A 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…