Mumbai duck

Everybody has a right to pronounce foreign names as he chooses.—Winston Churchill

It’s Bombay, dammit! In (British) English, I mean. I don’t care what the locals call it: I don’t speak Marathi. (Actually, I do care, out of intellectual curiosity, but that’s a different matter entirely.) I know that the official name has been changed, but it’s less clear why we have to follow suit. The news outlets have obeyed, but, of course, since plenty of people have no idea where Mumbai is, they have to say, ‘which used to be called Bombay’. Oh yeah? Actually, it still is called that. That may not be its name, but that’s what we call it. The same goes for Calcutta (at least ‘Kolkata’ is guessable) and Madras (‘Chennai’ isn’t). And do you really think anyone can remember, let alone pronounce ‘Thiruvananthapuram’ (formerly better known and pronounced as Trivandrum)?

I don’t call Paris ‘Paree’ unless I’m speaking French. I don’t care that they call London ‘Londres’, either. I’ve visited Cologne, and Munich, and Prague. I’m never been to Moscow or Warsaw, Rangoon or Copenhagen, or various other cities that, for different historical reasons, have their own English names.

When I went to China, I didn’t say I went to ‘Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo’ or ‘Zhongguo’. Likewise, I don’t tell people that I lived in ‘Nihon’ for two years, or in ‘België’. They’d be confused, and I’d be an ass.

It’s bad enough that we’ve all started calling Peking ‘Beijing’. It would at least be tolerable if not for the fact that, when English speakers say it, they invariably get it wrong (hint: it’s ‘j’ as in ‘jingle’, not like ‘zh’ in ‘Dr Zhivago’). So why did we start calling it ‘Beijing’, anyway? To imitate the locals? We do a very bad job. (The French, with characteristic, admirable intransigence, continue to say ‘Pékin’ as they always have.) There’s a good raison d’être for anglicised names: we can pronounce them easily and agree on what they sound like. That’s just not the case with a word imposed from afar in an unfamiliar language and orthography.

However, the booby prize for daft name changes has to go to a vocal Korean minority’s tiresome, endless nagging about the Sea of Japan. They want us all to call it the ‘East Sea’, because that’s what they call it—evidently because it’s to the east of Korea. Well, it just so happens that they call the Yellow Sea the ‘West Sea’. Why? Yes, you guessed—it’s to the west of the Korean peninsula. They don’t seem upset about that name, though, because it doesn’t have ‘Japan’ in it. But what does it matter? The Sea of Japan has a widely-recognised appellation that’s pretty accurate (like the Irish Sea, it’s named after the land mass that defines its extremity). Yes, I know that the Koreans are still pissed off about the Japanese occupation of the first half of the 20th century, but really, that’s between them. Probably 50% of the world’s seas are to the east of somewhere, which makes such a non-specific toponym nearly useless. But they are welcome to call it what they like. Just don’t tell the rest of us what to call a bit of water we already have a perfectly good name for.

I’m not being imperialist: I’m just being practical. We need not throw away useful, pronounceable, widely-understood names because someone else calls them something different. Language is best when it’s used for communication, not for political point-scoring.


  1. hirokai sobu

    Wrote at 2006-11-01 22:49 UTC using Internet Explorer 6.0 on Windows XP:

    i love this website. it has a cool taste!