The practice of not using the “home” language name for a country or city and using instead a different version from the language of the (foreign) speaker has struck me as culturally significant. I suspect it has something to do with Western imperialistic attitudes or even a broader arrogance towards foreigners.
The situation is complicated (as in our first example) by the use of non-Roman alphabetic or other character sets (e.g., Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Russian, Arabic, Greek) which then must be transcribed/transliterated into a Roman alphabetic form.
Other examples of countries insisting on using the home language spelling include India’s shift from Bombay to Mumbai (1995) and Calcutta to Kolkata (2001), Burma became Myanmar and Rangoon became Yangon in 1989. In both cases, these were delayed reactions to decolonization and the withdrawal of the influence of the British who ran both countries until the mid-20C.
My point here is about language. The British had a protectorate in what they called Swaziland from 1906 to 1968, it took another fifty years for the Swazi’s to change their country’s name to Eswatini (2018). More substantive name changes (e.g., Gold Coast to Ghana in 1957, Upper Volta to Burkina Faso in 1984) which often speak to a post-imperial identity, raise a similar but broader point. By the same token, this is different than just a matter of translating from a foreign language. Milk (Eng.) = lait (Fr.) = leche (Sp.) If two French speakers were discussing Wisconsin’s principal agricultural product, they would speak of “lait.” A bi-lingual discussion could use either one or both terms and if two English speakers were talking about French cows, they would speak of “milk” (except if they were ordering some concoction at Starbucks).
It seems to me that proper names are different, however. The practice is all over the map (so to speak). Why do English speakers use “Germany” (and French speakers “Allemagne”), not Deutschland? Is the capital of Italy best referred to as “Rome” or “Roma”? (I guess if we’re not in Roma, we don’t do as the Romans do!) The French take the Chunnel to Londres, not London.
Norge, Sverige, Suomi: These three Scandinavian countries have lots of etymological history with continental Europeans, so it’s no wonder that the latter had developed their own names for these countries despite the usage of the natives. I suspect that we could map cultural dominance over time by the common global usage of names of other places.
But, I’m more concerned with how most folks don’t seem to respect other’s choices as to names. There’s no particular reason to use “lait” in Wisconsin (especially given the predominance of Germanic language immigrants). In this case, English speakers derived “ from the Germanic “milch.” Regardless, there is an etymology for “milk,” just as there is for “blue” or “curry.” I guess I don’t understand why there is an etymology for “Roma” or “España.” Why should foreigners get to choose the name of a place in my country (or vice-versa)?
There’s an interesting parallel with the current controversies/confusion about respecting others’ choice of names and personal pronouns; which is, in my view, a matter of respecting an individual’s choices for how they want to be seen in society. The issue of names comes up pretty frequently in an academic environment (such as SF State) where we have students and employees from many heritages and students from a plethora of countries where (amazingly enough) they don’t speak English. It seems problematic to expect them to adopt “English” names just to “fit in.” Why should a Korean girl born “Shin-hye” be expected to be called “Susie” or some-such? “Rabindranath” does not equal “Robby,” any more than we would expect Andrea Bocelli to go by “Andy.” To be sure, names should be a matter of personal choice and a foreign student should be free to choose “Susie” if she wishes. At the same time, I am wary of situations where such students choose an English name out of embarrassment at seeing an instructor struggle to pronounce their actual name in a language with which the instructor is unfamiliar. It’s not too hard to make an effort; even if we come from the dominant language/culture on the planet.
It’s but another small step to the more fraught issue of gender identity. I think the same principle applies—the owner chooses—but personal pronouns are deeply embedded in our language and their recent proliferation across a multitude of gender identifications raises a bunch of challenges: remembering, new terms/new modes of self-identification, pace of social change, and generosity of spirit in dealing with others that I won’t dive into here. Our society is in flux and our language is flexing with it.
This set of issues illustrates some of the themes I have talked about over the past year, such as globalization and the complexity and dynamism of modernity. From a historical perspective, you may wonder what it was like adjust to the novel calendar adopted by the French Revolutionaries in 1793 or to be a female voting advocate in 1910. These were the commonplaces of historical change. You may be off to visit the biggest city in Italia or India, or talking to someone who’s name you have to consciously pronounce or referring to someone who looks like a “normal guy” who asks to be referred to as “they.” This is our version of social change. The phrase: “Gay Paris” no longer has the currency it once had; but perhaps we can at least revive the 'Paris' part to rhyme with hairy, rather than Harris.