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Thursday February 23 2006

I have been brooding on the names of cities, and the way they change, that is to say, the way they get changed.

In connection with the televised Winter Olympics, Alice Bachini, who now lives in Texas, asks:

Why is everybody calling it “Torino” now? What was wrong with “Turin”? Do we all have to start referring to “The Torino shroud”? . . . or start calling all European cities by their local pronunciations - München, Köln, Firenze, Paris with an “ee” and so on? Seriously, is this a slope we want to ski-jump down forever more?

Add umlauts to taste, please, if they don’t show up at your end.

There have been two comments on this posting.  Scott Chaffin said the reason Americans are saying “Torino” now is because of the Ford Grand Torino, which is, I believe, the StarskyandHutchmobile.  (Yes.) And Tatyana (who has no blog, but who is, I think, my favourite commenter in all the world) says: yes it’s about time people stopped saying “Nueva York”, which makes the point that surely the people who live there should decide what a place is called, and that the linguistic imperialism charge can work in both directions.

That got me thinking that maybe what is going on here is a worldwide trend towards all of us calling cities by the same name.  And that got me thinking that maybe changing Bombay to Mumbai and Pekin to Beijing was part of the same process.

I was all set to write a piece for the Globalisation Institute about how it makes sense that city names are being standardised, even if it may be rather upsetting and inconvenient, so that when people get together in their big international meetings (of the sort they didn’t have so regularly before Globalisation) they can all use the same word to describe Pekin/Beijing.

Except that this is not what is actually happening.  Actually, most of these name changes are not being imposed in order to achieve linguistic standardisation across the world. Whatever the rights and wrongs of changing Calcutta to Kolkata or Pretoria to Tshwane, these names are being changed not in order to standardise, but in order to shove it to the damn British, or whoever.  In the case of Ahmedabad changing to Karnavati, it’s the Hindus shoving it to the Muslims, or trying to.

And I don’t see any way this can stop.  As power ebbs and flows between different powers, the names will change.  And the confusion, if only in signpost costs, is colossal and will continue to be.

Personally I have a fondness for Leningrad as opposed to St Petersburg, because of the old Leningrad Philharmonic, and perhaps because I don’t take saintness as seriously as St Persburgers evidently do.  Also I dislike all the confusion about how you spell, in English, the saint bit – St, St., Saint, etc.  (In England there the extra confusion of whether it’s St Pauls or St Paul’s.) Lenin was of course a piece of asterisks of the worst sort. Everything evil done by Stalin had already been sketched out and beta tested by Lenin.  But a name is a name, and I don’t like the idea of name changes. Maybe London is named after some psycho killer.  I don’t care.  London is what London is called.  You interfere with London’s name and you interfere with me.  Name changes, for me, flag up both the continuing power and the continuing impotence of politicians.  They change the damn names, because they can, and because they are so hopeless at doing anything real.  Politicians notoriously confuse renaming a problem with solving it.  Changing the name of an entire place seems to me to be taking that fatuous process to its ultimate conclusion.  At least in St Petersburg they had a vote which St Petersburg won.

On the other hand if EUrope decided to change London to something else - and I wouldn’t put it past those meddling twats – I would definitely want the name changed back again as soon as the chance arose.  If Martians arrived in England and created mayhem, and settlements with their own names, and then buggered off, I might also want those names changed, and I might well be in favour of that even if the new names were fairly bogus, based on not-that-nearby villages of dubious origin.

That’s how natives of St. Petersburg feel: aliens invaded their dreamy city and hijacked it to an ugly existence - and so they won their beloved name (and the city) back.

The confusion with “St.” resolves simply: you can call it by the full name, wich is Sankt Peterburg (it was named in Dutch per the vogue of the day, hence the mad spelling) - or you can call it just Piter, like all inhabitants do, and skip the saints’ business alltogether. Very few natives, now or 20 yrs ago, called it Leningrad.

Names of the city is a fascinating subject. On LanguageHat-dot-com ; *traditionally spelt Kiev in English) it’s an ongoing topic; since then S.discussed Torino/Turin and Kyiv. One of the earlier threads is here.

[I do have a blog of sorts, if not very old - I posted URL above. And of course, one of the lessons learned today - flattery will lead you everywhere, Brian...]

Posted by Tatyana on 24 February 2006

I got my comment cut of in the middle somehow...sorry.
I meant to say that searching for “city names” will fish you a pretty heavy loot at LanguageHat.

Posted by Tatyana on 24 February 2006

I’m personally still confused if I need to start calling it the Shroud of Torino.  That makes it sounds like a car cover…

(Why don’t you have an RSS feed?  That’s why I lost you from my blogroll.)

Posted by Scott Chaffin on 24 February 2006

Hmm. Leningrad/St Petersburg. I’m not used to it either, and share your admiration for the great Mr Mravinsky. Nevertheless - and harking back to some exchanges we had some time ago - would you feel the same if the Berlin Philharmonic had ever been the “Hitlerstadt Philharmonic”? Or are you still of the Lenin Less Evil Than Hitler persuasion?

Alan in Munich/München

Posted by Alan Little on 25 February 2006

Well, it was only a feeling.  Not an argument.

Anyway let me stir the pot some more by saying that I prefer names that are meaningless.  Like London and Berlin.  St Petersburg is kind of propaganda, for St Peter.  So swapping St Peter for St Lenin is kind of par for the course, playing by the local rules.  Changing a real name, Berlin, to Hitlerburg, which is a Hurrah We Won name, is therefore slightly different.

But, I would probably not want to have to defend that opinion when sober.

I do think Hitler was slightly nastier than Lenin, since you ask.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 25 February 2006


I thought I DID have an RSS feed, despite not really knowing what that is or how it works.  Where it says “Syndicate”, on the left.  But when I clicked on that, I got strange strange things, and I don’t think it is working.  I will ask my technical department about that.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 25 February 2006

Well, there it is!  It works fine.  My little web buddy just couldn’t find it automatically.  Tell the techies to stand down.

Posted by Scott Chaffin on 25 February 2006

I just read recently, in fact, that Berlin (like Leipzig and Dresden) is a Slavic place name and a memory of the time when all the lands east of the Elbe were populated by Slavic peoples, before they were conquered in around the 12th century by the Teutonic Knights. Who, oddly, chose not to rename the existing towns to “Heinrichsburg” or some such after whoever happened to be Holy Roman Emperor at the time. It’s striking how common obviously not-German surnames ("Nowotny" and the like) still are in formerly-Slavic Prussia even 800 years on.

Posted by Alan Little on 25 February 2006

Peking of course is not called Peking - or Beijing or Peiping for that matter - all of these are attempts to turn a name expressed in a different language and a different script into something we can read.

Posted by ian on 25 February 2006

I like Torino better than Turin. I makes sense to call cities by their local names if they are at all pronouncable by foreigners. But I don’t really care all that much. Mostly, I am amused that some people are trying to make such a big deal of it.

Posted by Lynn S on 26 February 2006

I think Europeans are much more resistant to changing the names of foreign cities. I feel sure that Beijing is still Pekino in Italian and Pekin in French.

It is a mark of being internationally known if your city has another name in a foreign language.

Posted by Gerald Hartup on 27 February 2006

You should consider the bolsheviks to be the Martians who showed up, created mayhem, changed a few names and finally buggered off. Now that Russians were able to restore order at least nominally and rename Leningrad back to Sankt-Peterburg and Stalingrad back to Volgograd its pity that your inner conservative does not like it. I understand your point, but Leningrad isnt the best example, and anyway, the change of the name was “to shove it to the damn” communists which is allways a good thing. Personally, I would rather see cities named after saints than politicians (especially of the mass-murdering kind).

Posted by Lemuel Kolkava on 28 February 2006


except the “Saint” Peter Sankt Peterburg is really named after is *really* Tsar Peter - who, being a Tsar of Russia, was probably not that much nicer than Lenin

Posted by Alan Little on 01 March 2006

This is a fairly parochial observation but have people noticed how the chair of the Commission for Racial Equality is now called Sir Trevor by the BBC, ITN, Channel 4, Daily Telegraph, Times etc even though he is just an OBE?

Posted by Gerald Hartup on 02 March 2006
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