My mind, my thoughts, my words

Cechy, Abertawe and München…

placenamesA while ago I met a Chinese girl and she told me that she was from Beijing. An awkward pause followed because her face made me assume that she was expecting me to know that city. But I didn’t. Until it hit me; Peking! Okay, I must admit that the resemblance between these two names is rather great, but well, I had a blond moment and after all, I had never talked about the city in English before – I might have heard the term in passing – but in my head it was – until then – simply ‘Peking’ (note that Peking is the name of the city according to Chinese Postal Map Romanisation, and the traditional customary name for Beijing in English” – wikipedia)

This (a little embarrassing) incident made me, not for the first time, wish for universal place names. Or do you know how to ask the way to Bohemia in the Czech Republic (assuming you are in a place where no one speaks English)? Cechy! Swansea in Wales? Abertawe! Munich in Germany? München!

Onomastics is the study of names. More specifically, the study of place names is called toponomy or toponomastics (Anthroponomastics is the study of personal names).

Place names are historical records of events or a person’s existence; for example Liechtenstein is named after Anton Florian of Liechtenstein.
This historical insight you can get from a name really is a fascinating and interesting feature of place names. Just a couple of days ago, a friend told me what they had learned in a German lecture about the various names (due to the country’s history and geographic position probably more than for any other European nation) for Germany and what they (might) indicate.
The German word for Germany is “Deutschland”, which is, along with similar-sounding names derived from the Old High German word “diutisc” which has the meaning “belonging to the nation”. On the other hand, the root for Germany in Slavic languages is sometimes said to be related to “niem”, which stands for “dumb”. Different people, different views on people!?

Nevertheless, apart from that “historical” feature, wouldn’t it be just more convenient to have universal place names, facilitating cooperation and taking away the burden of learning even more “vocab”?

As a solution, I would suggest to use the name of a place in the language that the people speak in that place. Surely, it might take some effort to pronounce that strange ayn (voiced pharyngeal fricative) in al-mamlaka al-arbiia as-saudiia (the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), but even if just pronounced as a glottal stop (or so), it would still be more alike to the original name than “Saudi Arabia” is…

6 comments on “Cechy, Abertawe and München…

  1. Allan
    31/01/2011

    Very interesting reading and so true on many levels. To take your paragraph about Beijing and Peking, this is still an uncertain topic. The media always referr to the city as Beijing and so do most people now but say 20years ago, many people still referred to Beijing as peking and even to this day when reading older texts some people consider Peking a different place all together!

    And yes etomology of words is an amazing feature, for instance the modern day word for Scottish people (Scots) came from the Latin Scotii meaning “pirate” due to the fact Scotland was a heavily involved pirate nation and would raid english and dutch vessels.

    Finally, in reference to your place names, that is another confusing but wonderful thing, for instance the Scottish Highlands have all their signs Bilingual, although most english names sound like the Scottish Gaelic ones, there are some major differences e.g. Fort William – A’ Ghearasdan. It can be confusing to those unable to understand scots Gaelic etc and even the english versions of the name can be lengthy😀

    But interesting reading and it does make you think about the differences in languages and cultures from place to place.

    Mòran Taing🙂

  2. Gina
    02/02/2011

    Hello Pirate😉
    Thanks for your interesting reply!
    I was only aware of “Peking” because that’s what we say in German (even though it says on the internet that Beijing is sometimes used, too).
    A’ Ghearasdan really is a good example, since the English ‘Fort William’ doesn’t have anything in common with the original Gaelic name! People could save some ink in not having bilingual signs due to not needing them because of there only being universal place names😉

  3. Christopher
    02/02/2011

    ‘Deutsch’ or ‘Dutch’ is a very interesting and ancient word. The German version comes from the Old High German ‘diod’ or ‘dioda’ according to the OED, and this is cognate with Old English ‘þéod’ (in case special symbols don’t work, that’s a thorn or th at the start). This word is the basis of Tolkien’s name Théoden, the king of Rohan in the Lord of the Rings, since all the Rohirrim names are Old English This word survived into Middle English as ‘thede’ with the meaning ‘people’ ‘race’ or ‘nation’, sometimes ‘gentiles’.

    Cognates are found in other Indo-European languages, including Celtic. The Old Irish word ‘tuath’ meant ‘people, tribe’ as in ‘Tuatha Dé Danaan’, the mythical gods of ancient Ireland, or ‘people of the goddess Dana’. In modern Irish and Scottish Gaelic it means ‘tenantry; or ‘farmers’. Modern Scottish Gaelic ‘tuathanach’ [tu?h?nax] means ‘farmer’. In Manx, where sound changes and the abomination that is Manx spelling changed ‘tuath’ into ‘theay’ [ti?], it remains closer to its original meaning of ‘ordinary people’ (as opposed to the rulers). There is a Manx proverb ‘Ta’n theay ny stroshey na’n Chiarn’ – ‘the people (tuath / theod / diod) are stronger than the Lord [of the Isle]’. The word ‘theayagh’ (tuathach), i.e. ‘deutsch’, is used in modern Manx business-speak to mean ‘public’.

    And there is certainly is a connection between Fort William and An Gearasdan (which is masculine, not feminine as Allan implies with his lenition). ‘Gearasdan’ is merely a Gaelicization of the English word ‘garrison’, a place where soldiers are stationed, or ‘fort’. Fort William was established by King William of Orange to suppress the rebellious Jacobite Highlanders. It had a succession of fancy English names after various important English men, before they settled on ‘Fort William’. However, it is not surprising that the long-suffering local population were not impressed by high-and-mighty names and just called it ‘the garrison’.

  4. Christopher
    02/02/2011

    PS The question marks in the phonetic transcription of ‘tuathanach’ are schwas.

  5. Gina
    21/02/2011

    Glad I could help😀 (in case you meant my post and not the ‘post-like’ comments by Allan and Chris😉 )

  6. Pingback: Ivanovich Ivanovich | My mind, my thoughts, my words

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This entry was posted on 29/01/2011 by in Academia, Cultures, Linguistic Musings, Places and tagged , , , , .
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