Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Endonyms, exonyms, allonyms... what's in a nym?

A comment about my previous posting led me to do a little study about names of cities and countries. I'd like to describe some of what I learned. More details can be found on this Wikipedia entry.

The name by which a city or country is referred to by the local population is called an "endonym" while the name used by others not native to the place is called an "exonym". As an example, "Firenze" is an endonym while "Florence" is an exonym for the same city used by the French and English. Examples of exonyms are abundant in Europe. Among the most interesting for me are two German cities: "München", known in Italy by its exonym "Monaco" (which means "monk") and "Aachen" whose Italian exonym is "Aquisgrana" (which comes from the original Roman name meaning "hot springs"). In both cases, the exonym conveys more accurately the history of the city than does the current endonym.

The city we call by its English exonym "Geneva" has the endonym Genève used by its mainly French-speaking residents. Its other names
, "Genf" in German and "Ginevra" in Italian, might be called exonyms, but then German and Italian are official Swiss languages, so residents of Geneva who speak these languages can legitimately use "Genf" and "Ginevra" as endonyms. Thus a single city can have two or more endonyms. In this case the different endonyms are called "allonyms" of each other.

Another example of allonyms is "Bruxelles" (endonym used by French-speaking locals) and "Brussel" (endonym used by Flemish-speaking locals). Neither is pronounced the same way as "Brussels" which is the English exonym.

A nice example of allonyms closer to (my) home is "Mumbai" (Marathi endonym), "Bambai" (Hindi endonym) and "Bombay" (English endonym). While some might claim that the last one is an English exonym, English is one of India's official languages and there is a significant population in the city that uses it as a principal language. Therefore "Bombay" qualifies to be an endonym and is one of at least three allonyms for the city. This is in quite the same sense that Genf and Ginevra qualify as endonyms for Genève.

We spontaneously use exonyms all the time, for example English speakers refer to the country called "Zhōngguó" as China, and the city of "Krung Thep" as Bangkok. In my experience, English speakers tend to be particularly ignorant that they are using exonyms and often try to convince themselves and others that they are using the "correct" names, whatever that means. This is perhaps because of the very widespread (though hardly as overwhelming as some people imagine) use of English in the world today.

While the United Nations has studiously tried to encourage the exclusive use of endonyms, it has by its own admission found this very difficult, you can read about it here. To quote from this document: "Time has, however, shown that initial ambitious attempts to rapidly decrease the number of exonyms were over-optimistic and not possible to realise in the intended way. The reason would appear to be that many exonyms have become common words in a language and can be seen as part of the language’s cultural heritage."

In official situations the use of specific endonyms is sometimes required, but (in a democracy) there cannot be any restrictions on the use of different endonyms or exonyms in informal conversation, blogging, literature, art etc. This is particularly convenient for those contemplating a visit to Baile Átha Cliath!


Rahul Siddharthan said...

Pronunciation is another matter: English speakers tend to assume that their own pronunciations are right. I remember a conversation with an American and a Jewish Russian, and the Russian referred to someone whose name he pronounced something like "Khoam-ski" - the "h" accented and guttural, the first syllable rhyming with "roam". After some puzzlement the American caught on: "Oh, you mean Chomsky!" and then, immediately abashed, "Of course, I'm sure yours is the right way to pronounce it."

Actually, English speakers often do try to pronounce foreign names like Euler and Gauss roughly correctly ("oiler", "gowss"). The French don't make any attempt: they pronounce foreign names using French pronunciation rules ("uhlair", "goass").

Sunil Mukhi said...

Rahul S:

Yes, pronunciation is a whole other story. I find it particularly amusing when Russian physicists start their talk by writing down a "Gamiltonian"!

Anant said...

Thanks for a most educational post. I guess there is indeed more than one way to skin a cat, or say the name of a town.
But I must I prefer the melliflous Ooty to the ghastly Uthagamandalam?

Vivek Malewar said...

You can probably relate to this as you've been to Taiwan ..
The hotel I stayed in Taiwan was called 'Monarch Plaza', but no one knew it by that name locally. It was called "Chun Chei" !!

Well, at least that's just hotel, not the name of city.

Another endonym/exonym I can relate to right now is - Seoul. Apparently, it's *not* pronounced as see-ol. It should sound like "soul"

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Anant - tastes differ. Ooty sounds rather coarse to me (like force-feeding a child, in Tamil), and Udhagamandalam sounds dignified.

Vivek - well, there's also the Indian Institute of Science, which nobody in Bangalore has ever heard of -- but everyone knows it as the "Tata Institute".

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Vivek - ps: I've never heard "Seoul" pronounced in any way other than "Soul". I think the Seoul Olympics dinned the right pronunciation into most people (the Seoul Asiad, a few years earlier, is when I learned the pronunciation). On the other hand, Hyundai is generally pronounced differently in India and in the US, and I think the US pronunciation (something like "Hoon-day") may be more accurate...