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Why is ローマ字 spelt without an ン?

As far as I can tell, it's not because you can't have an ん sound before a じ sound, because 漢字 has an ん sound before 字.

Did early Europeans' term for Roman letters not use the letter "n"?

Also, does the ローマ in ローマ字 refer to the Roman empire whose language influenced the script used in many European languages, or did it refer to the main headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church, the religion of the Portuguese?

Background: I want to know the etymology for the word ローマ字 so that the next time someone misspells the English word romaji (derived from the Japanese word ローマ字) as "romanji", I can not only say that the English word should be spelt "romaji", but I can explain why it's spelt that way. And the more detailed and authoritative the explanation of "ローマ字"'s etymology is, the more likely it is to be remembered.

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Why do you think that ローマ字 might be spelled with ン? Your question sounds just like “Why is アメリカ spelled without ボ?” –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jan 5 '13 at 13:49
I think there's more merit to this question than you give him credit for. For one, it's not uncommon to hear English-speakers refer to ローマ字 as "romanji," although it's generally just said among people that have never studied Japanese at all. And if we start from the assumption that the root of the word is "Roman" (which, as snailplane points out in his answer, is incorrect), then it seems reasonable to wonder why the 'n' sound doesn't appear in ローマ字. Apologies for the 'unconstructive' flag, Ito-sensei, but I felt your comment was essentially just saying "I think your question is stupid." :( –  ghorahn Jan 5 '13 at 20:15
@Tsuyoshi ローマ can pronounced ローマン in english, hence why the OP's question makes sense, well to me. I think your comparison to “Why is アメリカ spelled without ボ?” is a little bit insulting. –  Jeemusu Jan 18 '13 at 2:48
@Jeemusu: As you and ghorahn wrote, OP's implicit assumption behind the question is that the Japanese term for "Roman letters" should be based on the corresponding term in English. I was hoping that my first comment would make the OP aware of his implicit assumption and allow him to resolve his question by himself, but apparently it did not work as I intended. (I find the OP's assumption far more insulting than my first comment, but that is not the main point.) –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jan 18 '13 at 12:43
As snailplane points out, ローマ字 is a place name (Roma) + a suffix. This is exactly the same as the way Japanese uses the word アメリカ人 and not アメリカン人, フランス語 rather than フレンチ語, and イタリア料理 rather than イタリアン料理。 –  JLRishe Jan 23 '13 at 7:53

2 Answers 2

up vote 7 down vote accepted

To tell the truth, this question was so unexpected for me who am not familiar with colloquial English that I couldn't figure out what it means if it weren't for an English speaker's guidance. Maybe I still don't grasp what you're asking, but there are so many reasons it couldn't be with ン.

  1. "Roman" in Japanese

In English, Roman is an adjective derives from Rome. Japanese has a word ロマン too, but it's from French, where it means English romance. Moreover, now we use it especially for "an emotional attraction or aura belonging to an especially heroic era, adventure, or activity" (Merriam-Webster) sense. This word is associated with "romanticism" and has little to do with the city Rome, so it can be said that English Roman and Japanese ロマン are false friends you cannot use them interchangeably for Rome Roman.

Strictly speaking, there's another word ローマン from English Roman, but usage of this one is confined to a few technical jargon like ローマン体 "roman type" (↔ 𝕱𝖗𝖆𝖐𝖙𝖚𝖗 or italic) in typography or グレコローマンスタイル in wrestling.

  1. How did Japanese know Rome and its alphabet

It appears to be Christian missionaries that introduced the knowledge about the city. 日本国語大辞典 cites its first appearance in 1605.

"they built the cathedral in a city in Italy, called Rome, ..."

The author of this tract is educated with Latin in a official Jesuit seminary in Japan, so perhaps it could be direct transliteration from medieval Latin Rōma. Anyway, the Latin, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese pronunciations of this city had little difference at that time.

The name of letters they used was, however, not known besides in a very vague term throughout the Edo period: "the horizontal writing".

"Sideways letters: All 42 Western countries are said to write in sideways phonetic letters. It starts in left and ends in right. Written like plant vines that hard to read."

The solid term ローマ字 wasn't attested until Meiji. Again the first appearance is:

"Roman alphabet i.e. the sideways letters consists of 26 letters..."

Originally ローマ字 stood for general notion of "Roman alphabet", parallel to 漢字 ("Chinese character") or 梵字 ("Siddham script"). The etymology is quite transparent, from ローマ "Rome" + 字 "writing".

Later, its usage was gradually limited within the discussion on Japanese orthography reform, eventually became a word means "romanization" or more specifically "Japanese romanization", but that wasn't the original meaning. Today we usually call the writing system itself as ラテン文字 ("Latin script") or just アルファベット.

  1. Why not adjective?

If someone's still not convinced, then it's grammar time. It is true that European languages, including English, use adjective forms when describing an idea "something from somewhere". But in Japanese, you have to use bare place name in this situation, especially when the entire train of words represent a monolithic idea.

In fact, many English words are created in this way too, like "stun gun", "ice cream" or "summer time". But when it comes to locations or personal names, we revive adjectives and say "Central European Summer Time". What Japanese does is just to remove "-al" and "-an"s completely, and we get 中央ヨーロッパ夏時間 (lit. "center Europe summer time"). Similarly, we only say ローマ帝国 ("Roman Empire"), ローマ市民 ("Roman citizen"), ローマ文明 ("Roman civilization") or ローマ教会 ("Roman church"), but never *ローマン帝国 or *ローマン教会 (of course not *ローマ的帝国 etc.) otherwise it'll obscure the relationship between its base word ローマ.

It's not just because we've traditionally called them so, but works as well in new words: an imaginary extraterrestrial intelligent development in a dwarf planet, "Cererian civilization", would likewise be translated as ケレス文明. Thus, if we call the city ローマ, then the Roman alphabet would be automatically called ローマ字.

Using Japanese adjectives (though they don't work exactly as European adjectives) or genitives to qualify nouns is not prohibited, but it breaks the integrity of idea all-noun compounds have. ローマの帝国 would only indicate "a Roman empire" (cf. ローマの休日 Roman Holiday) but not "the Roman Empire" (which existed in 27 BC – 476 AD).

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ローマ字 is ローマ plus 字【じ】. It's a noun+noun compound, just like 漢字【かんじ】 or アメリカ人【じん】.

It is not the English adjective Roman plus 字, so there's no reason for an ン to be there.

Writing romanji is a common beginner's mistake. There isn't really any linguistic significance to it, and you should avoid making this mistake yourself.

The Japanese place name ローマ is ultimately borrowed from the Latin Roma.

How did it make its way into Japanese? Dictionaries don't say, and it's not really relevant to your question, but I'll try to answer anyway. My guess is that it was borrowed into Japanese via Portuguese in the 1500s, when Portuguese missionaries first arrived in Japan. There's also speculation on Wiktionary that it might have been via Spanish.

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My dictionary says: 「古代ローマ人がラテン語を表記するのに用いた表音文字。その後もヨーロッパを中心に多くの国語を表記するのに用いられている。ラテン文字。」which suggests you are right. Also it is worth adding that these words often come from their original language/country name not English (Tsuyoshi's point) so we have Italia-go not Italian-go and ビエン(Wien) not Vienna. –  Tim Jan 6 '13 at 0:36
@Tim ビエン>>>ウィーン? –  user1016 Jan 6 '13 at 13:50
@Chocolate: Thanks - somehow ビエン did not feel right. –  Tim Jan 7 '13 at 6:32
The Roman empire did cover a fair bit of territory, but I don't think it got as far as Japan! +1, though. –  Andrew Grimm Jan 7 '13 at 6:47
It's interesting to look at the wiktionary entry for "Latin alphabet" which suggests that English is (almost) the only language except Chinese, Korean, Japanese to use "Roman" for this alphabet, rather than "Latin". This makes it less likely to have come from Portuguese; it's entirely possible that at some stage it was adapted from English, using ローマ, since that's the Japanese name for the city and its adjective. –  Brian Chandler May 19 at 7:49

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