The language barrier I encountered in Israel/Palestine was probably the most disorienting obstacle I faced throughout Walking Walls. I traveled extensively before heading to the Holy Land and from Paris to Poland, I had always been able to read a few street signs, master some key phrases, sometimes I could even understand and respond to simple conversation in German or more advanced discussion in Spanish.
I didn’t stand a chance with Hebrew or Arabic. Reading was out of the question and I only learned a few basic words in either language during the five weeks I spent in and around Jerusalem. To be fair, I didn’t have the time or resources to make a more serious effort at either language, but my resulting confusion and dependance on the prevalence of English signs and English speakers was both remarkable and isolating.
And a note about the prevalence of English on those signs. In Israel/Palestine, most public signs and notices will include writing in Hebrew, Arabic and English. In my experience, the order of the languages tells you who controls the area and by extension, reveals your relationship to the neighborhood. English is usually last, but it seems to me that the real battle is between first two, Arabic and Hebrew. They switch predictably based on geography, but with an insistence that would make you think someone was keeping score.
The above photo was taken in the Shu’afat neighborhood of East Jerusalem.
At a glance, it’s just Europe, right?
This map is in Polish, and a lot of the country names are pretty different, if not unrecognizable.
So this got me thinking: why are place names different in different languages?
Wouldn’t it be easier if everyone just used the same names? Think how much easier travel would be if everyone referred to Vienna as Wien. Pronunciation woes erased if Warszawa was just Warsaw.
But thankfully, the world is not so uniform or predictable.
I have a theory about this: when a language has a unique name for place or a country, people who speak said language then have a small stake in the country, a foot in the door, a piece of the nation’s pie, just for them: Linguistic colonization.
Then I started thinking about different languages, different countries and place-names. And I came up with a hypothesis: more influential countries will have a greater variety of names across languages, because a piece of their pie is tastier than less influential countries.
Then, I did an experiment. Download this pdf to follow along: CountryNamebyLanguageshort
1.Generally, the “More Influential Countries” have a wider variety of names. They have an average of 6 significant differences across 7 languages. The “Less Influential Countries” have an average of 3.8 significant differences. (significant difference = change in spelling, not accent placements. Pronunciation plays no role here). Hypothesis proven true.
2.Look at Germany. It has 4 drastically different spellings. Only the United Kingdom and the United States also differed so drastically, and I would posit that these changes can be accounted for by the fact that their names are made up of two independent words: United and States/Kingdom. Is it possible that the roller coaster of German history and its array of incarnations (Prussia, First Reich, Weimar Republic, Third Reich, East/West Germany, United Germany, all within 150 years!) plays a role in the way it is conceptualized and referred to across languages? I think I’m on to something.
3.Honduras, Laos, Liechtenstein, Niger, Uganda boast just 2-3 variations. What’s up with that? Is it because the names just don’t translate in the languages I’m sampling? Can’t be the whole story, Honduras is definitely Spanish and Liechtenstein screams German. Or is it just that these countries aren’t important enough to these languages and their speakers to warrant a linguistic stake in their names?
I’m fascinated by this and I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially if you’re an actual linguist or a colonialist.
My friend Andrew, who actually got his BA in Linguistics and is now studying at Oxford, says (via Facebook):
I feel way underqualified to answer this, but it’s so interesting! i know what you mean about random name changes. during the winter olympics in Torino different news networks used Turin (as in the shroud) or Torino. People weren’t sure if it was famous enough to use the English name or not. I think sometimes city name differences have to do with changes in pronunciation. For example, the word Rome 500 years ago would have been pronounced with two syllables by an English speaker, pretty similarly to Roma.
I like your idea about power and naming, but I’m not sure if it’s right. There are historically old names that languages have for neighboring regions, ethnic groups, or countries. It seems like different ones are used for Germany. England goes by Britain or UK and the Netherlands gets subjected to metonymy all the time when it’s called Holland, but that doesn’t have to do with power just history and government. The Chinese names are usually transliterations that get shortened. Deguo is short for Deyizhi (Deutsch) plus guo meaning country. Likewise France usually gets shortened to Faguo. America is the same too. It seems like a better way to divide names up is by language family rather than power, with proximity to the language being a factor.
I’d also say that writing systems mess everything up when moving things into new languages. sometimes people spell things the same way and then they get pronounced different ways in different places. other times, things are spelled so that they are pronounced the same but then they don’t look the same on paper. like i’d say that uganda and Fiji only have one version. although they’re spelled differently, i think that’s just as close as the languages could get either in spelling or in sound while maintaining their native phonemes.
And points interested parties to this book: Off the Map: The Curious History of Place-Names