Monday, October 29, 2007

In Whose Name?

Why are English speakers almost uniquely subject to inverted nominal imperialism? Why do we allow others to dictate what names we give to other places?

Born in Liverpool of mostly Welsh ancestry, I was chuffed, as we used to say, rather than miffed, to discover that the Welsh name for the city was Lerpwl. (Although that did not impress the Welsh nationalists, who objected to plans to hold the 2007 Eisteddfod toga party there.) Cockneys react with indifference to the French saying they live in Londres, and most New Yorkers do not worry too much that their city is Nueva Yorca to many of its inhabitants.

Russians do not worry that Moskva is Moscow, let alone that Americans call it Mos-COW and the Brits Mos-COE. Deutschlanders do not give an oompah that we call them Germans, or the French call them Allemandes. People have languages and the proper nouns are part of it.

So who does the Burmese junta think they are telling us that we must use Myanmar, with the added indignity that most Burmese do not want the name? Why did we all slavishly let a bunch of murderous thugs force us to rebrand Cambodia as Kampuchea? Why have been allowing the stronger Greek nationalists (sorry, the people from Hellas) to tell us what name to use for Macedonia?

Why shouldn't Britain bristle at the temerity of the French calling part of their country Brittany? In fact, to give it a sense of perspective, Great Britain was called so simply because Grand Bretagne was bigger than Bretagne in France.

In India, local sentiment insists that Bombay is now Mumbai, Madras is Chennai, and Calcutta now Kolkata, for three cities that were essentially developed (admittedly exploitatively and imperialistically) by the British. One notes with approval that the Bombay Stock Exchange holds firm, and I've yet to see an Indian restaurant serving Mumbai Duck, while no one calls the capital Dili. And the Hindi for India is Bharat but the government of India happily uses the English even though it does mention Bharat in the constitution.

In fact, all my local Chinese restaurants serve (excellent) Peking Duck, but we are supposed to call the capital of China (not Zhongguo) Beijing. But one notices that Hong Kong keeps its English form, although Canton became Guangzhou - where people still speak Cantonese and do not call their city that, since it is the Mandarin name.

Adopting the Chinese roman letter spelling is even more bizarre. The letters mean different things. "X" in English does not represent "Hs" anymore than "Q" signifies "ch".

When a nationalist Turkish business spent some millions trying to get everyone to call his country Turkiye, the campaign soon foundered like a dead duck. That's the way it should be. When I was teaching journalism in Pristina, the Kosovar students bridled because the UN referred to the place as Kosovo instead of "Kosova." I pointed out that we called Shqiperia, Albania, and no one seemed to mind. Kosovo is the English name for the place.

Unlike the Romans who gave the world Latin and everyone who used it wrote nice things about Rome, a great thing about English as a doubly imperial language is that it has been so useful for anti-imperialists for everything from telling phrases, long treatises and quick slogans. Think of Jawaharlal Nehru's "tryst with destiny".

On the other hand, sometimes they are about as grammatical as Brian's slogan writing on the walls of Jerusalem, (aka Al Quds or Yerushalayim) in the Monty Python film, but that is the other great thing about it, is that there is no English academy to force spellings, definitions and purifications on its multifarious speakers.

So I don't mind if the speakers of Indian English want to say Mumbai, as long as they extend the same democratic linguistic privileges to others to keep on calling it Bombay. Non-English speakers can be as nationalist as they like - in their own languages. And I hope that Burma is free soon.

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