What’s in a Name?

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? 

World in Languages

Country names are one thing, but settling on universal names for bodies of water could prove to be a far greater challenge.

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.

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István Türr, also known as Stephan, Stefano, and Étienne.

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:

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Johann Martin Schleyer, the founder of the universal language Volapük

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.

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The emblem for the international language Volapük bears the inscription “One mankind, one language.”

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.

Introducing the Bertha von Suttner Peace Prize

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Nino Kalandarishvili holds up the inaugural Bertha von Suttner Peace Prize alongside Salome Adamia and Petra Keppler.

This spring, Nino Kalandarishvili became the first recipient of the Bertha von Suttner Peace Prize in Zugdidi, Georgia. The ceremony took place on the grounds of the Dadiani Palace, where Ekaterina Dadiani, the last Princess of Mingrelia, welcomed Bertha and her husband Artur immediately following their elopement from Vienna, Austria. Shunned by Artur’s disapproving parents, the Suttners would remain in Georgia for nine years. Forced to move from place to place, they relied on teaching and writing to avoid falling into abject poverty, a challenging contrast from their aristocratic backgrounds. 

While in the Caucasus region, Bertha and Artur witnessed growing tensions and conflicts between local residents, visiting expatriates, and the warring Turks and Russians. It’s entirely likely that the seeds of Bertha’s groundbreaking novel Lay Down Your Arms! first germinated in Georgian soil. With that in mind, Zugdidi provides a fitting venue for honoring peacemakers in our own time.

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Promotional materials for the prize include an image of the Dadiani Palace in Zugdidi.

Initiated by the Georgian youth group Trust for Peace, the Bertha von Suttner Peace Prize received international support from Zugdidi’s municipal government, the Austrian Embassy in Tblisi, the Bertha von Suttner Peace Institute of the Netherlands, the Women’s Network for Peace of Germany, and the youth welfare group Act for Transformation, also of Germany.

In her role as chair of the Institute for the Study of Nationalism and Conflicts (http://isnc.ge/), Nino Kalandarishvili has been actively promoting civil dialogue and mediation among numerous communities, both within and beyond national borders. Her bridge-building work brings her into constant contact with politicians and refugees, diplomats and activists. The inaugural Peace Prize recognizes the many ways in which her inspirational personality and professional perseverance contribute toward the success of her efforts toward conflict resolution. She personifies the stated goals of the Bertha von Suttner Peace Prize: “to honor the contribution of activists participating in peacemaking activities, to promote peaceful attitudes in society, and to engage young people in the process of building international trust and cooperation.” 

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The 2019 Bertha von Suttner Peace Prize

To learn more about the annual Bertha von Suttner Peace Prize and its sponsors, you can click on the links above as well as those listed on the “Resources” page.