During the impeachment inquiries against the president of the United States of America, many spectators were confused by the various pronunciations of Kyiv (Kiev), the capital of Ukraine. As it turns out, most Americans rely on the Russian pronunciation over the native rendition. In a way, this comes as no surprise. Not only do foreigners frequently mispronounce international place names; in many instances, they spell the proper names of countries and cities in nearly unrecognizable ways, even when relying on a common alphabet. Endonyms (the names people and places use for themselves) no longer match exonyms (the names given to people and places by foreigners). (To see an interactive map of the world featuring country names in their original languages, click here.)
If we could take one definitive step toward respecting one another on this planet, might we not start by calling each other by our given names?
Local place names often reflect a region’s cultural history. For example, the names of many geographical features in the U.S., such as Lake Winnipesaukee and the Mississipi River, have deep roots in indigenous languages. Throughout history, however, colonizing forces around the globe imposed their own languages on subjugated nations, often ignoring long-standing nomenclature. Tribal power shifts within countries have also affected both the spelling and pronunciations of local names. The various exonyms for today’s Deutschland (Alemania in Spanish, Germany in English, Niemcy in Polish, Saksa in Finnish, Tyskland in Scandinavian languages) result from numerous geopolitical and linguistic shifts that took place over the region’s history.
On the personal level as well, the names of people often change dramatically in translation. That’s why I was called José in my high school language class, as there was no Spanish equivalent for Hugh. In her memoirs, Bertha von Suttner recalls greeting the chairman of the 1896 Budapest Peace Congress, the Hungarian General István Türr, with a sign that read “Wilkommen, Stephan Türr.” During the congress itself, the Italian delegation called Türr Stefano while the French representatives referred to him as Étienne. Would it have been so difficult for everyone to agree to call him by his given name, in his native language?
Apparently, such due respect might be more difficult than we imagine. Phonemes in some languages (i.e. the sounds that make up a given word) have no counterparts in others. In extreme instances, oral physiology has adapted to some sounds (or their absence) to such a degree that it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to pronounce certain foreign words properly. Many people have difficulty saying my name properly, so much so that calls of “hey Hugh!” sound more like “hey you!” depending on the regional accent. That explains why, when I worked in a record shop, with loud music constantly playing in the background, I received the nickname Bert. I rarely looked up when someone across the store called my name.
Bertha and other 19th-century pacifists, including Alfred Nobel himself, regarded a universal language as one possible pathway toward peace. Even so, the developers of these languages, such as Volapük and the more recent Esperanto, faced nearly insurmountable challenges. Some historians claim that Martin Schleyer’s devotion to the umlaut doomed Volapük. It certainly opened his efforts up to ridicule, as this limerick from the Milwaukee Sentinel shows:
A charming young student of Grük
Once tried to acquire Volapük
But it sounded so bad
That her friends called her mad,
And she quit it in less than a wük.
The French author and caricaturist John Grand-Carteret, having described Bertha as “the apostle of peace and civilization,” proclaimed her work to represent “the feminine Volapük of the future, a language that…will permit the women of all countries to utter the cry, ‘Die Waffen Nieder!’” It wasn’t enough for women to raise their voices; they needed to modify their native languages (ironically called the “mother tongues” in English) to communicate their needs and desires more effectively as well. Even the German title of Bertha’s most popular book remains difficult to translate into English. Initial editions bore the clumsy title Ground Arms!, while subsequent versions were updated with Lay Down Your Arms! I’d suggest that Lower Your Weapons! is a more accurate translation, though it lacks the clear military reference of its predecessors.
Despite the clear challenges, it would serve humanity well to attempt the languages of others, if only in speaking the names of people and places. Doing so would not only show respect for others; it would further our continuing education about the rich array of languages and cultures around the world. It might also provide a necessary first step toward adopting a global language, one that might bring us all closer together rather than driving us farther and farther apart.