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European city name changes in English: exonyms you should know before backpacking

Posted by Christopher Wink on Nov 4, 2008 in Education |

Sean overlooking the city of Prague, Czech Republic on stairs leading to the city castle on Oct. 25, 2008.

Sean overlooking the city of Prague, Czech Republic on stairs leading to the city castle on Oct. 25, 2008. To the rest of the world, Prague is Praha, one of many cities with varied names according to language.

I may have brought us somewhere very differently, and we might not have ever taken that train.

Sean and I wanted to go north into the nordic, so I was in charge of reserving us seats on a morning train from Berln, Germany to Copenhagen, Denmark.

I was frustrated to find there wasn’t a single train going from the German capital to its northern peer. Until I remembered a lesson.

Native European languages have very different takes on their geographical distinctions than we have in English.

There is no place called Copenhagen. The capital of Denmark is, of course, København - and trains run there quite regularly, thank you very much.

English is the fourth most spoken language in the world - a dominant one in business and science - and the United States is home to most of those speakers.

So why not assume those big, famous European cities that you actually learned and memorized have the same damn names on this side of the Atlantic? Because you could miss a train if you do.

Most are simple - in Italy, Roma is Rome, and in Poland, Warszawa is Warsaw. There are well known changes like Moscow’s Moskva, and some historical leaps like Constantinople to ?stanbul in Turkey (a simpler switch than why Westerners switched from referring to the Chinese capital as Peking to Beijing).

If you’re aware of this, Prague’s change to Praha in the Czech Republic is sensible and when you find out that in Hungary Budapest is pronounced boo-DA-peSHT, it’s OK.

Alphabetical order can help you learn that Athina and Athens are the same, the capital of Greece. Even with the same first letter, though, some changes seem fundamental. It’s just one letter, but tell me that the ‘v’ in Genova doesn’t make it seem very different than Genoa - even if they both refer to the birthplace of Christopher Columbus in Italy.

Some of us have managed to actually remember that Germans call their country Deutschland - even though the French confuse it more by referring to it as Allemagne - I thought Munich was Germanic enough to stick, rather than change to München- which one may or may not pronounce MUNCHin, if you ignore the umlaut.

Brussel-Bruxelles may be a bit more sensible than our Brussels, Belgium when one is referring to the city, because Brussels also refers to a region of the country, but when I first just saw Bruxelles I missed the connection.

During a March 2007 backpacking  trip through Italy, I learned Florence is Firenzi locally. The biggest lesson this trip that I admit I didn’t know is that Vienna becomes Wien - which I thought was strange because in German ‘w’s become ‘v’s, not the opposite.

There are plenty more English exonyms, but these are the best known across which I have come. Any other big ones I am missing?

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1 Comment

Ian Fulguirinas
Nov 6, 2008 at 4:26 pm

Danzig for Gdansk in Poland. It’s Gdansk in Slavic, but the Germans refer to it as Danzig, and everyone knows the Poles hate Germany :P so try not to refer to it as Danzig.


 

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