General Question

JackAdams's avatar

Why don't English speakers refer to a foreign nation, with the same name as their citizens do?

Asked by JackAdams (6497points) September 7th, 2008

For example, the residents of Germany call their country Deutschland, so why don’t we? The residents of Japan call their country Nippon, not Japan.

Why are English-speakers so smug, that we have to invent a word of our own, for a country that already has a good-enough name, used by their own people?

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47 Answers

wildflower's avatar

It’s not just English speakers.
Depending on who I’m talking to, I might refer to Germany as Týskland, Tyskland or Germany…..if I’m talking about Greece, it’d be Grikkaland or Grækenland…..and so on…UK in French is Royaume-Uni….

JackAdams's avatar

Why can’t a country name that is “good enough” for the inhabitants, be “good enough” for everyone, everywhere?

Why does any country feel a need to name a country something different, from what the residents/citizens call it?

wildflower's avatar

One reason could be the spelling…....can you type Føroyar or Færøerne?

allengreen's avatar

Jack, suggest a name and all the Flutherer’s can see if it catches on?

JackAdams's avatar

@wildflower: After 3 or 4 years of practice, MAYBE…

JackAdams's avatar

@allengreen: A name for what?

wildflower's avatar

Also, many countries are named after something, have a meaning…..for instance, ‘united’ and ‘states’ in Faroese are ‘sameind(ir/ar/u – depending on gender)’ and ‘tjóðir’ – which is the same word used for ‘nations’ so technically, in Faroese, if you don’t add the ‘of America’, the US and UN are called the same thing….

I’m sure this is something that happens in every language.

robmandu's avatar

nah, @wildflower, it must obviously be the smugness of us weasly Americans trying to change the rest of the world to suit us.

Just because it happens in other languages is due to the influence of American & Israeli interests in the region. You just gotta dig deep enough.

wildflower's avatar

You’re probably right, rob – I’m just feeling very superficial today and not seeking deeper meanings and causes ;)

Vincentt's avatar

It indeed happens in a lot of languages. In Dutch, Germany is Duitsland, France is Frankrijk, the US is VS/America is Amerika, heck, The Netherlands is Nederland. It’s just easier to pronounce and spell that way in Dutch, and I guess the same goes for English. Aardvark sounds odd enough, we don’t need odd language names as well ;)

JackAdams's avatar

I think I am saying that, in a roundabout way, it seems to me to be somewhat “disrespectful” to call Nippon “Japan,” when those who live there call it, “Nippon.”

Here’s another example of what I mean: Your name is “VINCENTT.”

It would be disrespectful if every time I responded to your posts, I referred to you as, “MARTHA.”

Same thing, I feel…

wildflower's avatar

I’m pretty sure no Japanese person refers to me as a ‘føroyingur’.....

JackAdams's avatar

I refer to you, as you refer to yourself, wildflower.

I don’t call you TULIP, do I? But, a ROSE, by any other name…

wildflower's avatar

You’re missing the point. If you were to describe my nationality, I doubt you’d use the same word as I would – unless I’m saying it in English.
....and that’s not just an English-speaking thing – Vincentt would use a third word in Dutch (or Nederlands or Hollandskum)

Skyrail's avatar

You’re taking a personal attack at all the English speakers across the world and as wildflower, and many others have said, it’s not just an English speaking trait. I’m sure if everyone had to call countries by the names their inhabitants call it then there would be complaining about why we can’t called the country how we want to call it in our own language. Surely, if we’re to call a country the same way it’s inhabitants call it we would have to spell it the way they do to, and use their character set. Try getting everyone to get their head around the various letter sets available as mentioned above.

Do you call all countries by their ‘native’ names? Good luck on finding the native names of the 245 countries there are. And what about the different dialects? What about the tribes that are hidden in the Amazon. Which general native name do we use? I think you’ll find it’s just much easier for a language to use it’s own names.

What makes the entire English speaking population of the world so smug? Why such a generalisation?

allengreen's avatar

Jack, now you are a bad guy for asking the question

Harp's avatar

Here’s the incredibly roundabout way we came by the name “Japan”:

“The English word for Japan came to the West from early trade routes. The early Mandarin Chinese or possibly Wu Chinese word for Japan was recorded by Marco Polo as Cipangu. The modern Shanghainese (a Wu Chinese dialect 呉語) pronunciation of characters 日本 (Japan) is still Zeppen [zəʔpən]. The old Malay word for Japan, Jepang (modern spelling Jepun, although Indonesian has retained the older spelling), was borrowed from a Chinese language, and this Malay word was encountered by Portuguese traders in Malacca in the 16th century. It is thought the Portuguese traders were the first to bring the word to Europe. It was first recorded in English in 1577 spelled Giapan.” (souce)

I suspect that must of our exonyms have similarly twisted origins.

Response moderated
JackAdams's avatar

@allengreen: I’m beginning to think I should have kept my big mouth shut.

I still don’t think “they” understand what I’m saying.

More research is necessary…

MissAnthrope's avatar

I understand what you’re saying.. it’s just that it happens in every language. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s for ease of speaking and spelling in whichever language. I don’t know why some original names are kept and others are changed, it may be the unchanged are easier to pronounce/spell in said language.

Also, names get bastardized, as Harp points out. Think about how many immigrants coming through Ellis Island got their names changed because the person registering them didn’t know how to spell it. In my family, I was related to some Chamois, who came through Ellis Island and were thereafter known as Shumway.

galileogirl's avatar

Yes we really are smug aren’t we?

Why do we have to use our words not Latin?

Quare operor nos have utor nostrum lacuna non Latin?

But the Romans were pretty smug too.

Ρωμαίοι εφηύρε νέες ελληνικές λέξεις δεν

And don’t get me started about how smug and superior the Greeks were about Aramaic!

JackAdams's avatar

OK. I think I finally have an example:

ALL the residents of Canada, the USA, England, New Zealand and Australia, SO FAR AS I KNOW, call that pouched marsupial a KANGAROO, because that is what the Aboriginies of Australia call it, in their own language. None of those English-speakers made up a new name for that animal; they accepted the existing one.

And today, so far as I know (and I have been in a lot of foreign countries, including Texas) , if you utter the word “KANGAROO” in any country on Earth, the majority of that country’s population will know the kind of animal to which you are referring.

It is a word, like “OKAY,” that is universally recognized, all over the globe.

So what I am saying is that, if everyone on Earth seems to understand “OKAY” and even “PARDON,” it isn’t all that much of a stretch, to think that everyone on Earth could use the same word to describe Japan, and that would be the only word THEY use, which is “NIPPON”.

Another word everyone on Earth knows and uses, is “BUSH”.

You say that word anywhere on this planet, and anyone to whom you utter it, KNOWS you’re referring to the head Doofus in Washington, DC.

JackAdams's avatar

@Harp: Once again, I have learned something new from you, and I am most grateful for you educationally improving me.


galileogirl's avatar

Everyone might understand Bush, but their is a lot of disagreement about synonyms-from Daddy to Putz to Satan. lol

JackAdams's avatar

@AlenaD: I forgot to thank you, as well.

Your contributions to my betterment are equally appreciated, and I am richer, for reading them.

JackAdams's avatar

@galileogirl: You are indeed correct, and I bow to your wisdom on that.

Harp's avatar

Actually, Jack, the origin of “Nippon” is not as ethnically pure as you might assume. Until the 7th century, it was called “Yamoto”, “Hi na moto”, and “Woguo” by the natives. The name “Nippon” results from reading the characters for Hi na moto using the Chinese pronunciation. One Japanese historical source says that the name Nippon appeared in the 7th century when the Japanese envoy to China, who disliked the name “Woguo,” decided to change it to Nippon (possibly to make it easier to pronounce for his host government). Another source says that it was the Chinese Empress herself who ordered the envoy to change it.

MissAnthrope's avatar

@JA—Awww, thanks. :)

JackAdams's avatar

@Harp: I understand the history you mention, but TODAY, the residents call their nation, “NIPPON”.

As an aside, on the TV series, McHale’s Navy, the censors wouldn’t allow the characters on this American comedy series to refer to “the enemy” (now, our real-life friends) as “Japs,” because that word was considered to be a racial slur.

So, the word “Nips” was substituted, and the Japanese Embassy in Washington was consulted.

They reported that, officially, the Empire of Japan had “no objection” to the use of that term.

JackAdams's avatar

I forgot to mention that, due to English-Speakers’ “smugness,” we somehow managed to get EVERY Air Traffic Control Tower employee and EVERY International Pilot to agree to speak ONLY ENGLISH, to facilitate safe international air travel.

wildflower's avatar

@JA, It’s not a bad thing that all air traffic controllers speak the same language… fact, I think they should roll out the same to coast guards around the world….

JackAdams's avatar


How do we get that done?

wildflower's avatar

Start with the Swiss…

JackAdams's avatar

I’ll dial up the Swiss Embassy, first thing Monday morning…

Skyrail's avatar

I don’t think that it all happened due to English-speakers ‘smugness’. I can see entirely where you’re coming from now that you’ve described it, but for crying out loud stop making it seem that we’re all so darn smug about this whole international-English-speaking-business. Because I for one am not smug and couldn’t give two twinkies about it. Sure keep up the discussion and hold to your point, but the smug thing isn’t quite cutting it.

marinelife's avatar

I think you are presuming a smugness where none exists. I think you are presuming an ill will where there is none. You are looking at natural developments in hindsight and attributing nefarious motives to them.

As many Flutherers have posted, most language have names for things in their language including countries and so they use those names. That is common sense. What would be odd, really, would be to adopt a different language and spelling for each country. Other countries and other language users do the same. In France, we are Les Etats Unis. They render the name in French.

Sometimes, a language adopts a foreign term for something, especially if there is no English (or whatever the language is) equivalent. That would be the case for the kangaroo, which only exists wild in one place on Earth.

JackAdams's avatar

@Skyrail: Let’s please agree that we BOTH have a right to our respective opinions, OK?

You have a right to eschew the term “smugness,” while I have an equal right to use it.

Said with respect to you and your opinion, of course.

Skyrail's avatar

Sure, I’m fine with that, but I don’t think smugness is the right term to use. With the British Empire growing to such a size as shown on the map it’s no surprise that the English language became such a wide spread language. If the war(s) had gone right for Germany I’m sure we would all be speaking German now and having a conversation as such in that language instead. If Japan had continued to try and expand it’s empire in the East then I’m sure that Japanese would be a much more prominent language.

I understand that English is a language that has been imposed on the world in such a way that it finds itself everywhere. But I don’t think that this stems from the entire English speaking populace of the world being “Irritatingly pleased with (itself); self-satisfied”.

As for the original question I don’t get why you presume that it is only the entire English speaking world that is so smug with itself to do what you say we do. Why only English? We are not the most common native language in the world, Chinese and Spanish have more popular native speakers. I’m sure they probably have their own little ways of saying things, wouldn’t you say?

wildflower's avatar

@skyrail: you kind of are speaking German in a mixed up, round-about sort of way ;)

Skyrail's avatar

Aha, thank you wildflower, I didn’t know that, ‘tis interesting to know :)

wildflower's avatar

you’re very welcome – you’ll notice my great great great great great (etc.) grandparents had a hand in it too, but I don’t like to boast ;)

Vincentt's avatar

@JackAdams – you might consider calling me Martha rude, but I don’t think that’s a very good comparison.

For example, there’s this girl in my class now that’s called “Gwendolijn”. Since that’s just difficult to pronounce (even for Dutchies), that is just shortened to “Gwen”. Still, that’s pronounced Dutch (i.e. a hard “G”), while English people would say it the English way because they can’t even pronounce the hard “G”.

Also, I used to have a nickname that was nothing like my name. That wasn’t rude, it just felt better to pronounce :)

JackAdams's avatar

The comparison was offered, because if it is inherently “wrong” (and perhaps insulting or rude) to call someone named “Vincentt” by the name of Martha, then it just might be equally rude and insensitve and disrespectful to refer to Nippon as Japan.

I wouldn’t desire to have folks call me Bertha, instead of Jack.

Skyrail's avatar

Bertha and Martha eh?

I think this may just catch on.

JackAdams's avatar

Oh, Gawd… I’ve started something…

Vincentt's avatar

Hehe, I wouldn’t mind to be called Martha if you’d like that :P. Demonstrating that I wouldn’t consider it rude or insulting – why would it be?

By the way, Bertha, I mean Jack of course, what’s your native language?

JackAdams's avatar


I am from the planet QUERTZL, in the Zaluvian galaxy.

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