Not post-colonial enough?

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Because of the recent catastrophe in the Irawaddy delta, the names of the country formerly known as Burma are in the news again. The same thing happened last fall, when the news was full of protest marches led by Buddhist monks ("Should it be Burma or Myanmar?", BBC News Magazine, 9/26/2008):

The ruling military junta changed its name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, a year after thousands were killed in the suppression of a popular uprising. Rangoon also became Yangon. […]

The two words mean the same thing and one is derived from the other. Burmah, as it was spelt in the 19th Century, is a local corruption of the word Myanmar.

They have both been used within Burma for a long time, says anthropologist Gustaaf Houtman, who has written extensively about Burmese politics.

"There's a formal term which is Myanmar and the informal, everyday term which is Burma. Myanmar is the literary form, which is ceremonial and official and reeks of government. [The name change] is a form of censorship."

If Burmese people are writing for publication, they use 'Myanmar', but speaking they use 'Burma', he says.

This reflects the regime's attempt to impose the notion that literary language is master, Mr Houtman says, but there is definitely a political background to it.

Richard Coates, a linguist at the University of Western England, says adopting the traditional, formal name is an attempt by the junta to break from the colonial past.

Leaving aside the notion that the local pronunciation is a "corruption", the BBC's discussion omits the most interesting part of the story, at least from an American point of view. They should have asked John Wells, whose discussion of the question I linked to at the time ("Myanmar is mama", 10/15/2007). And the explanations that I've heard and read this time around — yesterday on NPR, for example — again miss the key point. So here it is.

There is no 'r'!

Never was. Not in Burma and not in Myanmar. The 'r' is an orthographic imposition of post-rhotic British colonialists. As John explained:

In both Myanmar and Burma the English spellings assume a non-rhotic variety of English, in which the letter r before a consonant or finally serves merely to indicate a long vowel: [ˈmjænmɑː, ˈbɜːmə].

So any American who says the last syllable of Myanmar as [mɑːr] or pronounces Burma as [bɝːmə] is using a spelling pronunciation based on British, non-rhotic, spelling conventions.

When the Burmese opposition triumphs, as it must sooner or later, will they throw off the colonial yoke for real and name their nation "Baama"? It seems more likely that they'll take the post-post-colonial path, and revert to "Burma".

I note with sadness, by the way, that the OED fails us here. It's not surprising that Myanmar is missing, since the word was only forced into English in 1989; but the entry for Burma, in its entirety, is

In full Burma cheroot. A kind of cheroot manufactured in Burma and with a peculiar aroma.

Compare the elaborate and helpful etymology given for Mali:

[< the place name Mali, prob. < French Mali < Arabic Mālī (also in form Māllī (14th cent.)), prob. < Soninke *Malli < Manding *Mandeŋ, the name of the traditional Manding homeland (see MANDE n. and adj.). Cf. Fula Mali (Mɛli, Malel) the Mande people. The older form of the place name, Melli, is prob. < Italian Melli (1550 in Leo Africanus) < Arabic Māllī (perh. via Spanish or Maghribi Arabic *Mēllī ).]


  1. Lane said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 8:55 am

    The Economist style book has a rule on this that is short and easy to remember: call a country what it is officially calling itself, not what you would like it to be called. This means calling Myanmar Myanmar, alas, and using Cote d'Ivoire and Timor-Leste when those countries make it clear they don't want to be known as Ivory Coast and East Timor.

  2. Peter said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 9:44 am

    Wouldn't that style book require us to talk about Deutchland and Italia and Nederlands — not Germany, Italy and The Netherlands (or Holland… or the country where the Dutch live. Oy, that one's confusing.)

  3. language hat said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 9:49 am


    The Economist style book has a rule on this that is short and easy to remember

    "Always do what you're told to do" is also short and easy to remember. That doesn't make it right. To my mind, English-language media have practiced disgraceful toadying in kowtowing to the dictates of the genocidal thugs who run Burma. For heaven's sake, Aung San Suu Kyi, practically anointed as a saint by the same media, says Burma and wants others to do the same. But the urge to do as you're told by the authorities is just too strong.

  4. Ben said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 10:10 am

    Post-Colonialism never quite escapes from colonialism; I find it delightful especially that we in order to be post-Colonial we should call Timor Leste and Cote D'Ivoire by their proper Portuguese and French names. I also find it delightful that we happily agree to name changes at the behest of, say, military juntas and nationalist extremists. I like it even more when folks like Mobutu and Pol Pot lose power and we revert to Congo and Cambodia. Here's hoping we'll soon be free to say Burma (with or without the /r/) again!

  5. mollymooly said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 10:44 am

    I got the impression that some news organisations switched from "Myanmar" to "Burma" last year, perhaps as a gesture of solidarity with the protesters. Personally, I think using the junta du jour's changed name is a better way of reminding readers of a state's disturbed situation.

  6. Lane said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 10:58 am

    C'mon, now, Language Hat – if you've ever looked at a single Economist article on Burma, it's been hard on the junta's case, and on those who truly enable and "kowtow" (China, India, ASEAN) forever. "Don't fly off the handle and don't be rude" is also a good, short and easy to remember rule.

  7. Josh G. said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 11:27 am

    The American pronunciation of Burma as ['bɚmə] is not a spelling pronunciation. The British pronunciation is ['bɜ:mə]. The vowel in the stressed syllable is the NURSE vowel. The NURSE vowel is realized as [ɜ:] in (non-rhotic) British English, but as [ɚ] in (rhotic) American English. There is no other possibility besides [ɚ] in the stressed syllable, since [ɜ:] doesn't exist in rhotic American English and [ʌ] is the equivalent of a different vowel.

  8. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 11:59 am

    Interesting point Josh, but do you really think that the American pronunciation stems from British pronunciation instead of orthography? Given the plethora of spelling pronunciations out there, it seems more likely that people started pronouncing it with an r after seeing it written, since Burma doesn't come up a lot in conversation, and least conversation I take part in. Obviously either theory is plausible, but stastically the latter seems more likely.

  9. Vasha said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 12:37 pm

    So could someone please provide an IPA rendition of how speakers of Burmese pronounce the name of their country?

  10. Dustin Heestand said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 12:48 pm

    Baama would not be the logical renaming choice, but rather something like "Bma." Although this spelling seems horrible, I'm not sure what other spelling would elicit anything like the correct pronunciation from an English speaker. The first syllable is actually highly reduced, with a schwa vowel and no tone (an educated speaker cannot choose any one of Burmese's four tones, even when pressed).

    Bema? Bummah? Bummahhhh?

  11. Ewan said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 2:08 pm

    Dustin: The first syllable is reduced and toneless? If that's true it seems at odds with the story above, that explains the "Burma" spelling as a result of hearing [bɝːmə] for [ ˈbɜːmə], since there the first vowel is long and marked with a primary stress. Who am I to believe?

  12. Aidan Kehoe said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 4:45 pm

    Mark, the OED started from the middle of the alphabet this time around; my CDROM 2nd edition doesn’t give any etymology for Mali at all, so the difference between the two is that the current online OED reflects recent scholarship in the Mali entry, and doesn’t in the Burma entry.

    The lack of a Myanmar entry is very odd, I’ll admit; they started at M and are at "quit shilling" right now, so they should have covered it, in theory.

  13. Stephen Jones said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 5:27 pm

    As language hat's posting makes quite clear the rule is that you use the new name if you agree with the politics of the particular government and the old name if you don't.

  14. Dustin Heestand said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 7:51 pm

    Ewan, sorry I did not explain better. It seems to me as if the native Burmese stress pattern was distorted to make it fit English better. This would be much the same as the adaptation of Russian "Rossii" (with final stress). Although I cannot speak Burmese, I spent a 12-week field methods class trying to figure out what sounds I was hearing. All the informants agreed that they could not assign tone to the first syllable of Burma. Also, this pattern of reduced+full in two-syllable words is a very common one (for example, the word for intestine is athee, where the initial a is reduced).

  15. Alexander McLeay said,

    May 15, 2008 @ 12:04 am

    According to Wikipedia, the Americans aren't the only people to have misinterpreted the "r" in "Burma": "Curiously, when the (WW2-era) Japanese (occupying forces) used their own syllabary, they transliterated the three consonants of the English name 'Burma' and ended up with the name Baruma", a name they appear to have kept until 1990 when they switched to "Myanmaa" if my guess of the first sentence on the Japanese Wikipedia page is right.

  16. Kanou said,

    May 15, 2008 @ 1:28 am

    @Alexander McLeay
    Close, it was ビルマ which would ususally be romanized as Biruma.

  17. Carl said,

    May 15, 2008 @ 4:04 am

    OED stinks for country names. It defines Japan as "the insular empire, so called, on the east of asia." Not a good definition!

  18. Bob Ladd said,

    May 15, 2008 @ 6:23 am

    The issue of post-colonial English names for faraway places has an interesting colonial twist, roughly anticipated by Peter's comment in this thread that we should be calling Germany Deutschland and Italy Italia. There are two aspects to this, both of which suggest that colonial attitudes and colonial realities are more deeply entrenched than lots of people would like to think.

    First, if you look at present-day naming practice in English, you will find that anglicized names for places IN EUROPE are generally still current (Venice, Finland, Copenhagen, Germany, Croatia, etc. etc. etc), whereas anglicized names for places outside Europe are being replaced by people who probably often think they are Respecting Different Cultures by saying Chennai instead of Madras, Cote d'Ivoire instead of Ivory Coast, and so on. One obvious explanation for the difference is in terms of our perception of "The Other" – Germans and Finns and Croatians are European and comfortably like us, so we don't have to worry about Respecting Different Cultures in their case. With Asians and Africans and Native Americans we can't be so sure. (Note to linguists: we do this too. Nobody talks about Nootka or Eskimo or Papago or Lapp any more, but German and Dutch and Finnish are just fine.)

    Second, there is considerable pressure on ENGLISH language media by foreign governments to abandon anglicized forms, but not on media in other languages – Italian newspapers still happily talk about Pechino and German newspapers about Weissrussland long after English media switched to Beijing and Belarus. This is because English is the colonial language that won the competition to become world language – dictators don't give a damn what their countries and cities are called in Italian or German, but they put pressure on English-language media to use the non-anglicized names because that's how the world is going to read about them. (It's a bit unfair for Language Hat to call this "toadying" to "genocidal thugs" – if the Economist writes Burma instead of Myanmar, or Madras instead of Chennai, they have a harder time carrying out their business of selling magazines – in Burma the rules may be made by genocidal thugs, but in India they're made by people who are, at worst, obstructive bureaucrats. The effect on the Economist's business is the same.)

    A couple of further points:

    1. I may be exaggerating the extent to which this is about our perceptions of Otherness. It's true that the use of anglicized names for foreign places has been declining in English for a long time (how many English speakers today can identify Leghorn or Ratisbon?). It's also true that well-established anglicized non-European country names (though not city names) have been preserved in the post-colonial changes of the past couple of decades (Egypt, India, China, Japan). But within Europe, newly prominent political entities (or newly assertive ethnic groups) with old anglicized names have tended to keep the anglicized names if they're in heartland Europe (Catalonia, Croatia, Flanders, Wallonia) and not if they're not (Moldova, Belarus, the Sami).

    2. In all of this it's important to keep in mind that we're hardly ever dealing with a name CHANGE, just an insistence on replacing an old anglicized form. Madras has always been called Chennai in Tamil and Bombay has always been called Mumbai in Marathi. The Lapps have always called themselves Sami and the Eskimos have always called themselves Inuit. And similarly, the Germans have always called their country Deutschland and their language Deutsch. The difference in attitudes toward the use of the anglicized name requires some sort of explanation.

  19. Catanea said,

    May 15, 2008 @ 10:03 am

    Ryan Denzer-King said: Given the plethora of spelling pronunciations out there, it seems more likely that people started pronouncing it with an r after seeing it written, since Burma doesn't come up a lot in conversation…
    I should think a great many Americans too young to have been in the Second World War are quite old enough to have learnt their pronunciation of "Burma" from Burma-Shave signs their parents read aloud on long drives in the middle of the Twentieth Century.

  20. Stephen Jones said,

    May 15, 2008 @ 10:20 am

    Actually, the English names we keep are those of countries we did not colonize. It has always been clear the Germany is not called Germany in German.

    On the other hand Rangoon, Ceylon, Madras, Salisbury, and a fair number of others had their official name given to them by the British rulers. When new rulers came along they changed the official names.

  21. Jonathan said,

    May 15, 2008 @ 11:40 am

    We never colonized the White Russians.

  22. John Thacker said,

    May 15, 2008 @ 12:24 pm

    Actually, the English names we keep are those of countries we did not colonize. It has always been clear the Germany is not called Germany in German.

    Good attempt, but fails to explain everything. Siam/Thailand was never colonized. That makes it tempting to go with a "we keep the English names of countries that we've been familiar with for longer," but that breaks too- consider Abyssinia/Ethiopia.

  23. Neil Dolinger said,

    May 15, 2008 @ 6:30 pm

    The Chinese refer to the nation with the oft-mispronounced name as "Miandian" It's easy to assume that the the first syllable came from the official Myanmar spelling, but I wonder where the "dian" came from.

  24. Stephen Jones said,

    May 15, 2008 @ 8:28 pm

    —-"We never colonized the White Russians."——

    I thought they colonized France :) Anyway we used the phrase as a political description more than to designate a geographical location.

    As has been said, there are a combination of factors here. 'Germany' goes back a hell of a lot longer than 'Siam', and so is much more likely to be resistant to change.

  25. language hat said,

    May 16, 2008 @ 9:55 am

    "Don't fly off the handle and don't be rude" is also a good, short and easy to remember rule.

    I was not flying off the handle, and I was being rude only to the genocidal thugs who rule Burma. If you think we should be polite towards them, we'll just have to agree to differ.

    On the general question, there is nothing wrong with traditional English names for countries and cities, and I deplore the overeagerness to replace them.

  26. James Wimberley said,

    May 16, 2008 @ 7:14 pm

    The poster child for language hat's position (and mine) is the capital city of Lithuania, Vilnius in the atlas. That's the name in Lithuanian. But in Polish it's Wilno (where the great Polish Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz was a student) and in Yiddish Vilna. You write the Gaon of Vilna not the Gaon of Vilnius. The place is significant to all three cultures, and has its name in each. It's insulting of course to individuals not to give them the name they use, and to spell it correctly; but the claim by any group to control the name in other cultures of a place that anyone can stay in or pass through is arrogant nonsense, at worst racism.
    The loss of Ratisbon and Leghorn, both third-rank cities, does not I think count as much of a trend. It's still Seville, Florence, Munich in English, not Sevilla, Firenze, München.

  27. Bob Ladd said,

    May 17, 2008 @ 5:31 am

    James Wimberley and language hat and I all agree that it's legitimate for different languages to have different names for the same place. But I stand by my suggestion of a trend in English away from using anglicized names. Obviously any such trend is more likely to hit "third-rank" places before first-rank ones, simply because of the influence of lexical frequency, and Munich and Vienna and Geneva are certainly secure. But try web searches on Padua/Padova, Turin/Torino, Lyons/Lyon, Constance/Konstanz, and many other such pairs and you will see what I mean. In fact, some anglicized versions (Smyrna, Agram, Bois-le-Duc, Leipsic) seem to me to be possible only in an explicitly historical context.

  28. language hat said,

    May 17, 2008 @ 11:24 am

    Your first two examples are of cities where the name has changed because of massive historical changes: Greek Smyrna changed to Turkish Izmir, and German Agram changed to Croatian Zagreb. Your third example is a poster child for keeping traditional names: who in the (English-speaking) world can pronounce 's-Hertogenbosch? And Leipsic is just plain archaic.

    Of course I agree that there is a trend in English away from using anglicized names; I simply deplore it. James Wimberley put the position very well.

  29. Neil Dolinger said,

    May 17, 2008 @ 12:20 pm

    Language Hat, why do you deplore the trend in English away from using anglicized names? I will not attempt to argue against this position until I have a better understanding of it.

    James Wimberley, I agree that for me to attempt to "control the name in other cultures of a place that anyone can stay in or pass through is arrogant nonsense, at worst racism." It's also practically impossible. The people living in these places are going to spell and pronounce the names however they please.

    Which brings me to my point. Yes, anyone can stay or pass though these places, but in my opinion the name does belong to the people who live there, and should be spelled and pronounced the way that the majority of those people do it, or at least close to it. I may not be able to pronounce " 's-Hertogenbosch" correctly, but I am going to do my best to try. To not do so seems just as arrogant and racist as insisting that we continue to refer to their home as "Leipsic". I cringe every time I hear news anchors refer to the capital of China as "Bay-zheeng" (thank God they don't say Peking" any more). It's actually easier for an American to pronounce it correctly, but no one goes to the trouble of learning it!

  30. Neil Dolinger said,

    May 17, 2008 @ 12:26 pm

    I should add that when speaking in historical contexts (cf. J.W.'s reference to the Gaon of Vilna), I agree that it would be confusing to refer to him as the Gaon of Vilnius, since the people who named him were Yiddish speakers. Maybe we should call him "Der Vilnischer Gaon"? Nah, won't go that far ;-)

  31. Jane said,

    May 17, 2008 @ 1:36 pm

    In Russian, Burma is "Birma", with the "r" pronounced. So did the Russians pick this up from English?

  32. Aaron Davies said,

    May 17, 2008 @ 7:41 pm

    Actually, I've always seen it done as a word-for-word translation from the Yiddish: "the Vilna Gaon".

  33. Martyn Cornell said,

    May 17, 2008 @ 8:30 pm

    I'm mostly with Labguage Hat on this – I don't see why anyone should object to me continuing to call the city Bombay when I have no justification in stopping a French speaker calling the city where I live "Londres". (And if Indians don't like "Bombay", why do they still speak about "Bollywood" films, not "Mollywood"?) On the other hand, I try to speak of "the Netherlands", not "Holland", because I know Dutch people who get very annoyed by synecdochal use of "Holland", and I get annoyed by people who say "Eng;land" when they mean "Britain". But, obviously, there's no absolute right to give people any name you like: for example Hottentot has very properly been replaced as the name of the Khoi-San people, because it's insulting.

  34. Bob Ladd said,

    May 18, 2008 @ 2:32 am

    "Hottentot" may now be insulting, but my original point was simply that there's no sharp line between legitimate and offensive anglicized forms, AND that English speakers are more concerned about giving offense in this way when it concerns non-Europeans than when it concerns Europeans. The Wikipedia article on "Exonyms" is very good on this whole topic, and discusses a number of the cases that have been mentioned in this thread.

  35. Neil Dolinger said,

    May 18, 2008 @ 10:43 am

    Martyn, you may feel that you "have no justification in stopping a French speaker calling the city where (you) live 'Londres'", but do you feel annoyed when you hear it, as you do when people indiscriminately call Britain "England"? If you are annnoyed, I'll bet it's because you feel the French speaker is being somewhat thoughtless and provincial. Out of sensitivity to your Nederlander friends you don't call their country "Holland", yet it seems you feel it's alright to call Mumbai by a name (Bombay) its citizens use only in courtesy to people who don't know or are not interested in knowing how to pronounce correctly.

    Bob, I agree with you that "there is no sharp line between legitimate and offensive anglicized forms", so English speakers should consistently make a good faith effort to use the local name of a place no matter where it is in the world.

    If someone doesn't know where I mean when I talk about my trip to Firenze, I will add "Florence", but will revert to Firenze with an explanation that that is the correct name. If out of our conversation the other person chooses to look into that difference for themselves, so much the better.

  36. language hat said,

    May 18, 2008 @ 11:27 am

    To not do so seems just as arrogant and racist as insisting that we continue to refer to their home as "Leipsic".

    I will not bother trying to debate anything with someone who takes the lazy and insulting approach of smearing people with different views as "arrogant and racist." The first requirement for an intelligent discussion is to drop that kind of posturing. You can't possibly actually believe that saying "Leipsic" rather than "Leipzig" (not that one could actually tell the difference from the pronunciation of the average English-speaker) is racist.

  37. Neil Dolinger said,

    May 18, 2008 @ 9:33 pm

    Language Hat, I am sorry you feel insulted, but am not sure why you do. Note that I deferred my judgement on your position until I had a better understanding — I was asking you to expound upon "deplore" before I said anything further about it. I think it is possible to refer to — or even categorize — behaviors (as I did) without calling names (as I did not). I used "arrogant" and "racist" in paraphrasing my response to James Wimberley, who used those terms in his post seemingly to justify the type of behavior I object to.

    I don't believe that saying "Leipsic" or "Leipzig" is racist. I do think it is wrong to insist on referring to a place by a name that the majority of its inhabitants no longer use (or in some cases never used). If I am made aware that the preset inhabitants of the place that used to be called "Leipzig" now call it "'s-Hertogenbosch", I think that I have a duty to try to use that name when referring to their home.

    I do feel strongly about it, but I am open to counter-arguments. I would not have entered into this discussion if I was not open to others' ideas. I hope you will open my eyes to issues I may not have considered.

  38. Bob Ladd said,

    May 19, 2008 @ 2:21 am

    Neil: Well, here's an issue you may not have considered. Assuming that on that trip to Firenze you also visited Switzerland, what do you tell you friends about that part of your trip? Do you say Schweiz/Suisse/Svizzera/Svizra every time? Do you adjust the referring expression according to which part of the country you were in? (Or which part of town you were in when you visited Biel/Bienne?) I assume you will tell me the answer is "of course not".
    Switzerland is probably the most successfully multilingual country in the world, and they TAKE IT FOR GRANTED that different languages have different names for different places – even to the extent of pairs like Disentis/Muster and Domat/Ems. Respecting somebody else's right to use their language in all contexts includes respecting their right to use their own proper names for people and places. Language itself is a political issue in Switzerland – the canton of Jura broke away from the canton of Bern some 40 years ago on largely linguistic grounds – but I don't think it would ever occur to anyone in Switzerland to make an issue of somebody else's place names, and for that matter I doubt that anyone in Firenze would understand why you aren't saying Florence if you're speaking English. I won't speak for language hat, but to me this a synthetic issue that has little to do with respect or "duty" and (as in the case of Burma/Myanmar that we started with) frequently involves deliberate politicization for generally unpleasant purposes.

  39. Rob P. said,

    May 19, 2008 @ 10:55 am

    Luckily for us, even the Dutch pretty much only say Den Bosch and don't mess around with 's-Hertogenbosch.

  40. Neil Dolinger said,

    May 19, 2008 @ 12:30 pm

    Bob, thank you. You have given me a few things to think about. After I have had a chance to digest, I may have a few other questions.

  41. Jonathan Gress said,

    May 19, 2008 @ 5:27 pm

    What I want to know is whether these onomastic regulations apply only to the English media? Do the French have to change their traditional names for countries and cities at the request of foreigners?
    Note that for the most part these issues only involve the ex-colonies. English media are apparently allowed to keep all their traditional names for major European and Near Eastern cities, for example. You write Venice, not Venezia, Copenhagen, not København, Jerusalem, not Yerushalayim (or al-Quds for that matter). One exception that springs to mind is the current convention of writing the French form Lyon for the city; it was traditionally known in English as Lyons. Actually, I remember the Economist using the traditional form until recently.
    Personally, I think the whole thing is rather unreasonable. Especially having to put Côte d'Ivoire for the Ivory Coast and Timor-Leste for East Timor.

  42. David Marjanović said,

    May 19, 2008 @ 9:16 pm

    About Switzerland… I've recently been to Gruyères, the town with the famous stinking cheese. It's in the French-speaking part, but very close to the language boundary to German, and therefore has a German exonym that I (as a native speaker from Austria) had no idea of, Greyerz. And that's what all the German tourist signage in Gruyères uses.

  43. marie-lucie said,

    May 22, 2008 @ 11:33 pm

    David, you call gruyère stinking? You can't have been exposed to too many French cheeses (I speak as a French person and a cheese amateur).

    About "respecting how countries call themselves": apart from the fact that some countries have more than one name depending on the tradition among their neighbours (Deutschland/Allemagne/Alemania/Germany etc; France/Francia [pronounced differently in Spanish and Italian]/Frankreich/Tsarfat) and they don't seem to be bothered by that fact, some of the new official names from countries which use a non-Roman alphabet are obviously meant to be pronounced by English speakers, and the written name will not necessarily call up the right pronunciation from speakers of other languages. For instance, Cambodia (which I believe is a Portuguese Latinized adaptation of the actual name) was known in French as Cambodge, a word of two syllables. Then we learned that the government had decided that the country's name was actually Kampuchea – for English speakers this was a word of three syllables not too different in pronunciation from Cambodia, but for French speakers seeing the word written, this was a brand new name with four, equally stressed syllables: kam-pou-ché-a. Ivory Coast and Côte d'Ivoire mean exactly the same thing, but if the spelling Côte d'Ivoire is to do duty for everyone around the world, the inhabitants might not always recognize the name of their country when they hear it under the various possible pronunciations of the words, let alone the fact that the words which make up the name would be meaningless almost everywhere else. I can see that postal communications might be marginally simplified if everyone used the same name for a given country, but the world postal system has been working very well without this simplification for a long time, and there are ways to get around the various names.

    In a conversation conducted in one language it is very difficult to introduce foreign words and enunciate them with their proper pronunciation, even if one can speak the foreign language in question, nor would one necessarily want to introduce such a jarring note in the conversation unless the topic was precisely that of names. If during a conversation in French I mention the city of London, what does it matter to an English person if I say Londres (with silent s) rather than "Lonnedonne" which would probably the way the English name would come out of my mouth in keeping with French phonology? Similarly, in a conversation in English I much prefer hearing Paris pronounced the traditional English way rather than sounding as "Purree" which my anglophone interlocutor might use "in order to respect my heritage" or some such misguided sentiment. So if I were visiting Florence or Naples, I would do my best to say Firenze and Napoli while practicing my Italian there, but with French or English speaking friends I would still say Florence and Naples, pronouncing those words the French or English way depending on the language of my conversations.

  44. Ben said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 7:24 pm

    It seems perfectly sensible to me that commonly-used place names should develop alternative names in other languages, particularly ones with a close geographical or politcal association. It's part of the natural development of languages, after all.

    It would be absurd for the French to insist that we pronounce their capital as 'Par-ee'.

    But back to the Myanmar/Burma issue; I visited in 2002 and noted that most people would use the terms Myanmar/Yangon rather than Burma/Rangoon when talking English. These were certainly not pro-government supporters; its just simply what they have always called their country and city.

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