Language: Why Do We Name Places As We Do?

he two people with whom I had lunch recently were discussing different types of potato salad. There is New York-style potato salad — my favorite, of course — as well as Southern style, potato salad made with red potatoes, and German potato salad.

My warped mind immediately quipped to myself — yes, it does this all the time and probably could benefit from psychiatric intervention but I vehemently decline, thank you — why would I want to have potato salad full of germs?!?

Then I thought to myself: why in the world do we call that country Germany? Its own residents call it Deutschland — why not us as well? Why do French people call it Allemagne? Why do Italians call it Germania?

If you believe what has been posted at Wikipedia, the answers are here; and the list of names which other people call Germany are listed here

…but that is not the point. Origins of names are fine — but why not agree on one name as determined by the citizens of that country?

Why do French people call the United States les États-Unis? Why do people who speak Spanish call the United States estados unidos? Yes, I do realize that those are the literal translations of United States in French and Spanish respectively — I can survive rather well in countries where French is the main language and I was able to get by on Spanish in several countries as well — but why do they not just call the United States the United States?

DeutschlandEspaña. Sverige. Nippon — or perhaps Nihon. These are a few examples of what we should all be calling Germany, Spain, Sweden and Japan respectively. Whatever the citizens call their country is the name which we should use, in my opinion.

This way of thinking derives from my determination to call a person by the name in which he or she should be called. If someone is named Eduardo, I am not going to call him Eddie, for example — unless, of course, Eddie is how he wants me to call him. When someone warns me that his or her name is difficult to pronounce, I usually say “try me.” Whether or not I botch up the attempt, the person is usually appreciative and sometimes impressed.

For me, the same is true with language. When in Roma — not Rome — literally do and say as the Romans do. I find that people are more receptive when I attempt to speak to them in their native language — even if I know only a few words — and that includes the name of their country.

This is not without precedent. Remember when Beijing was once called Peking; or Mumbai was called Bombay? While the name change was more political, remember when Zimbabwe was called Rhodesia?

Perhaps we should consider calling a country — or a state, city, town, province or any other place — by the name its citizens prefer to use. Perhaps an exception could be granted for countries which some people might find difficult to pronounce.

Is this an idea worthy of consideration — or is this simply an example of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”? Are the dozens of different names for each country too charming that having simply one name would be too — well — homogenized? Please share your thoughts, as I am hoping that this will spark some interesting and thoughtful discussion — and I do realize that what I have posted here could be only the “tip of the iceberg”, so to speak.

In the meantime, I intend to continue to call the names of places as used by their citizens when I speak them — especially when I am traveling there…

…but should I use the transliterated names of those places as pronounced in the native languages when writing articles here at The Gate?

8 thoughts on “Language: Why Do We Name Places As We Do?”

  1. Christian says:

    While visiting a place, yes it’s a nice courtesy to pronounce any local names as close to the native way as possible. What bothers me is when people try to carry that back home. If I’m talking to someone, I don’t need to hear about travels to Roma or Creta or whatnot. It just makes someone sound pretentious.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      That is a good point, Christian. I can see how others would interpret that as being pretentious.

  2. Ryan says:

    I love languages and the history of them, so questions like this really interest me.

    I’d like to learn more about native names of places and think it’s good to try and spread information about those names. My suggestion for your blog might be to use the English and “native” name together, at least for the less commonly known ones. Maybe some such as “Roma” that might be more well known even in English, you could use standalone.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      I already do what you suggest with other names and forms of terminology, Ryan; so I might consider doing just that — without attempting to sound pretentious, of course.

      Thank you for your suggestion.

  3. Andrew says:

    I am American living in Nihon. While I am generally referred to as “amerika-jin” (American person), on my official documents I am “beikoku-jin” (Official name of The United States. The literal meaning is Rice Nation)

    Even here the exact pronunciation and usage of “nihon” differs depending on the situation. As an example: The 3/11 earthquake is Higashi Nihon Daishin Sai (East Japan giant quake disaster). Later signs of encouragement read “Ganbaro Nippon” (Let’s work together Japan)

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      “Rice nation”? I did not realize that that is the literal meaning of the official name given to the United States in Japanese, Andrew — and I have been to Japan. That is rather interesting. Why would the United States be known as the rice nation?

      The interchangeable use of Nihon and Nippon is interesting; but then again, Americans interchangeably use the names America and United States; so I suppose that is not much different…

  4. Jeff says:

    I agree with Christian. “When in Roma” works both ways. If you are writing to Americans, as an American, and you are speaking in a way that is clearly different and you clearly believe is “better” – sorry man, it just comes across a little (lot) self-important.

    That doesn’t mean your idea isn’t thought-provoking, but absent a movement to homogenize naming worldwide it just comes off as pretentious.

    As it would if you just decided to start reporting all of your travel in the metric system. You can be right and still come off pretentious.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      Yeesh, Jeff — give someone a centimeter and they take a kilometer!

      Actually, I agree with you as I did with Christian. What are your thoughts about the idea suggested by Ryan?

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