Thursday, 12 February 2015

That name sounds funny - I'll change it

For hundreds of years it has been the norm to give names a tweak if they sounded odd in the language being used - particular names of people and places. So for a long time, when Latin was the go-to language of Europe, it was the norm to Latinise people's names. We now find a lot of these fiddly and they have been discarded, but some still remain - Jesus and Copernicus, to name but two.

Medieval scholars also struggled with Arabic names, which became essentials when Europe was regaining its interest in science, largely spurred on by the writings of Arabic scientists and their translations of Greek books. So, for instance, Abū l-Walīd Muḥammad Ibn ʾAḥmad Ibn Rušd, or Ibn Rušd for short (whose name inspired Salman Rushdie's surname) somehow became Averroës, while Abu Mūsā Jābir ibn Hayyān became Gerber.

However, the most lasting and interestingly nuanced is our current approach to place names. Traditionally we gave a name to a place, and that was its English name, even if its 'real' name subsequently changed. But now we try harder to keep up... except where we don't. So we have gone along with the change from Ceylon to Sri Lanka, and we've even tried to keep up with as arbitrary a change as an update of transliteration from some languages that don't use the same characters as us. So, for instance, Peking has become Beijing and Mao Tse Tung turns into Mao Zedong. Yet somehow  what probably should be transliterated Moskva stubbornly remains Moscow.

In Europe, we are impressively confused over what to do. Most French places we seem to cope with, but we can't bring ourselves to say Paris the way we should. In Germany, Köln is still usually Cologne, and in Italy we shun Roma (it's not difficult, guys), Firenze and Venezia for Rome, Florence and Venice.

However, we are most confused of all when it comes to Wales. Here, we simply can't make our minds up, so end up with dual names for many places, causing strife, confusion and I'm sure road accidents as people have to cope with twice the amount of words, working out which to apply. Personally I love the Welsh names, and I'd rather we simply dropped the anglicised versions. Who wouldn't prefer Y Trallwng to Welshpool? Once you learn the basics of Welsh pronunciation (and I'm the first to admit, mine is rudimentary as it's mostly picked up from non-Welsh speakers) there's far more fun to be had with Caerdydd than Cardiff. What I wish, though, is that people would use one or the other. It really irritates me, for instance, when people use the Welsh pronunciation of, say, Aberystwyth (as happened when they were on University Challenge), but don't then go on to use Welsh place names for towns that have dual designation.

So, frankly, names are a mess. We've gradually moved away from Latinisation and Anglicisation, but only to a point. I know we don't have a body that sorts out English, it just sort of evolves. But I wish that evolution could get a move on and head in one direction or the other, rather than taking its current drunkard's walk.

(Next week, we drag astronomers, kicking and screaming into using SI units.)

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