Saturday, February 1, 2014

What's in a name?

I confess to being a little caught out, sometimes, by the name changes that occur to countries and cities around the world. Age and habit probably have something to do with this. For example, even though I’m happy to speak of Beijing and Mumbai, the old names (Peking and Bombay for those freshly out of nappies) are still there inside my head, peaking (no pun intended) over my shoulder; and I may, occasionally, slip up.

I have no problem if a country wants to tell me what to call it. It’s their country, after all. They should know what it’s called. Some of the older names are simply poor attempts at transliteration and pronunciation. They should be corrected. Other name changes have a deeper significance, with historical and political connotations. Again, I think we should respect the wishes of people regarding their choice of name for their own country.

One of the difficulties is the lack of consistency here. I’m happy to call ‘Bombay’ ‘Mumbai’ and ‘Calcutta’ ‘Kolkata’, but is India really called ‘India’? Or should we be calling it ‘Bharat Ganrajya’? Why is it all right for the English speaking world to refer to Deutschland as ‘Germany’, or Österreich as ‘Austria’? How come the French get to call England ‘Angleterre’? Clearly some countries have as many names as there are languages. Why do some names matter and others don’t?

Recently it has become apparent that the Australian Government has reverted to calling the country of Myanmar by the colonial name of ‘Burma’. 

[See this blog post by Australian journalist, Michael Sainsbury:] 

Many will probably consider any objection to this as an excess of ‘political correctness’. But apparently there are strong historical and cultural reasons for the people of Myanmar to prefer this name, not least of which is probably to shake off their colonial past. Is it not polite (without having to be ‘politically correct’) to respect this? Perhaps the Prime Minister should be explaining to the people of Myanmar (and to us) why this change has been made. It wouldn’t be surprising if the people of Myanmar were to perceive this change as a typical example of western, colonial arrogance.

In the meantime, I would suggest to the people and government of Myanmar (and perhaps of other surrounding nations) that they revert to calling Australia ‘New Holland’.

1 comment:

  1. This is a very interesting post. I've been thinking about buying my son an endonymic poster of the world - a map that shows all of the names of the countries of the world, according to those countries.

    Great post!