Friday, February 15, 2013

Regarding the Names of Countries: Who Gets to Decide what they're Called in English?

Recently, Andrew Sullivan at the Dish wrote briefly about President Obama's use of Rangoon and Burma instead of Yangon and Myanmar during the State of the Union:
10.02 pm. A personal note of thanks for using the words Rangoon and Burma. Then the Arab Spring: it will be messy, we cannot control events, but we should back freedom. Pretty much: stay out of the way. A minor note on Israel: emphasizing security and a “just peace.”
This apparently occasioned people to write in and offer their two cents about who gets to decide what a country - and its various cities, presumably - are called, and Sullivan posted one response:
I also used to make a big deal about using the terms ”Rangoon” and “Burma”.  That was before I actually had been there. On each visit, I found that everybody in Myanmar says they live in Myanmar and that their capital is Yangon. Foreigners don’t get to decide that for them; they declare it stoutly, even if those changes were made by their despicable military regime.  We can all mourn the lost years in Myanmar, but we don’t need to fixate on the linguistics of their own place names. Several people, certainly not military sympathizers in any way, will point out that Myanmar is the country’s original name, that the Brits changed it to Burma to reflect the overweening power of the majority Bamar ethnic group in civic life. ... I think it’s fine to call it Burma or Myanmar, and certainly folks there wouldn’t bother to correct you.  I just think it’s time to stop being smug about using the term Burma to indicate a political viewpoint that in Myanmar itself is pretty irrelevant.
I read this reply and I was a little bit torn between sentiments of fairness and recognition of the reader's bloody obvious double-standard. The latter won out as the list of countries (and cities) that - in English - carry labels that were totally standardized as foreign constructs grew and blossomed, and ballooned. Therefore, even while I do agree with the spirit of what the reader states, I'll bite when he starts referring to Zhōngguó, Nihon or Nippon, Hanguk or Joseon, etc., instead of "China," "Japan," and "Korea". There are many countries that carry with them Anglicized versions of (often) other European names for countries (like "China," "Korea," and "Japan"). (Sullivan also apparently recognized the reader's double-standard, writing, "I’ll agree when my reader is fine visiting München and Москва with me. Till then I’ll call it Burma – which is an anglicized version of what Brits heard when they listened to the locals.")

If the responder doesn't like whether "foreigners don’t get to decide [what to call their country and capital city] for them", then the responder will have to make a lot of changes, even throughout England's continental neighbors. On a short list, you've got to stop referring to Deutchland as Germany, learn how to pronounce Österreich instead of Austria (and while we're at it, why are we going to still call it the foreign name of "Australia", or does hundreds of years of British colonial rule dissolve the whole "foreigners don't get to decide it for them" requirement?), learn to pronounce France as [fʁɑ̃s] and not /ˈfræns/, recognize that the countries of northern Central Europe are actually supposed to be called Polska, Slovensko, Česká republika, and Magyarország (U+2190.svg and learn how to pronounce those properly, too, btw) instead of the foreigner-decided "Poland," "Slovakia," "the Czech Republic," and "Hungary."

And what are we going to do when referring to countries and cities throughout Africa, where the names of many current countries and cities were so obviously a result of being named by foreigners, just as their borders were written by foreigners? Liberia? What's that except a name that was bestowed by foreigners. Ivory Coast? That's definitely NOT a name that has a single shred of a link to pre-colonial cultural, linguistic, or national heritage, but is derived from an objectified label of the commodity that was traded from that area. Nigeria? That country's name was coined by the future wife of the colonial administrator after the river that was also named by foreigners. One could easily go on and on and on.

So, in sum, go ahead and try to be equitable in the rights of people to determine the name of their country, but if you're going to insist that we do it for the citizens of Myanmar who "say they live in Myanmar and that their capital is Yangon," but also, " wouldn’t bother to correct you [if you refer to them as 'Burma' and 'Rangoon']", then you will have to do the same thing for all the countries and all the cities for all those people who - when speaking within their own language and with their own countrymen - refer to their country and cities by different names than what English speakers would use (and who also wouldn't likely correct an English speaker for using the English name). In other words, try - as an example - to have a conversation with people about how - for example - "The foreign policy decisions of Deutchland will have ramifications in newer EU countries, especially Magyarország and Polska, let alone the more-central countries of Elláda and España" and see how many of your English-speaking conversation partners think you're being insightful and liberating instead of "smug about using the [foreign name of a country] to indicate a political viewpoint that in [that country] is pretty irrelevant."

Finally, would the responder allow for transliteration of foreign names that were written in Latin script? (I'm assuming that the reader would allow for transliteration of foreign names written in non-Latin script, since I'm assuming that the reader is somewhat sensible to what would be obvious flaws in their argumentation.) If so, then would we now have to spell "Deutchland" as "Doychlahnd"; "France" and "Frahns"; "Magyarország" as "Mahjahrohrsagg"; etc., which would then impose a foreign decision upon the spelling of their name just as much as the imposition of transliterating into Latin script from non-Latin script imposes a foreign decision upon the spelling of the names of so many other countries.

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