Today I spent the day in Florence, or should I say Firenze? Although the Romans used to call it Florentia, and the French call it Florence. But it’s in Italy, so surely I should call it by its Italian name. Or maybe I feel such a connection to it that I should give it my own special pet-name…

It started me thinking, anyway, of the sheer number of ‘exonyms’ as they are apparently called – that is, names for places (and, by extension, people) which are not what they are called by those living in them (or indeed, in the case of people, their mums).

I have to confess that I have mined the Wikipedia pages for exonyms and also Anglicisations of personal names, for some of this, largely as an aide-memoire, but I have picked and chosen which examples to use based on ones I come across most, or I think are interesting.

First the names…

Of course, Thomas Aquinas, Christopher Columbus and John Cabot were really Tommaso D’Aquino, Cristoforo Colombo and Zuan Chabotto. Indeed, I am sure that there are many English speakers who are not aware that those historical figures were Italian! (or, in Cabot Chabotto’s case, Venetian).

Then there are the poets and historians who wrote in Greek and Latin, and whom we somehow want to Anglicise… Homer, Horace, Livy, Ovid, Pliny, Terence and Virgil were really Homēros, Quintus Horatius Flaccus, Titus Livius Patavinus, Publius Ovidius Naso, Gaius Plinius Secundus, Publius Terentius Afer and Publius Vergilius Maro (yes, three Publii!)

As for the place names…

Some countries themselves are quite different in the languages they speak. Albania, Austria, Central African Republic, China, Croatia, Egypt, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, India, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, New Zealand and Scotland (amongst others) are really, in the languages of at least some of the populations, Shqipëria, Österreich, Ködörösêse tî Bêafrîka, Zhongguo, Hrvatska, Mişr, Suomi, Deutschland, Hellas, Magyarország, Bhārat, Nihon, Chosŏn, Hanguk, Aotearoa and Alba.

Notable cities and towns which have had, or still have now, alternative Anglicised names, include…

Ayers Rock (Uluru)
The River Danube (Donau, Dunav, Duna, Dunărea, Dunaj)
Vienna (Wien)
Easter Island (Rapa Nui)
Peking (interestingly this apparently reflects the change in pronunciation of the local populace, and when the English first chose this name, the sound which is now represented by the j of Beijing was more like k)
Prague (Praha)
Copenhagen (København)
Cairo (Al-Qāhira)
Cologne (Köln)
Athens (Athina)
Corfu (Kerkyra)
Vatican City (Civitas Vaticana)
Bangalore, Madras, Calcutta and Bombay are now usually referred to as Bengaluru (its name in the Kannada language), Chennai (Tamil) Kolkata (Bengali) and Mumbai (Marathi) although many of my wife’s family, whose roots are firmly in Maharashtra and the area around Mumbai and Pune, still call it Bombay!

There are many in Italy:
– Florence (Firenze)
– Genoa (Genova)
– Mantua (Mantova)
– Milan (Milano)
– Naples (Napoli)
– Padua (Padova)
– Rome (Roma)
– Sardinia (Sardegna)
– Sicily (Sicilia)
– Syracuse (Siracusa)
– the river Tiber (Tevere)
– Turin (Torino)
– Venice (Venezia)

Tripoli (Ṭarābulus)
Casablanca (Ad-Dār Al-Beiḍāʼ)
The Hague (Den Haag)
Jerusalem (Yerushalayim or al-Quds)
Warsaw (Warszawa)
Lisbon (Lisboa)
Bucharest (București)
Moscow (Moskva)
Saint Petersburg (Sankt Pyetyerburg)
Belgrade (Beograd)
Gothenburg (Göteborg)
Geneva (Genève or Genf)
Damascus (Dimašq)
Bangkok (Krung Thep Maha Nakon)
Kiev (Kyiv)

Thanks for making it right to the end of that list. There are many more I haven’t mentioned – do let me know if I have got any wrong (entirely probable).

So the ultimate question, with some easy answers and some less easy to get at, is why the alternative names? Well, of course, it’s a mixture, I suspect. Some of them are attempts at making Empire-building Brits feel at home. Others are ham-fisted attempts at transliterating or otherwise denoting the name when told to the officials, and the incorrect spelling just stuck. Others are political – the official English version is an attempt to take sides with the ethnic group favoured in that region at the time (or even now). I do think that some of it, however, is a way of showing love for the place, giving it a name which shows how much it means to the ones making the change. Just as the Italians and French have Londra and Londres, we need Brittany, Tuscany and Sicily so that we can feel at home. Same with the people’s names, I guess. But it’s good to know that we’re doing it, and healthy to be aware of the ‘real’ version.

2 thoughts on “Exonyms

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