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March 08, 2007

When Names / Spellings Change

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

So what do you do when names of places or spellings change?

Do you go along with the change? Or do you dig in your heels and retain the old ways?

Here are some examples of name changes: Ceylon is now Sri Lanka. Burma is now Myanmar. Bombay in now Mumbai. Saigon is now Ho Chi Minh City.

As for spelling, romanized Chinese used to be the Wade-Giles system (still used by the Republic of China), but over the last quarter-century it has been supplanted by the People's Republic of China backed Pinyin system.

Examples: The Great Helmsman, Mao Tse-Tung is now Mao Zedong. The cities Peking and Chungking are now Beijing and Chongqing.

Culturally-insensitive me, I tend to stick to the old ways -- what I learned when young. However I sometimes adopt the new on the basis of sheer whimsy.

And you?



posted by Donald at March 8, 2007


It depends on the situation. I have no trouble with Beijing and the other Chinese names because as I understand it the "new" names are much closer to the actual pronunciations than were the old names like Peking. Sri Lanka sounds okay, in part because Ceylon was mainly before my time. I haven't really given much thought to the Indian names such as Mumbai and Chennai - come to think of it, were they changed due to pronunciation reasons like Beijing, or for some other reason?

What I don't like are names that are changed for strictly political reasons, such as Myanmar and Tshwane. I'll make an exception for Ho Chi Minh City, as Saigon carries such unhappy connotations for America.

Posted by: Peter on March 8, 2007 1:13 PM

I tend to defer to people living there as "owners" of their spellings and names. Likewise with spellings of people. You can't go to Antawn Jamison and tell him that he is really Antoine Jamison or refer to him as such. I don't see why that does not apply to places as well. It does get a bit tedious if it jumps around too often. But often in these cases, the name changes are caused by the departure of a colonial or external power and replacement by a native power or sometimes by a different external power. It would be interesting to see if acceptance of the new name/spelling correlates with acceptance of the new regime. BTW, I don't know of anyone who wants to refer to Istanbul as Byzantium or Constantinople except when referring to historical contexts.

But pronunciation of these names is a trickier affair. We don't pronounce Detroit as Day-thrwa, so that is one example of a name pronunciation change that has been accepted. However, foreigners don't refer to Paris as Puh-ree and Milan as Milano. What is up with that?

Posted by: JM on March 8, 2007 1:58 PM

Important cities need to be discussed in languages other than their own, so it makes perfect sense for other peoples' names for those cities to be adapted for frequent use by their tongues. So the Turinese were shooting themselves in the foot before the recent Olympics, implying that their city was a mere village compared to Rome, Milan, Florence, Naples, Venice, Genoa and Syracuse (i.e., Roma, Milano, Firenze, Napoli, Venezia, Genoa, Siracusa, all of which are comfortable with their English, and other foreign, names.) Glancing at the Dutch press throughout the Games, I noticed that the town was consistently spelled "Turijn".

Chris Patten (whom I hope I don't have to introduce) refused to say "Beijing" because "there already exists a word in the English language for the capital of China"== i.e., Peking.

"Beijing" has two problems-- it doesn't start with a true B, but an unaspirated P, which only occurs in English after an S. And the J is unpronounceable by Anglophones-- though some might recognize it as like the "soft D" in Slavic tongues, or the GY in Hungarian (e.g., Magyar, Nagy.) "Peking" was actually based on the Cantonese word for "northern capital", "Pa-king" (with the same unaspirated P at the start. It's just as legitimate as "Beijing", and a whole lot easier for us to say.

It will take centuries, if ever, to imbue "Sri Lanka" and "Mumbai" with the same romance as "Ceylon" and "Bombay". As an amateur student of marketing, I'd say this is commercial suicide.

Posted by: Reg Cæsar on March 8, 2007 5:18 PM

I was fortunate to survive change of geographic name in 3 cities I used to live in former SU; in all cases it happened per this scheme: historic name->bureucrats'-invented new name (usually some communist-bloodsucker-related)->back to original historic name.
So: never despair, Donald. I don't lose hope that we'll live to see Ho Chi Minh City returning to a beautiful "Saigon".

Posted by: Tat on March 8, 2007 5:41 PM

A lot of this stuff really scrapes my carrot. For instance, the thing with "BCE" and "ACE" is ridiculous. I'm not going along with this one. I still put "B.C." and "A.D." on all my relevant labels and web summaries of historical material. I'm still not all that fired up about "Ms." I only use it in correspondence where the woman has first used it. And how about all these new replacements for "street"? Trace? Manor? Trail? Whew!

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on March 8, 2007 5:55 PM

"Beijing" has two problems-- it doesn't start with a true B, but an unaspirated P, which only occurs in English after an S.

More precisely, anywhere other than the beginning of a stressed syllable.

Chinese doesn't have a 3-way voicing distinction, does it? Korean, which I'm studying, doesn't, and some of the voiceless unaspirated stops, for some speakers, come out very much voiced. In any case, the new romanization system with "b/p" (rather than the old "p/p'") makes a lot more sense to me. A foreigner articulating [b] for [p] in Mandarin isn't going to have a communication problem if the language doesn't have a [b], but if she articulates [ph] for [p] she probably will.

Posted by: J. Goard on March 8, 2007 7:52 PM

I agree with Charlton: most of it's a crock of political correctness. Do people in the USA think that people in China, for example, don't have their own names for cities (and famous people) in the USA and Europe? Of course they do, and there's little if any attempt made to ape actual English (or French or Swedish or whatever) pronunciation. They choose names that are easy to say in Chinese. I see no reason for English speakers to do otherwise.

Having said that, contra Chris Patten, it's too late for 'Peking'; Beijing has taken over more or less completely. To use Peking now is to make an overt political statement as well.

Posted by: mr tall on March 8, 2007 8:47 PM

I'm still trying to wrap my head around "Mumbai." Does it really mean "Bombay"? I mean, I know intellectually that it does. But on a human level, I'm convinced that they're two different cities.

And how about some other terminology switcheroos? We seem finally past the era when every female over the age of five had to be referred to, and with an earnest face, as a "woman." What a weird time that was. I remember I was doing some lap swimming once, and a woman in my lane was all over the place -- she didn't seem to know lap-swimming etiquette. I tried to talk to her about it with a "Excuse me, lady" intro, and she exploded at me. She was offended that I was calling her "lady." Of course we never got around to the fact that she was screwing up the swimming lane.

The evolution of "Negro" to "black" to "African-American" is another one that annoys me (in a minor way, of course). It's like every couple of decades, the Dept. of Public Relations for Black People decides that it would do their clients some good to rebrand themselves. It's mildly irksome to have to submit meekly to this kind of p-r nonsense. Besides, there are a really absurd number of syllables in "African-American." Who can really use the term offhandedly in casual conversation? It's too much of a mouthful. But maybe that's the point. I wonder how black people generally feel about the term. Not all of them love it. I know one eminent dark-skinned man who really likes thinking of himself (and being referred to) as a "Negro." He finds the term accurate, descriptive, and dignified.

A propos of almost nothing, I remember talking once with one Native American and stumbling over the term "Native American." "It's OK to call us 'Indians'," she said to me. "I hereby give you permission to do so." She had a good laugh about that.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 8, 2007 8:51 PM

Yeah, and what do you call an "African-American" from Germany? No, there's no punchline. :)

There's a huge difference in my mind between adjusting transliteration systems and thoroughly changing names. The felt need to plaster your ideology over already named things is inversely related to the quality of your belief system. (Yes, this applies to "Cesar Chavez Blvd.") I live close to a highly secularized -- certainly not Catholic-dominated -- part of the world where half the town names start with "San" or "Santa". I've yet to meet a liberal atheist who feels that it's a pressing matter to change "Santa Cruz" to "Dawkinsburg".

Posted by: J. Goard on March 8, 2007 9:37 PM

I prefer the old names when the change is made for some regrettable political reason (Myanmar/Burma by the junta, or Mumbai/Bombay by the Hindu nationalists).

That said, the Wade-Giles system of romanization is entirely unlike modern (putonghua) Chinese pronunciation. I'm not sure where the ideas about Beijing's pronunciation come from, but after studying Chinese for half a decade (and working at the embassy in Beijing for a spell), I'm quite sure that Beijing can be easily (and correctly) pronounced by English speakers as Bay-jeeng. The b sounds nothing like a p, and the j is very close to the standard English j. A few pinyin letters, like c and r, and devilishly difficult for non-Chinese to pronounce, however.

The real problem with Beijing is that it's often pronounced as if it's were French: "beige-ing". This is wholly incorrect. Indeed, that -ge sound from beige doesn't even exist in Chinese.

(As for Chinese names of US cities, try Niuyue, Luoshangjie and Zhijiage on for size. Hint: those are the 3 biggest cities in the states!)

Posted by: cure on March 8, 2007 10:51 PM

Is the Mandarin R all that "devilish"? I housed with Chinese students in the US for a few years, and heard Mandarin and other dialects every day. That R sounded awfully familiar-- it's the closest thing to an English R I've ever heard in any foreign language.

Every other language either trills it (Spanish, Swedish), swallows it (French, Danish), alternates them (Carioca Portuguese) or a blends them (German). R is either "tonguey" or "throaty", except in Mandarin and English, which might be called "lippy".

Getting back to eponyms, try throwing "Abyssinia", "Persia", "Siam" or "Cipangu" into your next conversation...

Posted by: Reg Cæsar on March 9, 2007 2:05 AM

I like "the Argentine" and "the Levant" myself.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 9, 2007 3:29 AM

See if I care what the thugs ruling far Cathay say. Sod 'em. And Gomorrah 'em too.

Posted by: dearieme on March 9, 2007 10:26 AM

Regarding Indian city name changes:
Chennai is a different name than Madras. So it is not a pronunciation correction. The state has a tradition of naming its bigger cities with a trailing "ai". So when a city grows big enough, it gets a shortened name that ends with "ai". Thanjavur is Thanjai, Koyamputtur is Kovai, Thirunelveli is Nellai, Madurai is, well, Madurai. From what I remember, people thought "Madras" was of Portuguese origin, whereas Chennai is derived from the name of a local temple deity.

Bombay -> Mumbai is a pronunciation change. I believe the city name was based on the name of another local temple deity, Mumba Devi. You could call it a reversion to a more original name, though to me, Bombay just sounds fine.

Calcutta -> Kolkata is another pronunciation change that is a reversion to local norms.

While the Mumbai name change may have been done (I don't know) at the behest of Hindu nationalists, the Chennai and Kolkata name changes were effected by people as far removed from Hindu nationalists as you can find in India.

Posted by: JM on March 9, 2007 12:17 PM

I agree with cure about regrettable political reasons, and I always find it grimly amusing when people eager to support the oppressed Third Worlders in their struggle with Western Imperialism nag you to say "Myanmar," seemingly unaware that it's the junta who wants that version, and Aung San Suu Kyi, everybody's favorite heroic democrat, prefers "Burma." (Not to mention the fact that nobody says "Myanmar" correctly, since the final -r is one of those annoying British-inspired long-vowel indicators, and it should be simply Myanma.)

In general, I think it's pretty pathetic that English speakers leap onto every bandwagon that comes along: "Ooh, ooh, make us say Beijing! Now Kolkata! And Myanmar too, oh yeah baby, that gets me hot!" I'm all for cosmopolitanism and politeness, but not when it comes to changing perfectly good English names for cities, especially since nobody seems to think foreign countries should return the favor. You want me to say Beijing? Fine, you start by saying New York instead of Niuyue. No, no, "York," with a -k... I know you can do it!

Posted by: language hat on March 9, 2007 5:53 PM

Re Chinese r:

Many languages have substantial dialectal and individual variation in the range of "r" sounds. This is probably because some articulations are physiologically difficult for some people, and because the sounds produced are pretty close, but I'm certainly not expert enough to speculate.

According to my sources, Mandarin speakers vary primarily between a retroflex approximant (written like an inverted "r" with a rightward hook on the bottom) and a voiced retroflex fricative (z with the same hook). The former is a substantial variant in American English (although I personally find it pretty awkward), so Reg's comment makes sense. The latter is probably pretty tricky for English speakers, who aren't used to having a retroflex tongue make contact with the palate. I have no idea about the distribution across the Mandarin-speaking population, but if I listened to a sample, I could probably tell which the speaker is using.

Posted by: J. Goard on March 9, 2007 6:09 PM

Actually, I don't think many of my housemates were native Mandarin speakers; most came from the coast where they'd have spoken Shanghainese or Fukien or whatever. Mandarin was (slightly) foreign to them, too, and they all spoke English-- so maybe they were imposing the English R on the Peking dialect?

Posted by: Reg Cæsar on March 10, 2007 2:51 PM

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