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What’s in a name?

The fashion for 'PC' place names

So, what’s in a name? From Mumbai-Bombay to Beijing-Peking, cities, and other geographical features for that matter, are rushing to shed their colonial-era names and adopt what we’re led to believe are traditional, pre-colonial versions before oppressive imperialists forced the suffering locals to spell Melaka with an A and two Cs.

Yes, it can a bit of a goldmine for those of a cynical nature but name changes have come about for varying reasons; restoration of pre-colonial names, erasure of Anglicized spellings, or political motivations, (or collective punishment), in the case of say Ho Chi Minh City. A collective celebration of victory and the man himself if you’re from the northern part of the country but many locals still use the old name. Whatever your political views Ho Chi Minh City is just not a very attractive name and you can’t help but feel HCM City will go the same way as Leningrad-St Petersburg at some future date.

So, whats in a name? Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City?
Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City?

Otherwise, Vietnam doesn’t seem to have messed around too much with its post-colonial spellings – probably largely due to the fact that the Latin alphabet was an imposition in the first place. We can’t think of any examples in Laos or Cambodia either. (Fortunately, the Khmers don’t seem to have come up with the idea of Baddambong yet). Mind you since there are still huge problems with, and no official form of, transliteration of Thai/Lao and Khmer scripts no-one seems very concerned how you spell place names. See Ayuthaya, Ayodaya, Ayuttaya, Ayotthaya for example and we should all count ourselves lucky that the Thais don’t have any problem with the commonly used foreign name Bangkok for their capital, known to locals as Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Phiman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit. (Longest place name on record apparently)

Luckily we can still call it Bangkok
Luckily we can still call it Bangkok

Not being a former colony Thailand obviously doesn’t feel the need to worry too much how foreigners spell their place names and it is indeed anglicized spellings that seem particularly vulnerable to being ‘de-colonized’. Malaysia and Myanmar,  both of whom obviously adopted new names, being 2 particularly interesting examples and. The old British Malaya always seemed more appropriate as a geographical area – a peninsular inhabited predominately by Malay people rather than a state – and Malaysia does sound more like a country.

Renaming Malacca – Melaka and Penang – Pinang do have the odour of tokenism somewhat and are merely only attempts to render local names using local phonetics with what is after all a ‘borrowed’ alphabet anyway. Fortunately, we don’t do the same in the UK otherwise if all town names employed phonetically rendered local accents, (Noocassel?), the map of the country would resemble an Irvine Welsh novel. (Note taxi is written teksi in Bahasa Malay while Bahasa is a Sanskrit, not Malay term.)

Pinang, Penang - whatever
Pinang, Penang – whatever

Now Myanmar for Burma had us initially thinking lame PR exercise by the junta but it does actually make more sense in so far as Burma is really only an Anglicized version of Bamar which is the name of the dominant Burmese ethnic group, although the old name Myanmar is apparently still only a corruption of the same name too. (In return though they should perhaps stops referring to Thailand as Ayuthaya!) Yangon for the British spelling Rangoon – ok – but Ayeyarwady for Irrawaddy – you sure about that guys!? Unlike Malaysia the Burmese here seem to be telling us how to pronounce their place names using a  Latin script that they do not use themselves. (It’s a bit like when Thais correct my pronunciation of compewtuuuurrr for example.)

The Ayeyarwady River!?
The Ayeyarwady River!?

So some changes seem fair enough but others rather lame; is calling Sri Lanka Ceylon ‘un-PC’? Shouldn’t a country be able to call it’s towns whatever it wants, but should foreign spellings in foreign scripts be imposed on others – can I still call it the Irrawaddy, please? (BTW in our experience locals do not seem very bothered whether I say Rangoon (the airport code is still RGN and Ho Chi Minh City’s SGN) or Yangon or Burma or Myanmar.

And why don’t the French make us write the phonetically correct Pari, Bordo or Twolose on our Euro road maps? For that matter London (Londres) reeks of Roman imperialism – stuff Londinium – what would Boadicea have called it?