The language of the world: foreign place names 32



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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.

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.

Brian Lee

  1. Brian, I think you answered your own question when you say all the other countries do it, too! Of course we write it in the Anglicised version as that is how we speak and what we we’re taught in school, just as the other countries learn places in their own native tongue. Can you imagine the mishmash of pronunciations if we all had to learn it in the native tongue – for a start the German Großbritannien would be butchered as most would have no idea that ß is pronounced ‘ss’ nor would they realise the rule with ‘ie’ and ‘ei’. Let’s keep it the way it is – that’s what makes us all unique 🙂

  2. Yes I noticed this particularly when I was in Florence which is really Firenze and Vienna is Wein.

    3 REPLY
    • And Venezia, Genova, Roma, and so many others just in Italy! And Wendy, that’s exactly why it would be impossible to get everyone to pronounce them correctly if they were written in their native tongue for atlases in different countries. And if you do it for our alphabet then rightfully we would need to use the Greek, Russian,every Middle Eastern, all Asian languages and any more with a different alphabet – bedlam!

    • When I’m in Scotland it’s Berrick. When I’m in Australia it’s Ber-wick. I don’t have a problem with that. To each his own pronunciation. When the trains went down the middle of the Mitchell Freeway in Perth the announcement for Glendalough Station was pronounced “Glendalock” as it is for the original Glendalough in Ireland. There was such an uproar that they changed it to “Glendalow” as it is here in WA. Go with what is familiar I say.

  3. Do all maps use English or are local one printed in local language

    2 REPLY
    • Local maps are written in the local language, ie German maps for Germans are written in German. Only maps in English speaking countries are written in English.

  4. Who cares it has worked all this time and as you said so do other countries. You must be getting desperate for topics to write about.

  5. When in Rome do as the Romans do but I agree Jeni Robinson, keep it the way it is while I’m still alive please:)

  6. Of course Brian, check a map made in Indonesia. They show Australia as “South Irian Jaya “

  7. I’ve been hearing some shocking Aussie versions of places lately, I though ‘Wimbleton’ was a classic (for Wimbledon) but I’ve actually had quite a few shocked ‘wow’ moments of sheer disbelief in the past year. Strange, young TV news and or presenters are so well travelled, no real excuse for it.

    1 REPLY
  8. It’s not pronounced Lawn-ces-ton in Tassie – it’s LON-ces-ton.

    3 REPLY
    • Heather – spot on. I was about to make the same point.

    • That is so, Heather. Don’t forget, though, there must be a huge number of people out of Awstralia who eat sawsages…!

  9. I found this to be an interesting topic. The word Germany comes from Germania, the Latin name for the area, named in the time of Julius Caesar. The German word Deutschland comes from the old German Diutisciu land. The word Munich is not just an anglicisation of München. It comes from the Latin Munichem! The Angles, the German tribe that came from Angeln in Schleswig-Holstein on the Baltic coast, moved to the island they called Angle land, which became England. The French continue to call it Angleterre, with “terre” meaning land. The Spanish call Germany Alemania, a word which derives from the name of the old German tribe, the Alemanni. If Hitler had won the war, he was planning to modernise and rename Berlin to be called “Germania” (with ‘g’ pronounced as in “get”)!

  10. There is a quaint town in Sussex called Arundel, which appears in street names in Australia. So many Aussies absolutely butcher this name and they say “a Rundle” instead of putting the emphasis on the first syllable! Awful. It comes from the river Arun and ‘del’, a suffix for valley.

  11. What a nonsense subject.
    We dont pronounce them as the locals do because we are not locals we speak English.
    Brian you are trying too hard to get stuff in print

    1 REPLY
    • Ah well, a little bit of nonsense really doesn’t do anyone any harm, so I’ll just carry on thanks! And I promise you I couldn’t care less whether I get anything published or not, I just write stuff or the sheer fun of it – it’s up to Starts at Sixty if they want to use it. Might help YOU to lighten up a bit!

      3 REPLY
      • Agreed with that. Life is too short to take everything completely seriously.

      • I enjoy your articles Brian 🙂 Don’t stop!

      • Keep up the good work, Brian. Apart from a minor problem with Lawnceston, it was a great article. Even that mispronunciation is understandable when you hear people call our country Awstralia.

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