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Gay Paree and the Eye-Full Tower

Q: I have a question about foreign places. Why don’t we use the same names and pronunciations as the people who live in those places? Why do we use “Germany” instead of “Deutschland,” “Italy” and not “Italia,” “Spain,” not “España”? It isn’t as if those names contained sounds we don’t have in English.

A: You might as well ask why the French and the Spanish don’t say “United States” instead of “États-Unis” and “Estados Unidos.” Or, for that matter, why Spaniards and Italians don’t say “table” instead of “mesa” and “tavola.”

What’s “Deutschland” to Germans is “Germany” to us, “Allemagne” to the French, “Alemania” to the Spanish; and “Germania” to the Italians (as it was to the ancient Romans). Americans and Britons say “London” and “Paris”; the French say “Londres” and what sounds like “Paree”; the Italians say “Londra” and “Parigi.”

The point is that geographical names, like other words, are different from language to language. Does this mean that every culture is committing “linguistic imperialism” upon every other culture? No. We don’t say “Paree” but neither do we pronounce “Detroit,” “Baton Rouge,” or “St. Louis” as the Frenchmen who named them.

If a country asks others to adopt its preferred version of a geographical name, the rest of the world usually complies, though the transition may take a while and may be a messy process. In this way, Bombay has become Mumbai in English, Burma is now Myanmar, and Peking is Beijing.

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