Toponymic subjugation

Excessive politeness by Britons is making a mess of place names at home and abroad

Features Magazine
Cracow, Kraków, Cracovie, Krakau, Cracóvia or Krakovía —­but please, never “Krakow” (©Steve Allen Travel Photography / Alamy Stock Photo)

Widely-travelled people may well have some degree of familiarity with the European cities that Hungarians call Bécs, Czechs Kodaň, Poles Mediolan, and Lithuanians Kelnas—but they will probably not know them by those names. The local names are respectively Wien, København, Milano, and Köln—but none of those are normally used by English speakers, who instead say Vienna, Copenhagen, Milan and Cologne.

Places which have played a significant role in European history tend to have different names in different European languages. French speakers do not call the capital of England London but Londres. The Greeks call it Londino, the Italians Londra, and the Poles Londyn; in Albanian it is Londer, in Finnish Lontoo, in Lithuanian Londonas, and in Welsh Llundain. This plethora of names tells us that London must have been an important city in the European context for many centuries. Europeans wanted and needed to talk about London; they naturally talked about it in their own languages, and they thereby developed names for the city in those languages.

For a place to possess a range of exonyms—different names in other languages—is a sign of fame and distinction, and is not a privilege granted to humbler, lesser-known settlements. If most people in Lithuania have never heard of the Norfolk village of Little Snoring, they will not have a Lithuanian name for it.

This makes the current British tendency to ignore some of our centuries-old place-names puzzling. It is becoming increasingly common these days to write Lyon rather than Lyons, and Marseille rather than Marseilles. We can wonder why Ryanair fly to Basel rather than Basle—we might suspect that this is quite simply due to ignorance on the part of the airline of what the English-language name of this place is. And although EasyJet fly to Naples not Napoli, and to Turin rather than Torino, they do have flights to Thessaloniki rather than Salonica, presumably because they, too, do not know that that is what the city is called in English. It is true that the ancient capital of Aegean Macedonia is today called Thessaloniki in Greek. But it was formerly a very important centre of Sephardic Jewish culture, and the largest single linguistic group in the city before the First World War were Judeo-Spanish speakers who called the city Salonika. This city was also an important centre of South Slavic culture: its name in the South Slavic languages is Solun, while Turkish speakers—Kemal Atatürk was born there—call it Salonik.

‘For a place to possess a range of exonyms—different names in other languages—is a sign of distinction, a privilege not afforded to humbler settlements’

English exonyms are in retreat. We have long lost Callis (Calais), Leghorn (Ligorno) and Brunswick (Braunschweig). On the cusp of extinction now is the great cultural capital of southern Poland. British journalists and airlines have started calling Cracow “Krakow”. This reflects ignorance not only of the English exonym, but also of the Polish endonym Kraków, pronounced “crack-ooff”. Francophone, germanophone, lusophone and hellenophone writers have no such problems with their own languages, happily writing Cracovie, Krakau, Cracóvia and Krakovía instead.

But fluctuating place-name usage is not always due to something so innocent as ignorance, as the politically-inspired case of the Indian city of Bombay shows. Bombay has not “changed its name” to Mumbai, as is often said. Mumbai had already for many centuries been the name of the city in the local language, Marathi. English is one of the official languages of India—it is the major language of regional intra-communication. Yet the Indian government changed the official English-language name in 1995 under pressure from Marathi nationalists. They believed that the name Bombay was a legacy of British colonial oppression—even though the Hindi-language name is Bambai. Many Indians today continue to say Bombay when they are speaking English. Calcutta, too, which is still mostly known to writers in German and French by their respective exonyms Kalkutta and Calcutta, always had the Bengali-language name Kolkata. This is now being used in the British press after another official “name change”.

The real problem here is excessive politeness, a reaction against what Kaisa Rautio Helander, a linguistics professor in northern Norway, calls “toponymic subjugation”. In the far north of Norway, where the indigenous language is Sami and local places therefore very naturally have Sami names, such as Guovdageaidnu (Kautokeino in Norwegian and Finnish) and Girkonjárga (Norwegian Kirkenes), the centuries-long subjugation of Sami culture by Norwegian culture led for many decades to the invisibility of these names. Even in a highly democratic and human rights-conscious country, Sami-language settlement names have been slow to appear on road signs. This is now being corrected, reversing the earlier monolingual, monocultural ideology.

Britain has taken the same approach to Welsh place-names. We have become used to seeing road signs reading Caerdydd/Cardiff, Cas-gwent/Chepstow, Abertawe/Swansea. Gaelic-speaking regions of Scotland have bilingual signs too such as An t-Òban/Oban, Inbhir Nis/Inverness and Steòrnabhagh/Stornoway.

But it does not at all follow that English-speakers should abandon their long-established exonyms for significant foreign urban centres. English speakers do not say or write Steòrnabhagh instead of Stornoway. Similarly, we do not have to stop using the English name Basle (pronounced “Bahl”) to show our respect for that fine Swiss city. On the contrary, the exonym recognises the long-term historical importance and international fame of the town known in German as Basel. Francophone and italophone Swiss do the same when calling the city Bâle and Basilea. Nor would any Swiss person think of changing the description of the major western Swiss city called Genf (in German) Ginevra (in Italian) Genevra (Romansh) speakers and Genève (French).

Just as we recognise that city’s importance when we call it Geneva, and Venezia, Warszawa, Sevilla, and Athína by the use of Venice, Warsaw, Seville and Athens, we should signal the importance of Kraków by calling it Cracow, and of Thessaloniki by using the name Salonica. It would be sad if misplaced politeness reduced Europe’s great metropolitan cities to the single-endonym status of small English villages. How patronising is that?