Friday, March 13, 2015

A small grumble about place-names

I have been grumbling about this for a while. Why do we misname foreign places?  Why do we call Beograd Belgrade, Wien Vienna, Roma Rome and -- horror of horrors -- why do we call the historic Italian seaport of Livorno "Leghorn"?  That one always gets me.

None of those names are hard to say for anyone used to English phonetics only. And Nederland is easy to say too. But we insist on calling it Holland, or in our better moments "The Netherlands".  At least the latter is an accurate translation, I guess.  But to refer to the Nederlanders as "Dutch" is certainly "insensitive", to use the language of political correctness. The Dutch ("Deutsch") are in fact the Germans and there have been a few  "issues" between the Germans and the Nederlanders -- a small famine here and there -- that sort of thing.

Some renaming I can understand.  Muenchen contains a nasty German guttural so "Munich" is understandable. And mispronouncing Paris is sort of defensible too.  The Parisians pronounce it as "Paree" but why should we take any notice if that?  The fact that Paris is the most visited overseas city for the English doesn't count, of course. The English quite like their train rides between St. Pancras and the Gare du Nord but you mustn't take too much notice of those "Frogs" at the other end.

But the misnaming that has been bothering me lately is the renaming of Steiermark, a beautiful part of Austria's large Alpine region -- and much beloved of the still remembered Archduke Johann.  Why do we have to call it "Styria"?  How ugly!  And how needless.  There is nothing hard to pronounce in the original name.  If we can say Denmark, we can say Steiermark. Pronouncing it according to English rules won't get you the exact German pronunciation but it will be a lot better than "Styria".   Yes. I know that the name "Styria" is somehow derived from the city of Steyr (famous for its assault rifles) but Steyr lies OUTSIDE Steiermark.

Of course the English are not alone in renaming foreign parts.  Italians for instance refer to Paris as "Parigi".  I have no idea why.  An Italian can say "Paree" with perfect cease.

And we do make an effort with our own "difficult" place names.  You don't pronounce the "c" in Tucson, for instance.  And no Englishman pronounces "Worcester" as it is spelled.  He will always say "Wooster" -- and "Gloster" for Gloucester.  And Australian place names are at least as difficult as English ones -- mainly because many of them have Aboriginal origins.  Woolloongabba, where I live, is not pronounced well South of the Queensland border, for instance.  And you more or less have to live there to pronounce Mungindi correctly.

I could go on for many pages yet -- talking about Firenze, Modena, Sovietskaya Rossiya etc. -- but I guess we will just have to soldier on,  pronouncing the place names of half the world incorrectly -- JR.

Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.).

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