© 2014 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
In previous installments, we've looked at all kinds of things that we take for granted, sometimes on a daily basis. This time, we'll look at the names by which some things are known. These include people, countries, and geographic features, among other things. In some cases, the same thing may have different names or have essentially the same spelling, but with a different pronunciation.
Mention to a native English speaker the term English Channel and it's a good bet they'll know you are referring to the body of water separating England and France. However, some months ago, I was looking at that waterway from the French side, in Brittany, and there they referred to is as la Manche.
Meanwhile, the Dutch call it
Het Kanaal, and the Spanish el canal de la Mancha. Similarly, from time to time, we hear the term Baltic States used, and many of us think Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, all of which border on the Baltic Sea. However, the Germans and Swedes refer to that body of water as the East Sea (die Ostsee and Östersjön, respectively).
On my first trip to Amsterdam, I decided to go in search of the famous Van Gogh Museum. Now I've found that the vast majority of Dutch people speak a reasonable amount of English, so along the way I stopped and asked a local for directions. He replied that he'd never heard of the place. I said that surely he'd heard of the world-famous Dutch painter van Gogh. But no, apparently not. I persisted and after more discussion, I learned that I was using the English pronunciation. In Dutch, it is something like van Hhhoch. That is, the two g's are pronounced differently from each other and different from the hard-g sound in English. (Similarly, the Dutch town Gouda—and its famous cheese—is pronounced Hhhouda in Dutch.)
My final example here has to do with road signs in countries or areas that are bilingual, such as Finland, Wales, and Ireland. In general, the two names for the same town look nothing like each other.
This is the age of the Internet; browsing web pages and sending email are parts of many peoples' daily lives. Now while many website and email addresses end in ".com", that suffix is used primarily by US-based entities. (Certainly, control of the allocation of such names lies in US hands.) As such, each country has a 2-character country code, so it can have its own unique addresses. For example, the official website of the British Monarchy is www.royal.gov.uk, that for the German Parliament (the Bundestag) is www.bundestag.de, and Honda's Japanese home is www.Honda.co.jp. As such, we deduce that the respective country codes for these countries are uk, de (Deutschland), and jp. [In fact, the country code for the UK is gb, but uk is also reserved.] When used in an Internet context these codes are not case-sensitive. That is, uk, UK, Uk, and uK are equivalent. By the way, as you travel around the world to various tourist attractions, you'll often find guide/souvenir books for sale. The language in which they are written is usually indicated by an abbreviation. For English, that abbreviation is GB!
The complete list of official 2-character country names in English is defined by the standard ISO 3166-1 alpha-2. Consider the codes for Australia (au) and Austria (at). One can argue a strong case this these can be confusing. As such, a 3-character version—ISO 3166-1 alpha-3—was introduced. In this, Australia (aus) and Austria (aut) are more distinguishable.
From an English-centric point-of-view, most of the 2-character codes are obvious. However, some require a bit of detection to recognize and understand. Here are some such examples: Algeria: dz (from the colloquial Arabic word Dzayer), Cambodia: kh (the home of the Khmer people), Chad: td (known in French and Arabic as Tchad), Croatia: hr (Hrvatska in Croatian), Estonia: ee (Eesti in Estonian), South Africa: za (Zuid-Afrika in Dutch), Spain: es (España in Spanish), and Switzerland: ch (from the Latin Confoederatio Helvetica).
Changes over Time
Some countries and place names have changed over the years, and some have even reverted to older names. For example:
- In elementary school, I learned that Ceylon was a great exporter of tea. Now it's Sri Lanka.
- Persia became Iran; however, after the US-hostage crisis, the Iranian taxi drivers at Washington National Airport suddenly became "Persian" to distinguish themselves from the modern-day Iranians.
- Abyssinia became Ethiopia.
- The African state of Tanganyika became Tanzania.
- The boundaries of Transjordan changed and it became Jordan.
- At its beginning, Australia was called New Holland (and its island state, Tasmania, was Van Diemen's Land).
- Northern Rhodesia became Zambia.
- Southern Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, an old tribal name.
- The military government of Burma decided to call its country Myanmar.
- In 1947, East and West Pakistan were spun off from India, and after a civil war, East Pakistan became the independent nation of Bangladesh. (Pakistan was initially referred to as Pakstan, which came from the following province names: Punjab, Afghania Province, Kashmir, Sindh, and Baluchistan.)
- The former Yugoslavia was (eventually) broken up into Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia. However, as Greece has its own province called Macedonia, it refuses to acknowledge the name of the independent country claiming the same name. As such, many maps show the country name as "the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM)".
- Anatolia became Turkey.
- What was Siam is now Thailand.
- Cathay became China.
- Modern-day Iraq came from Mesopotamia.
- The island of Formosa became the country of Taiwan.
- French Indo-China became Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.
- Malaya plus Singapore became Malaysia, and when Singapore split off, what remained is still Malaysia.
- British Somaliland became Somalia.
- Namibia was formerly Damaraland and German South-West Africa.
- Hawaii was formerly called the Sandwich Islands (named for Captain James Cook's benefactor, The Earl of Sandwich).
- Present-day Belize was once British Honduras.
- Part of the New Hebrides became Vanuatu.
- Kiribati was formerly the Gilbert Islands.
- The Ellice Islands are now called Tuvalu. (Interesting, its country code, tv, is used by certain TV-related businesses!)
- The Dominican Republic was formerly known as Santo Domingo, the name of its current capital.
A quick look at my 1900 Rand-McNally World Atlas shows the following country names that no longer seem to be around: Dalmatia, Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, Galicia, Transylvania, and Transcaucasia. (By the way, at that time, Ireland was part of the UK; and Poland, Finland, and the Czech Republic did not exist, but Prussia did. And the Arabian Peninsula was yet to be carved up.)
A number of well-known cities have had their names changed as well. I grew up with Peking and Bombay, but now they're Beijing and Mumbai, respectively. Of course, Constantinople became Istanbul, and Edo became Tokyo. St. Petersburg became Leningrad and then back again. Likewise, Volgograd became Stalingrad before reverting. Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, was renamed to Titograd and back. And the East Prussian city of Königsberg became the Russian city Kaliningrad.
Closer to home, some 25 years ago when rural roads in northern Virginia were given names as well as route numbers, Route 287 became Berlin Turnpike. Apparently, that was its name many years earlier, when it lead to Brunswick (formerly Berlin), Maryland.
Going back to Biblical times, we have cities and states like Carthage, Nubia, Thrace, and Troy. (Ironically, in the US, Trojan is a brand name for condoms, so the esteemed name lives on! I can see Helen of Troy doing a commercial for them: "Just the thing to take on a hot date with a good-looking Greek!")
Differences between Languages or Cultures
I love the topic of geography, especially maps, and when I travel abroad, I like to look at maps in the local language. I certainly have trouble finding places I know. Those darn foreigners have names for everything! For example:
- What the English-speaking world calls Holland is really The Netherlands (of which two provinces are North and South Holland). From my experience, people from Germanic-language countries use names that look much like one of these two. However, the French name is Pays Bas and the Spanish name is Países Bajos, meaning "low countries", as in "nether lands".
- Of course, most of us are familiar with Deutschland being the German name for Germany. Some of its neighbors call it Aleman or some such. However, the Danes call it Tyskland and its language Tysk. However, the Italians call it Germania and its language tedesco.
- What I call Munich the Germans call München.
- London is known as Londres.
- Capetown is Kapstadt.
- And Cologne is the alter ego of Köln.
- The Finns refer to Finland as Suomi.
- The Germans call Hungary
- Geneva can be Genf.
- In Spanish, England, Wales, and Scotland become Inglaterra, Gales, and Escotia, respectively.
- To the French, the United Kingdom is Le Royaume Uni.
- What the English-speaking world knows as the United States (US) is known as VR to the Germans (Die Vereinigten Staaten) and the Dutch (Verenigde Staten), as EU to the French (Les États-Unis), and as EE.UU. to Spanish speakers (Los Estados Unidos).
- Of course, USSR stands for the United Soviet Socialist Republic. So why then do Russians write it as CCCP. Actually, it's a trick question: In this case, the letters CCCP are from the Cyrillic alphabet not the Latin one, so with the Cyrillic C being equivalent to the English S, and P the R, we have, in Russian, Soyuz Sovetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik. That is, SSSR in English, which is CCCP in Cyrillic.
- What I know as Copenhagen, the Danes call København.
- The Italians like to have their own names too, for example: Firenza (Florence), Roma (Rome), and Napoli (Naples).
- Drive a BMW? Well, they come from the Bayerische Motoren Werke (Bavarian Motor Works) whose initials in German just so happen to be the same as in English.
- Ask an Argentinian about the Falkland Islands and they might take offence. They call those islands the Malvinas.
- The country I call Belarus, the Germans call Weißrussland.
- The city I know as Bratislava, the Germans call Preßburg.
The Danube River is well known. However, as it meanders across Europe, it goes through some name changes: It rises in Germany where it is called the Donau. It goes on to become Duna, Dunaj, Dunav, Дунав, Dunărea, Дунáй, and Tuna before it reaches the Black Sea.
We've seen a number of examples of common abbreviations being different across languages. I'll leave you with one more, from the main railway company in Switzerland. Is it the SBB, the CFF, or the FFS? The answer is YES! As the Swiss have three main official languages— German, French, and Italian—and a fourth minority one called Romansch, the company is called Schweizerische Bundesbahnen, Chemins de fer fédéraux suisses, or Ferrovie federali svizzere) depending on the language of the speaker.
Some years ago, I was traveling in a Spanish-speaking country, and I had the need to find someone's telephone number. So I located a directory and proceeded to search. However, unbeknownst to me, a Spanish person's name consists of a given name (sometimes called Christian name) followed by two family names (sometimes called surnames). Apparently, the first family name is the father's first family name, and the second the mother's first family name, except, of course, on Wednesdays that fall on a full moon! Of course, even that complicated rule is too simple. According to Wikipedia, "In Spain this order may now be reversed, according to a new gender equality law." It seems that the first family name is the formal/legal one, so use that when searching a list alphabetically.
We take for granted that certain people's names were exactly as we learned them. However, were the New Testament guys really called Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? Actually, they weren't; these are simply modern-day translations to "equivalent" English names. (The same goes for the names of Jesus' disciples.) For example, the popular English man's first name John might translate to Johannes, Giovanni, Ioan, Juan, João, Jean, Johan, Jan, Hans, Jens, Ieuan, Ifan, Ianto, Ioan, or Sîon. And William might translate to Wilhelm, Willelm, Williame, Willem, Guglielmo, Guillermo, Gwilym, or Liam. [Follow the two hyperlinks for more details.] In the case of William being Guillaume, I only learned that a few years ago when I visited the grave of the so-called "William the Conqueror" in Caen, Normandy, France.
If you'd like to know about the meaning of various family names in a number of languages, click here.
Some National Oddities
The UK (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) is a country made up of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Okay then, so what are those four entities? States? Provinces? But no, Wikipedia says England is a country and that is has its own national football team! It says the same about Scotland and Wales, but for Northern Ireland, it says, "It is variously described as a country, province or region of the UK, amongst other terms." Yet it has an entry for a Northern Ireland national football team. Can one country "contain" another country? Is there something funny going on that the Queen and Prime Minister are not telling us? [Yes, there is, but that is a whole other story!] If we look a bit harder, we find that Wikipedia has an entry for Countries of the United Kingdom in which it claims that the UK is a "sovereign state under international law" made up of four countries. Now that article goes on to say, "[These countries] … compete separately in many international sporting competitions, including the Commonwealth Games." However, I don't believe that's the case for the Olympics.
Now the British Crown has some dependencies (the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man) and overseas territories (which include Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Falkland Islands, and Gibraltar), but these are not part of the UK, per se. All of these appear to have their own 2-character country/internet codes.
Many people know that the US (United States of America) is made up of 50 states and a Federal Territory, the District of Columbia (or Washington DC). However, there are also populated and unpopulated territories, such as Puerto Rico, Guam, the US Virgin Islands, and Midway Atoll. (The inhabitants of some of the populated territories are not US citizens.) Although a US territory, Puerto Rico has country code PR, and competes in the Olympics as a separate entity.
According to Wikipedia, "The Kingdom of the Netherlands is a sovereign state … [whose] … four parts— Aruba, Curaçao, the Netherlands, and Sint Maarten—are referred to as countries. … [There are also] three special municipalities (Bonaire, Sint Eustatius, and Saba)." The four parts each have their own 2-character country/internet codes while the others share those for the Netherlands and the Netherlands Antilles.
So, when is a country not a country? It appears that the answer is "as clear as mud"!
Think Motown music and you think of the "motor town" of Michigan, USA, Detroit. Now pretty much everyone I know pronounces that name as de-troit or dee-troit, both with a hard 't' ending. A lot of that area was explored and settled by the French, so it is no surprise there are many names there having a French connection. The French word détroit means strait in English, as in a narrow waterway. For example, the waterway that flows from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and then on to the Mediterranean Sea is known in French as les
Détroits (The Straits), shown on maps as the Dardanelles and the Bosporus. In the case of the city of Detroit, the waterway flows from Lake Huron to Lake St. Clair and on to Lake Erie. In French, détroit is pronounced day-twa, which I think you will agree sounds much more sophisticated. Given its current sad situation, Detroit needs all the help it can get, so a more sophisticated name just might work.