Foreign place names (1)


The discussion about Beijing and/or Peking rumbles on, and leads to the more general question of how we can decide what to call geographical locations in foreign countries. This doesn’t just apply to English, but to any language.

So far as I can see, there are only five ways of naming, and this post will not have room to deal with all of them.

The most arrogant, colonialist, way is to ignore the native name, and impose a new one. This  happened with Mount Everest, Ayer’s Rock, and many other places outside Europe in countries that Europeans “discovered”, mainly from the 15th century on. In some cases, of course, the native name may not have been known, and there may even not have been a name. Did Greenland have a name before the Vikings went there? Did the Inuit have a name for it?

The second way is to translate the name into one’s own language. Obviously this only works if the name is already transparently a vocabulary word or phrase. For instance, the English name Greenland is a direct translation of the Old Norse. Similarly, New Zealand is called Nouvelle Zélande in French.

The third way is to borrow the name from another language. So in English, the German city of Köln is Cologne, borrowed from French.

The other two ways derive from the language of the “owners” of the name, and I shall discuss these in my next post.


  1. Regarding Greenland.

    I believe that the ancestors of the modern Inuit were not in Greenland when the Norse arrived. I think there were other people there, but they were not the ancestors of today’s Greenlanders.

    Also, what about “Leghorn” aka Livorno. What is the deal with that?

  2. Interesting post. I can already see a few potential problems with the various approaches for place-naming, which likely have lead to the variations that already occur. Languages that don’t have similar sound inventories, and are strict about adopting new words/sounds, will reinterpret the foreign place name as is necessary to conform to the phonological rules of their language. It reminds me of how “Merry Christmas” in Hawaiian is interpreted as “Mele Kalikimaka”, which is just about as close as it can get without breaking some rules. Also, many of the foreign place names could be mistranslated, resulting in a folk-etymology-like situation (ex. “asparagus” in the US is “sparrow-grass” in England). And of course there’s all the sociolinguistic factors that will weigh heavily in the naming debates.

    I think it’s pretty darn interesting stuff, and I will be looking forward to anything more you have to say on it.

    (Also, just wondering, why does the box under “Leave a reply” say “URI” instead of “URL”?)

  3. Looking forward to a lively discussion. Don’t post without reading Grant Hutchison’s Himalaya/Himahlya piece, though :^)

  4. Some Finnish exonyms seem a bit strange. Itävalta (“Eastern power”) for Austria is just a calque based on Österreich; but others — perhaps unsurprisingly, they refer to neighbouring countries — are less easy to guess. Ruotsi (Sweden) is, I believe, derived from the coastal region of Sweden called Roslagen (this resembles the English use of Holland for the Netherlands). But Venäjä (Russia) is rather more obscure: is it related to vehnä (wheat)? Almost uniquely among the names of countries in Finnish, Venäjä is inflected using the set of cases meaning “on” rather than those meaning “in”. So in Finnish you say Ruotsissa (in Sweden), but Venäjällä (“on” Russia).

  5. Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

  6. Anyway, i do like Beijing name, its more appealing, imho )

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