only certain vernacular scripts (JACKPHY, Cyrillic, and Greek – more on these later). These standards are hangovers from MARC-8, so they should be discarded immediately. This also prevents native-script users from searching the catalog in their own scripts.
  • For most non-Latin scripts there exists a wide variety of Romanization schemes. Why force library users to learn ALA-LC (the standard in US cataloging)?
  • Quite a few languages have official Latin-based alphabets, either because they switched from a non-Latin alphabet to a Latin-based one (e.g. Azerbaijani, Uzbek) or because a governmental body promotes a specific Romanization (as in South Korea).
  • It is not unheard of for a title (or other tidbit of catalogable material) to exist in multiple scripts. This makes Romanization messy.
  • Romanization goes against the spirit of RDA. If RDA instructs us to enter data as it exists on the piece, then why do we Romanize?

For further details on the “official” Romanization, see the ALA-LC Romanization Tables.

What is a Character Set? (Part Three): UNICODE: the future is now!

If you thought it would be strange that computers would still rely on 40-year-old technology to deal with the world’s many writing systems, you would be correct. While the library world was content to stick with MARC-8, the computing world evolved constantly.

For most computer users in the early days of MARC-8, having access to many code points was not especially important. Libraries, as multilingual environments, were one of the few institutions where the availability of multiple scripts was important.

By the late 80’s, however, the rapid adoption of the Internet and the World Wide Web meant that computers around the world could talk to each other. At the same time, computing power was growing rapidly. The phones that we carry in our pockets have greater computing power than NASA used to put humans in space, so processing lots and lots of bits is no longer a problem.

Having a huge number of encodings schemes was counter-productive, as communication in one locale would be rendered as gibberish in another. (Does anyone remember this from the early days of the Internet? Running through encoding settings in order to make a website readable?)

To solve this, computer scientists began working toward a universal standard that could unite all existing standards, and all of the scripts and characters they expressed, into one single standard. The result was Unicode, which was incorporated in 1991 after discussions between engineers at Xerox and Apple.

Unicode is a bit confusing from an encoding standpoint, as it is not an encoding, per se, but rather a standard. Unicode can be implemented in several ways, but the most common (and current) are UTF-8, UTF-16, and UTF-32. UTF-32 and-16 are fixed bit schema, which means that each character takes up exactly 32 or 16 bits. UTF-16 is the rarest of these three and is seen as unstable due its lack of use. UTF-32 takes up the most space, and is therefore not very common either. UTF-8 is a variable bit scheme, with characters taking up 8, 16, 24 or 32 bits. This flexibility means that all characters can be expressed easily, yet less space is taken up than UTF-32.

Other encodings have been implemented or proposed, yet none are very common. UTF-8 is the web standard, although any other UTF encoding should present little difficulty to browsers or other document readers.

Now that we’ve covered encodings, let’s cover what Unicode is. Unicode, as I’ve mentioned is a standard. And it is governed by the Unicode Consortium. This consortium is made up of members, mostly tech companies like Apple and Adobe and Oracle, but also many governments, linguistics institutions, universities, and even interested individuals. These members collaborate to ensure that Unicode truly works as a (near) universal standard, to ensure that every computer can produce and interpret Unicode-compliant material, and expand the standard to include the scripts necessary to digitally (re)produce the sum of human knowledge.

As a standard, Unicode assigns hexadecimal code points to characters, which are represented in slightly different ways depending upon the encoding selected. These characters and conceived of as belonging to blocks. The capital letter <Q> belongs to the C0 Controls and Basic Latin block and has the specific code U+0051. (0051 is the code point, “U+” is usually added to specify that we’re talking about Unicode.)

As the need for more scripts or symbols grows, Unicode can add new blocks or assign characters to new code points. After the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, Unicode rushed to include the Rohingya script in its standard to ensure that agencies could produce Rohingya language materials that could be interpreted by any computer. In the past, a new script would necessitate a new font and a new encoding, and because this script depended on a font with its own encoding, there was no guarantee that a given computer could read a document written in this way. Unicode solves this by putting every script into a single standard that is readable by just about any modern computer.

So given that Unicode seems to be the solution to our outdated MARC-8 system, why do we still stick to MARC-8? To a certain extent, we actually have made the switch. OCLC, a global cataloging cooperative, allows for the creation of records in Unicode, then allows participating libraries to export records in a variety of encodings, including MARC-8. The reason the switch hasn’t happened completely is largely to due to money and tradition.

On the money end, re-encoding the catalog has the potential to be quite costly. Library software is notoriously expensive and difficult to implement, so many libraries use legacy systems that don’t play well with Unicode. This decision, however, is largely at the level of the individual library, and I have no doubt that clever catalogers could tweak their software and their catalogs to use the Unicode standard.

Tradition as well plays a role. In the MARC catalog record, field 066 is used to indicate what scripts are present. This would be unnecessary if all scripts were inherently supported. Have a look at the mess we deal with now to see why keeping MARC-8 is such a bad idea. PCC, the Program for Cooperative Cataloging has also been slow to adopt Unicode. It has 4 divisions: BIBCO (most bibliographic records), NACO (name authorities), SACO (subject authorities), and CONSER (serials). Of these four, only BIBCO allows for the use of Unicode; the rest require MARC-8. And because PCC is the gold standard for cataloging, it means that they control the keys to Unicode.

It’s 2019. My phone can type and read just about any language I want it to. My computer has no trouble rendering Cyrillic or Mongolian or even Egyptian hieroglyphics. A person from Thailand could conceivably search for an author in an American catalog, but if that author is in Thai, they have to resort to transliterating their name according to a prescribed standard because NACO doesn’t allow us to enter names in vernacular scripts that MARC-8 doesn’t support.

The library world has resigned itself to abandoning MARC, not because it was bad, but because we have technology that allows us do so much more. We should be proud of the brilliant librarians who developed MARC and MARC-8, and the best way to honor their legacy is to move on to something even better.