Of Endonyms and Exonyms

Last week, after a relaxing weekend at our friends’ mökki (Finnish summer cottage), we did a whirlwind tour of three capital cities in three days. The three countries we visited are known to their respective residents as Suomi, Eesti and Sverige. The last two might sound somewhat familiar to an English-speaker; we call them Estonia and Sweden. But the first country’s own name for itself sounds nothing like the English name; to us, ‘Suomi’ is ‘Finland.’

Confusion at Suomenlinna

Confusion at Suomenlinna

Recognise any of these cities?

Recognise any of these cities?

While in Helsinki, we visited Suomenlinna, a maritime fortress whose name translates literally as “Finnish Castle.” Just like everywhere else in Finland, the signs at Suomenlinna were in both Finnish and Swedish. The Swedish name for this fortress is “Sveaborg” which translates more or less as “Swedish Castle.” Hmmm.

Several times this year, we’ve wondered at the historical reasons that the English language came up with a different name for almost every major city in Italy (Roma>Rome; Firenze>Florence; Venezia>Venice, etc), but left French and Spanish city names untouched.

And of course, English isn’t the only language that ignores endonyms (names used by a group of people to describe themselves, their language and the place where they live) in favour of exonyms (names used by outsiders to describe those same things); we say, “Germany,” the Spanish say “Alemania” and the Hungarians say “Németország.” None of these sound even remotely like “Deutschland,” which is what the people who live there call it.

And so far we’ve only discussed European countries. The situation becomes even trickier as you venture into Asia. Do you know the English name for the country called “Bharat”? Can you make any sense of the names on this map?

Deciding whether to use an endonym or exonym seems pretty straightforward when communicating with another outsider. I don’t tell my English-speaking friends, “I’m heading to Suomi this weekend” because I know that they won’t know what I mean. Even when talking to someone  who’s from the country in question, it seems fine to use the commonly accepted place name of whatever language we’re speaking: I usually say “Germany” when speaking in English with German friends, just as I say “Vereinige Staaten” when speaking in German about my own country of birth.

But it’s all well and fine for those of us who speak historically imperial languages to assent (in limited situations) to calling our countries by their names in other languages; those different names are little more than fanciful amusements to us. But if you live in Georgia (the Republic in the Caucasus, not the  state in the American South), whether someone calls your country, ‘Georgia’ or ‘Gruziya’ or ‘Sakartvelo’ might matter a great deal to you.

For the most part, I think we should call a country/city/ethnic group whatever it wants to be called. That doesn’t necessarily mean calling them what they call themselves; in the example from the previous paragraph, the country wants others to call it ‘Georgia’ even though it calls itself “Sakartvelo.” And no one in any of the three countries we visited last week seemed to have any qualms about calling their country a different name whilst speaking in English.

In any case, this might be one of the few areas where European countries do a better job with Africa than with each other. Although they may spell it slightly differently, most European languages comply with calling Kenya, ‘Kenya.”



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