International Placenames
August 8, 2004 9:18 PM   Subscribe

I'm having trouble with the concept that placenames aren't absolute.

Here's a quote from the book Letterletter by Gerrit Noordzij:
"Chinese clerks are emitting the message that in a Western transcription of Chinese, Peiping should from now on be spelled Bejing instead of Peking. Just think of our customs to see how alarming this message should be. I would never care how the Chinese want to spell Denver, Utrecht and Graz in Chinese writing, and I will continue to write Florence and Vienna when I have Firenze and Wien in mind, without asking permission from any Italian or Austrian clerks."
My only foreign language experience is a few years of Spanish from high school. I remember Mexico being pronounced Mehico... but that seemed to be a difference in pronunciation between languages, not a fundamentally different word. And "Esados Unitos" seems to be explained by the fact that "united" and "states" are two words with translatable meanings separate from the nation state.

I had been wondering about this for a while, but it came to the fore again recently when I read Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon and came across his use of Nippon for Japan. I can see if there's an orthographic break between two cultures, but when their writing systems are both based on the Latin alphabet... my question is, why not call places by the same name that residents use?

Can it all be chalked up to historical arrogance? Is there some rule of thumb for which placenames are or aren't sacrosanct? Also, I'm interested in examples of translations of American placenames abroad that are along the lines of the Florence/Firenze and Vienna/Wien models.
posted by Jeff Howard to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Well, to start with, even on a purely "literal" level, languages that use the Latin alphabet can still have a lot of differentiation--the simple fact that we basically don't use accents/diacriticals in American English means that common place names in French, Spanish, Portuguese or German (to name a few) have to be mangled a bit when they're "Americanized", and that's just the start of it. By the time you move to Chinese, you've got the problem that not only is their writing system completely different, but it's a tonal language, which means that no matter how perfectly you transliterated the phonemes into English, you'd still be able to say completely different things by altering the pitch of your voice as you said it.

I'm sure there are linguists that could clarify this much more precisely, but I think it's basically part of the larger process by which words from one language become part of another. Especially since this is a process rooted far back in history, you basically have to look at it from a very "country-specific" point of view...explorers and mapmakers were telling their own population what _they_ should call things outside their own borders, so they've always worked from a deeply local set of assumptions and prejudices.

It works on a larger level than just translating names. The West Indies ended up being named after India, because that's what Columbus thought he found, and the "Philippines" ended up being named (to Europeans, at least) after King Philip of Spain. For English-speakers to call Firenze "Florence" instead, because it's easier for English-speakers to pronounce, is just a small case of the same thing.
posted by LairBob at 9:32 PM on August 8, 2004


Firstly, I think it's cultural/language chauvinism more than anything else. Until recently, I think, most cultures have had a strong sense that there's absolutely no reason to speak someone else's language for any purpose and, therefore, they're relatively free to call a foreign place (or person) whatever they like. Now, true, the more that foreign word looks or is pronounced similarly to the native language (assuming they've heard or seen the foreign version), the more the native version will resemble the foreign. But, I think, this is sort of a convenience only, this isomorphism. Anglophones call Deutschland, "Germany". As far as we're concerned, that's its name.

That's one end of the spectrum.

The other end would be accepting that the people referred to get to choose, in any language, how they're referred. But that's pretty problematic, isn't it?, given that they don't speak every other language? :)

In my opinion, however, what is "best" is to try very hard to avoid this linguistic chauvinism and start from the second proposition and modify as necessary.

If the phonetic and orthographic characteristic between the two languages are both close enough in the case of the place or person name, then you don't really have a problem. (And so, really, in my view, we should say and write "Deutschland".) When one is similar but the other not, then you'd have to decide to pick—but a local preference, if known, should be the guide.

And an interesting point in this context is that because English is basically the global language, pretty much everyone has a preferred anglicized version of their place name. Anglophones should use it, I think.

Now, in the case of "Peking/Bejing" and "Japan/Nippon" and others, the issue is both the difficulty of a lack of isomorphism but also historical and can be very culturally sensitive. Particularly if the translated place name was imposed by an occupying force, that translated name will have strong connotations. This is the case with many former colonial places in Africa and elsewhere, and why new, translated native place names are preferred by locals to older ones. Again, I think that foreigners should follow the locals' preferences, if known.

Finally, I don't think it's that hard to attempt to learn and speak, at least, foreign place names as close to natively as one can manage, even if badly. It's foreign, after all. Giving it a new name is a variety of appropriation, in my opinion.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:06 PM on August 8, 2004

Yo, but the case in point is also about a change in Romanisation systems. (Wade something-or-other to Pinyin).

EB, your suggestions strike as impractical. Firstly, I need to communicate with other speakers of my language and the fact is that Munich and Moscow are recognisable while Muenchen and Moskva are not. Second, a reference to Paree rather than Paris is likely to convey a whimisicality, arrogance or snootiness I would rather avoid. (And what to do in disputed territories?)

Is there a rule of thumb? Absolutely: common usage. And the older and more prominent the place the greater the likelihood that common usage reflects the past more than the present.

I'd follow EB's rule only where common usage isn't reasonably settled already, or where courtesy to locals is an overriding factor.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:22 PM on August 8, 2004

PS: I live in a not-terribly bilingual country. Auckland, or Tamaki-makau-rau? Wellington or Poneke? Choice of place names (toponyms!) is a political statement.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:24 PM on August 8, 2004

I've always chuckled at the placement of the fleur-de-lis where the accent should be in the word 'Montreal' on the front of Expos' jerseys.
posted by Space Coyote at 12:00 AM on August 9, 2004

There is an ongoing discussion about this in Germany, since a number of cities in eastern Europe have traditional German names. (Danzig/Gdansk, Koenigsberg/Kaliningrad, Pressburg/Bratislava, Brno/Brunn and on and on)

But because of Germany's history in the area, and particularly because of their attempt to "Germanise" many of these places, there is some uncertainty about how to refer to some cities. Officially, for example, the German government has the "general consulate of Germany in Kaliningrad" and, on the other hand, the German embassy in Laibach. (the German name for Ljubljana)
posted by Ljubljana at 12:04 AM on August 9, 2004

Anglophones call Deutschland, "Germany". As far as we're concerned, that's its name

Wouldn't that one be more misplaced classicism, which Lord knows the Brits were prone to, than chauvinism? Or was the area not Germania, at least to the Romans, long before it was Deutschland?

The book you want, EB, is Holy Fire(?) by Bruce Sterling, in which people take trips from London to Muenchen to somewhere Magyar.

I don't think it actually reflects any disdain to call it Munich instead of Muenchen or Moscow instead of Moska. The only exceptions I can think of are places where a country is trying to throw off imperial names, and even then it would be awfully stuffy to take offense if someone called it Bombay instead of Mumbai.

The only American examples I can think of are places with descriptors -- Nueva York, Nouvelle Orleans. I don't know if Phoenix appears in Spanish-language maps as Phoenix or Fenix (feh-neeks).
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:46 AM on August 9, 2004

All good points. (I did read that Sterling book a few years ago, ROU.)

Second, a reference to Paree rather than Paris is likely to convey a whimisicality, arrogance or snootiness I would rather avoid.

This is a problem; but to me it's the lesser of two evils. This is the case when pronouncing any foreign word. Frankly, the more parochial and/or anti-intellectual a subculture is, the more it frowns upon foreign pronounciations as "arrogant". That doesn't endear that sensibility to me. Probably what's a good compromise is to avoid the parochialism but not be ostentatious about it.

I had a friend, a formerly Domincan Republic currently Venezualan grad student who was in the states for the first time. His name is "Claudio". To him, the way most anglophones would try to pronounce his name seemed plain wrong, turning a four syllable word into a three syllable word (to my ears, but probably more properly and correctly described as a mispronounciation of the diphthong "au" as "ah"). He mentioned this to me, and I learned to say his name as best I could, even though the diphthong is difficult. Anyway, I was the only person among our friends to make this effort. To them, the plain fact was that his name was "Claudio", and that word was pronounced "Claude-io".

To my mind, his name was what he said his name was, pronounced how he said it was proncounced. It was his name, after all.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:20 AM on August 9, 2004 [1 favorite]

The Peking to Beijing switch is also (I believe) a switch from the Anglicisation of the Catonese word, to an Anglicization of the Mandarin (Guoyu?) word, as well as a switch of romanisations. If you're interested, it is a more accurate (though not perfect) Anglicisation of the name of the capitol, as pronounced by people in the Beijing dialect of Chinese. Bei(3rdtone) - jing(1sttone). (all of the above reliant on bad memory and

As for other names, normally they are changed when there is a strong political/cultural reason to request. I don't think the people of Florence/Firenze mind, whereas the people of Zimbabwe really did not want to be known as Rhodesia after their revolution. Sometimes these requests are not honoured. I believe that the British continue to call Burma as Burma, not Myanmar, because they do not want to support the government there.
posted by jb at 5:59 AM on August 9, 2004

Let's also remember that place names--at least their pronunciation--can be ambiguous to native speakers. There are lots of towns in the USA with recognizable spellings but counter-intuitive pronunciations. Vienna (VYE-enna) Peabody (PEA-biddy) Cairo (Care-oh). My parents moved to a town where the main street is "Hough". How do you pronounce that? Huff, as it turns out (my money was on Ha-oooxhxh until I found out differently).

Japan makes problems like this seem like chump change. The area of Western Tokyo is referred to variously as Yamate or Yamanote. Both are the same word, really. Some of Japan's remote locations (especially in Hokkaido) have names that cannot be puzzled out by a native Japanese speaker. For that matter, the city of Kobe is written in characters that don't suggest that pronunciation--it's just one of those things you need to learn as a special case, the way "Raymond Luxury Yacht" is really pronounced as "Throatwarbler Mangrove."
posted by adamrice at 8:28 AM on August 9, 2004

a) I agree 100% with Ethereal Bligh, if you know how somebody (or place) chooses to be called, and are at all able to do so, respect it.
b) While living in the Bay Area, as a native spanish speaker I had to learn how to "mispronounce" (from my point of view) all the spanish place names. For instance, Vallejo as "Vah-ley-oh", instead of "Vah-yeh-ho".
c) One thing I never understood is Munchen-Munich, how is the second easier to pronounce than the first?
d) Many south american indian place names have had their spellings changed of late, form the spanish imposed spellings to spelling systems devised for the original indian languages (changing "qu" to "co", "que" to "ke", etc.), e.g. Cuzo -> Qosqo.
posted by signal at 8:48 AM on August 9, 2004

Response by poster: So, this is the trend I'm seeing. When an outside influence changes a name, it's almost always unidirectional toward anglicisation... or more properly, toward a placename pronouncable by a dominant or colonizing seafaring power (English, Spanish, French). Fewer instances exist where somewhere else deanglicizes the placename of an existing English territory.

And... the older the culture, the more likely an English (or French or Spanish) variant exists of its name. This would lead me to expect that someplace like Bosnia-Herzegovina is less an anglicized name than Yugoslavia (Jugoslavija).
posted by Jeff Howard at 9:20 AM on August 9, 2004

Place names are not some special, magical, "absolute" phenomena -- they're words, like other words. They happen to name places rather than, say, trees or body parts, but that doesn't exempt them from normal linguistic processes. (Don't be fooled by the fact that English writes them with capital letters; Chinese, for instance, doesn't distinguish them in any way from other words.) Pretty much every language has its own versions of place names in countries with which it's had historic dealings, and there's no reason it shouldn't be that way. For one thing, foreign sounds are hard to say. (signal: München has two such sounds; the umlaut u is halfway between a u and an i -- a high front rounded vowel, to get technical -- and the ch is a palatal fricative, sort of halfway between sh and s; both require considerable practice for an English speaker, and it's unrealistic to expect any great number of people to make the effort unless they're actually learning German.) Here's part of my LH post on the subject:
It seems to me a very simple and unexceptionable idea that each language has its own names for things and that there is nothing wrong with that. In English we say "mountain" for what the Chinese call "shan," and I don't think either side feels insulted by the difference. This happy equanimity vanishes, however, when it comes to place names... Now, here's what I don't get. Nobody seems to mind that Spanish-speakers say Nueva York, that the French refer to la Nouvelle-Orléans, that the Chinese call this country Mei Kuo—excuse me, Meiguo—and the Russians Soedinyonnye Shtaty Ameriki. As far as I know, nobody cares that the French refer to Regensburg as Ratisbon or that the Hungarians call Paris Parizs. So why this concern for the English names of foreign places? And why in the name of Babel does this country, in every other way so self-satisfied and downright imperial, jump when even the pettiest dictator says "froggie"?
In short, I completely agree with Gerrit Noordzij.
posted by languagehat at 9:26 AM on August 9, 2004

The only American examples I can think of are places with descriptors -- Nueva York, Nouvelle Orleans...

This is of course where things can get circular as New Orleans is the translation of the city's original name, la Nouvelle Orléans.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 9:36 AM on August 9, 2004

Even old New York was once New Amsterdam
         Why they changed it I can't say
    People just liked it better that way
posted by five fresh fish at 9:49 AM on August 9, 2004 [1 favorite]

Place names are not just words like any other words in much the same way that personal names are not just words like any other words. A clue that this is the case is that place names, like personal names, are in most modern societies legally defined while almost all other words are not. This is to say, they are formal words.

Or, let's look at this another way. For most modern cultures as far as I know, personal names are not relativistic. In English we have the word and concept "nickname". Other people can arbitrarily decide how to refer to you—that doesn't make it your "name".

Or, let's look at this yet another way. A common story about George W. Bush is that he comes up with nicknames for people he works with and refers to them thus. It seems to me that most everyone that hears about this has the sense—certainly I do—that his doing so while partly playful, is also a sort of dominance. Why is that? Because he's deciding who you are. He's naming you.

While place names are not as intimate as personal names, for their natives they're still pretty intimate. It's part of their identification. Their culture, their sense of self.

Again, personal names are an instructive example. Think about the immigrants that came through Ellis island that had completely arbitrary English names assigned to them because some immigration officer couldn't be bothered to even attempt a phonetic transliteration. To modern sensibilities—correctly, I think—this seems callous and demeaning of the immigrant. He had a name, dammit. He didn't need a new name just because it wasn't English.

Yes, it's true that some places exist long enough to have names that become in every sense words in various languages and, as such, those words will change as the languages change. I'm sure you can find many place names in Europe that vary modern languages but descended from one root. But that's beside the point. The place belongs, in a very real and vital sense, to the people that live there now, not the people that had contact with it or whose ancestors lived there in the distant past. "Maria" is "Mary" in English, in a sense; and it's perfectly okay for me to be aware of that when I think of someone named "Maria". That doesn't mean that her name is properly "Mary" nor that it's acceptable that I call her "Mary". "Muenchen" is "Munich" in English. Fine. But the place's name is still better transliterated as "Muenchen".
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:09 AM on August 9, 2004 [1 favorite]

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