General Question

xgunther's avatar

Country Names?

Asked by xgunther (446points) March 24th, 2008

How come in many languages, there are names for countries that sound nothing like the country’s real name?

Uhh—that was worded horribly. Let me give you an example:
How come in English we call Deutschland Germany? Or we call Slovensko Slovakia?

Where did we get these altered names from? And why don’t we just pronounce countries like how it is pronounced in the country’s native language?

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15 Answers

DeezerQueue's avatar

Great question. I know the Netherlands, sometimes known as Holland, experiences the same issues. Holland consists of two provinces in the Netherlands, but does not constitute the entire country. I do know that the original tribes of the German area were “Germanic” and that’s probably where German comes from.

The French call the Netherlands “Pays Bas,” which means “Lands Low” or the lowlands.

xgunther's avatar

Thanks for your response. Very interesting. I hope more people can come up with some theories. I just think it would be better to call a country by it’s “real” name. I mean, the other day I was asking various people around my age at my college if they knew what Deutschland is. And like 1/4 of them knew. Kinda sad…

oneye1's avatar

moscow is really Moskva

bluemukaki's avatar

And Greeks call Greece Hellas.

squirbel's avatar

And Japan is Nippon!

I think we can lead by example, showing respect to each country by calling it as they do. It can be in our everyday conversation, and when faced with questioning looks, just explain.

Hmmm, not everyone is comfortable with dealing with questioning looks, but I guess I don’t mind :P it’s just an idea..

sferik's avatar

Many English-specific words for country names arose because English-speakers found the local names too difficult to pronounce. Heck, the president needs phonetic guides to pronounce the English names of certain countries.

As a point of warning against calling countries by their local names: non-Spanish-speaking Americans who pronounce Mexico, as [me-hee-kaw] instead of [mek-si-koh] always sound like ignorant gringos.

robmandu's avatar

Another likely contributing point is special locale-specific characters that folks won’t recognize, let alone know how to pronounce.

In German (or Deutsch, if you prefer @squirbel ;-), the spelling of the city of München has that funky “u” with an umlaut hovering over it.

Anyway, a workaround for not having an umlaut on a typewriter (or in your font suitcase) is to add an “e” after the “u”... so then the spelling would look like Muenchen.

But do any of you non-German speakers know how to pronounce that ”ü” or “ue”? It’s a little tricky for non-native speakers.

Tired yet? Then do what us dumb rednecks Americanos do, and simply say, “Munich”.

squirbel's avatar

Heh.. I spent many of my youthful years learning languages so I have mastered the odd pronounciations…

Try Malagasy – now there’s a language chock full of strange syllabary.

DeezerQueue's avatar

If it makes you feel any better, every country has its own rednecks. I’m living in an area where there are a large concentration of rednecks. I’ve seen some pretty bizarre stuff going down here. And the dialect, kind of a hillbilly speak here, they even spell their own language differently.

And some languages, well, there’s just no imitating that klucking African language for me.

Emilyy's avatar

@sferik—I’m intrigued as to why you think that non-Spanish-speaking Americans would sound like ignorant gringos if they would pronounce Mexico the Spanish way as opposed to the US American/English-speaker’s way.

I feel like Spanish language is so prevalent in the US right now (or, at least it is in LA where I live) that it is not uncommon for non-native speakers to know SOME Spanish, even if it’s just the correct pronunciation of Mexico and other Spanish words. I will admit that it does sometimes seem a little out of place when someone is speaking English and then goes to pronounce some parts of the sentence with a Spanish accent like, “The mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, held a press conference today in the city of La Puente” and they pronounce the Spanish parts as they are meant to be pronounced in the Spanish language. It seems a little out of place perhaps, but I don’t think that it makes them sound ignorant at all. Why would they? They’re just pronouncing a Spanish name with a Spanish accent.

PLUS, I just thought of this: if you hear a white person say a sentence with Spanish words and she pronounces them with a Spanish accent (example: “My friends and I are planning a trip to waa-haa-kah, meh-hee-coh (Oaxaca, Mexico)”), how would you know whether they are Spanish-speakers or not? How could you determine based on that sentence if they are ignorant gringos who only know how to pronounce Spanish words with a Spanish accent, or people who have actually studied the language at length and just pronounce the words as they are meant to be pronounced? To me, I don’t think that either person is ignorant.

I ask because I’m a Caucasian Spanish speaker and I wouldn’t want people to label me as an ignorant gringo if they heard me using Spanish words the way they were meant to be pronounced in an English sentence.

sferik's avatar

@EmilyNathon I guess I’m just trying to make the point that many non-native Spanish speakers totally butcher the pronunciation of “Mexico”, when they try to say it as natives do. I’m talking about people whose only knowledge of the language is what they picked up over a long weekend in Cancun.

I believe that English-language equivalents for hard-to-pronounce country names serve a useful purpose.

Emilyy's avatar

Yeah, I think that it really depends on the context. Personally, if I were to pronounce a Spanish word the Spanish way, it would be because of my knowledge of the language and appreciation for the culture. I do agree that there are some situations where gringos using Spanish words and butchering them as you say DOES seem very ignorant. I just don’t think it’s fair to say that you will always come off looking like an ignorant, Ugly American because you do. Context is key.

sferik's avatar

@EmilyNathon I suppose I shouldn’t have been so sweeping with my generalizations. I’m sure you don’t sound ignorant when interspersing Spanish words or pronunciations in your English speech, precisely because you have a broad knowledge of the language.

I guess the [me-hee-kaw] thing is just a pet peeve of mine.

breanne's avatar

Germany is an exonym (and an English one at that), meaning it’s a name that is not used by the inhabitants of the country. To the French, Germany is Allemagne. Deutschland is an endonym, or what the local people call their own country. The same can be said for “German” versus “Deutsch”.

Often, exonyms are the result of people encountering a foreign people and calling them what they want—what is significant to them, rather than what the local people call themselves. For instance, as a result of the Hunnish invasion of the region that would be called Hungary, English speakers now attribute that name to the country, rather than Magyar which is used by the locals. Another way this occurs is by simply making a foreign word more palatable to a language, for example the English Belgrade vs Beograd, or Athens vs Athina.

For a thorough explanation of the origins of exonyms, and a good list of them, see the Wikipedia article on them.

squirbel's avatar

Wow, thanks for that info breanne! Great answer~

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