International City Names

Over the latest decade, many main cities in India have changed names. Calcutta is now Kolkata, Bombay is Mumbay, and Madras is Chennai. The rationale is primarily nationalistic; apparently Indians have a wish to distance themselves from their former British colonial masters. Which of course makes sense, but only to an extent. For even though English is widely spoken in India (especially at call centers), the cities are still Indian, with Indian names. Why do they care what the rest of us call them?

Foreign names for local cities is hardly confined to the Indian subcontinent. In English, Firenze is Florence, Köln is Cologne, and København is Copenhagen. Even in Danish, we call Venezia Venedig, and Lisboa is Lissabon. The point is, you don’t expect people to pronounce names in their original language anyway.

In Chinese, apparent name changes are not due to politics, but to linguistics. The Pinyin romanization technique has long ago replaced Wade-Giles (except in Hong Kong and Taiwan) to make latin renderings of written Chinese more accurate. Thus, it is not Peking but Beijing, not Kwangchow but Guangzhou, not Tientsin but Tianjin.

So, my message to India: get real. We don’t care about the names of your cities. If we call it Calcutta or Bombay, it is not because we hate you. Why not spend your time battling corruption and poverty or fixing your infrastructure in stead?


Author: Kenneth Mollerup Birch

Living north of Copenhagen, Denmark. MA in Information Science. Interests include communication, internet, sociology, language, politics, religion, theology, travel, music, and food.

4 thoughts on “International City Names”

  1. Notice, however, that if a language has more global asperations it will usually asert its own name for a foreign place. For example, English and French, will almost always have its own name foreign city of consequence (Århus simply is important enough to get its own English name). Danish often follows German (for example Venedig and Neaple), or else leaves the place name ‘unaltered’.

    The most annoying thing, however, is when foreign languages follow other foreign languages in naming places. For example, the Flemish city of Brugge is called Bruge in English derived from the French name of the city (Ok know Belgium with is two languages is not a good example, but its the only one I can think of right now). Copenhagen is derived (I belive) from the German Kopenhagen.

  2. Sorry I meant to say:

    “will almost always have its own name for a foreign city of consequence” and “Århus simply is not important enough to get its own English name”.

    Kenneth, there should be a delete button in your comments section for people like me ;-).

  3. Yes, the larger the language, the more likely it is to find multiple names. Sadly, Århus is too small, while Gothenburg (Göteborg) makes the list. So does Elsinore (Helsingør), but that’s more likely due to Shakespeare.

    The same goes for the size of the country. In Mandarin, the U.S. is called Meiguo (meaning “beautiful country”), while Denmark is just Danmai (a transliteration).

    And as for English borrowing its names from intermediate languages, that’s hardly confined to place names. Pretty much any word in English is taken from somewhere else, as my old Latin teacher would be more than eager to point out.

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