What’s In A Place Name?


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A few hours to spare at Yangon International Airport recently got me to thinking about place names and why countries change them. In 1989 the military government running Burma announced that the country should henceforward be known as Myanmar and that Rangoon, its capital, should be referred to as Yangon. Countries change their names for a multitude of reasons – historical, political, ideological or to make them more accurately reflect the correct name in the local language. Burma’s decision, it seems, fell into the latter category and there are valid reasons for choosing the name Myanmar, not that there was much wrong with the old name. Wikipedia gives a good explanation of the linguistic peculiarities of Burmese which helps to explain the reasoning to adopt the name Myanmar. Being old fashioned, I prefer the old names but if a nation wants to change its own name who are we to object? It does not mean however that other countries will always use the new names. In Burma’s case, a number of nations stubbornly refuse to recognize the name Myanmar as a way of getting back at the military regime which they see as illegitimate as long as they refuse to hold fair elections and until they release Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest.

China was more successful in getting the world to adopt the Pinyin spellings of their cities which were introduced in the 1980s.  Thus Tsingtao became Qingdao (except the beer), Tientsin became Tianjin and Foochow changed to Fuzhou.  Guangzhou (Canton)took some getting used to as did Beijing but now the old names like Amoy and Nanking are slipping into the history pages alongside archaic names like Port Arthur, while Peking lives on only as a recipe for duck. For a country which is sensitive on these matters it is perhaps surprising that China did not seek to have the world address it by its Chinese name, Zhong Guo (middle kingdom), rather than ‘China’ which is a word of foreign origin (Persian or Sanskrit). Maybe one day.

Another country with an exonym is Japan. (An exonym is defined as a name for a place that is not native to the people or language to which it refers). Why Japan likes the world to call it by a foreign name (which seemingly originates from a Dutch version of a Chinese term) is something of a mystery. Surely the world could manage to call it by its Japanese name of Nihon or Nippon, after all, we did during the war!

India has more recently tried to de-anglicize some of its city names, with mixed results. Bombay was changed to Mumbai. It sounded ridiculous at first but we are getting used to it. Chennai, the new name for Madras, is also gaining traction though I have yet to see Chicken Chennai on the Indian take-away menu. Kolkata, the new spelling for Calcutta, looks rather ugly while Dili (Delhi) is just silly. BBC World’s TV weather maps continue to use New Delhi but have switched to the new names for the other cities.

Some place names have changed more than once. Byzantium to Constantinople to Istanbul – Serendip to Ceylon to Sri Lanka. Other places have changed their name back to the old name. St. Petersburg (too German-sounding for WW1) became Petrograd then Leningrad before reverting to St.Petersburg. Congo switched to Zaire then back to Congo. Siam changed to Thailand then back to Siam before finally sticking with Thailand. Perhaps the Thai’s were unsure whether they should include an English word (land) in their title.

Countries with a direction in their title (east, west, north etc) have not survived well, perhaps because a direction implies that it is part of a bigger entity and should be merged or renamed. Thus the following countries are no more known by these names : North and South Vietnam, East and West Germany,  South West Africa,, North and South Yemen, Western Sahara, West and East Pakistan, Upper Volta, Western Samoa,East Timor.  North and South Korea remain but for how long will they stay separated? What about Northern Ireland?  South Africa will probably keep its name after proposals in the 1970s and 1990s by some revolutionary parties to rename it ‘Azania’ were not adopted.

When I was at school I remember a left-leaning guest speaker from Amnesty International saying that it was wrong to name a country after a person. She was talking about Rhodesia, named after Cecil Rhodes whom she described as an imperialist who built up the country to exploit its wealth. Now of course that country is Zimbabwe, run by Robert Mugabe who has ruined the country to exploit its wealth. There are other countries named after individuals. Interestingly they are both named after foreigners – Bolivia named after Simon Bolivar, a Venezuelan, and the Philippines, named after King Philippe of Spain. This shows that not every country is in a hurry to rid itself of all names from colonial times. In Malaysia, the difficult to pronounce Port Swettenham was renamed Klang while Jesselton was given the more romantic name Kota Kinabalu. Georgetown in Penang however still remains. In Morocco, one might have expected Casablanca to have been renamed long ago. If the usage of Spanish in USA continues to grow apace perhaps the President’s home might also become the Casa Blanca one day.

Italy calls itself Italia. Why did we have to call it Italy? Could we not manage that one extra syllable? Meanwhile, the whole world calls the British capital London so why do the French have to call it Londres? Are they taking revenge for the inability of the English to pronounce, with a straight face, their capital as Paree without using the prefix ‘gay’. And where did the word Germany come from? Would it be too difficult for us to call it Deutschland? Given the European Commission’s love of standardization it is a wonder that they have not set up a bureaucracy to standardize European place names. But then again that would lead to calls to agree on a standardized European language, which logically would have to be English. That, of course, for our French partners, would never do. So it seems we will stick with the current messy conventions for place names and call it part of life’s rich tapestry. As for Myanmar, I will continue to call it Burma for now until Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi is released and says otherwise.

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