The language of the world: foreign place names

There’s a question that has been bothering me for some time – why is it that when we draw maps of the world, we anglicise most of the names of towns, and countries, instead of naming them as the locals do?

Why, for instance, do we call Deutschland, “Germany”, and what is the reason for referring to the city of Munchen as “Munich?”. Sverige we call “Sweden”, Norge we call “Norway”, and Espana we know of as “Spain”, and so it goes on.

Even more confusing than most, is the country we refer to as “Holland”. I should think even the locals must wonder sometimes, just who they are. Although we often call it Holland, that piece of land is actually only a district of the country known to locals as Nederland (which we call the Netherlands), and then, to cap it all off, the people of the country aren’t ‘Holls’ or ‘Nethers’, or even ‘Netherlanders’, they’re Dutch! Try to figure all that out!

I fully appreciate it would be impossible to write Chinese, Japanese or Arabic place names, in the form of writing they employ, but I often wonder if the pronunciation we use is the same as these people say the names. Or are we again anglicising it to suit ourselves? The city we call Shanghai may be pronounced by the Chinese as “yang-pe-won-tu” for all I know (I hope I haven’t just written a Chinese swear word!) and I wonder how many foreigners, looking at an English language atlas, wonder at the names we give to their towns, cities and landmarks.

Even major features of the landscape get much the same treatment: the locals know Mount Everest as “Chomolungma”, while Romans know their river (the Tiber to us) as “Tevere”. To Latin Americans the River Plate is “Rio de la Plata”, and travel to North Africa and the large area of sand you will cross is apparently know to Libyans or Moroccans as “as-Sahra al-kubra”, not the Sahara.

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It looks so far, as if I am blaming just the British for this misspelling and mispronunciation in all sorts of publications, but of course, most other countries around the world do exactly the same thing with our place names. The French for instance, call England “Angleterre” and London they know as “Londre”, while the German for Great Britain is “Großbritannien”. Even we Australians, who write the names of English places exactly as the English themselves do, manage to add our own brand of interpretation. Take for instance the town of Launceston in Tasmania we pronounce it just as it’s spelt – “Lawn-cest-on”, but anyone brought up in or around the original town in Devon, will tell you it should be pronounced “Lawn-stun”, just as Gloucester is pronounced “Gloster”, (strangely, Australians usually get that one right!).

So, there’s the question – why do we, and other countries and languages do it? Is there some special reason that I’ve not heard about? Does it all derive from the time when very few people could read? I just don’t know and I’m hoping one of the clever members of Starts At Sixty will be able to come up with some factual answers!

It’s up to you, guys and gals!


What do you think? Should we have anglicised maps or should we give the official place name according to the language of the area? Tell us below.