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How Lexicography Can Create World Peace

So yesterday I (Eric C) laid out a problem: we (by “we”, I mean anyone who speaks) mis-pronounce other country names. For Americans specifically, we anglicize European country names, but force (possibly racist, definitely orientalist) pronunciations on Middle Eastern, Asian and African countries.

Let’s get rid of this shortsighted and needless linguistic quirk. I’d like to create a smarter, more universal system with consistent pronunciations. Our modern world, flat and cosmopolitan, doesn’t need out-dated and inaccurate pronunciations of city and country names.

The On V proposal? We’d replace Germany with Deutschland, Italy with Italia, Rome with Roma, and so on. We propose a universal naming system, based on as close an approximation to the native tongue’s pronunciation of the name as pronunciation allows--also known as an endonym. (Endonyms are what countries call themselves country; exonyms are the names countries give other countries.) If I became the king of the world, I’d make this decree on the first day. (The second day? America adopts on the metric system. Third day? The 24 hours clock.)

But the world can make this happen without a global monarchy. The question is how. My five proposals on how to change the system:

1. Wikipedia changes to a universal naming system. If the world’s most comprehensive knowledge source adopted this system, then its inter-linking articles could teach confused newcomers--who, possibly reading an article on Hofbrauhaus, don’t know where/what Munchen is--the native pronunciation of every country and city in the world; every reader will be one link click away from learning the (new? proper? native?) name. If Wikipedia adopted this system, we could make it a reality.

For example, Wikipedia already has this wonderful article, “List of countries and capitals in native languages”. Let’s use and adopt that list.

2. Next, Google Maps (and Mapquest, and so on.) makes native pronunciations the default setting. And just like Wikipedia, they can include links to the old name, helping people to learn the new name. (Maps in general should convert to this system.) Currently, Google Maps has the worst of both worlds, combining English exonyms with country names written in the native language. But since I can only read Roman letters, we recommend that Google Maps makes English-based endonyms the default setting.

3. Change high school curriculum to teach the universal pronunciations. Though it usually isn’t, we should require high school students to take a geography course. And in that geography course, teachers should teach the native country names/endonyms. This will also help Americans compete in the globalized world.

4. The media should adopt the universal naming system. Pretty straightforward. If every news outlet uses the universal system, we’d all catch on pretty quickly.

5. Finally, don’t be an jerk about it. As I wrote yesterday, if you’re going to correct people, be consistent. Correct both Asian and European country names. Or don’t correct at all.

This process won’t be simple; smarter people than us have already recommended it--apparently the UN has a commission on exonyms--and there will be disputed pronunciations. That said, this system, in the end, is a smarter system.

Which brings it around to us...will On Violence adopt a universal naming system? Probably not. We want to, but it would be trendsetting in a way that would confuse our readers. If a handful of our suggestions were ever adopted--especially the Wikipedia one--then we would do it in a heartbeat. And if we had more time, we’d probably try to lobby Wikipedia to make the change.

Until then...the mispronunciations remain. But at least we know about it.

five comments

Re-reading the post, I think we over promised on the title…

I don’t see the mechanism for how this would promote peace. Names come into use because of tradition. By adopting exonyms, places that are foreign sounding seem mentally further away and unfamiliar.

How is the exonym a sign of disrespect or subjugation? People in China couldn’t care less what we Anglophones call it. In fact, settling on an official name could actually conflict within the country that needs to settle on an official pronunciation. Zhongguo or Junggwok? Wait, wait, does China refer to the ROC or PRC? Or does it refer to a “concept” of China.

Good luck doing Italy. How do you know that there is a single Italian language anyways? I recently read that it was a made up country with non-mutually intelligible dialects (Piedmontese, Sardinian, etc).

It requires everyone to learn foreign sounds in each language just to figure out what they’re referring to. The cause of International Peace is not helped by additional spelling obstacles. Care to take a stab at pronouncing Croatia?

Besides, does the sound actually mean anything? Or do you need to translate the concept? Will China suddenly be forgotten as people confuse the Middle Kingdom with the Middle East, the Midwest, and Middle Earth? Why should Chinese speaking people be pressured to have to butcher the sound of “America”? What if the character set doesn’t support the pronunciations?

This would also break a good thing that Chinese has going. The characters for America “美國” mean “Pretty Country”. The characters for England or Britain are “英國” meaning “English Country”. How would they represent the sounds “accurately” without resorting to English script? Hundreds of years from now, if Chinese is still around and the ideographs haven’t been replaced with Roman or Hangul, the words will be the same but of course the pronunciation can adapt. When will sound-based alphabets update their spellings? The Chinese sounds for America and England are the modern pronunciations of how those names sounded to some scholar and his version of Chinese hundreds of years ago. That strikes me as a more plausible reason for why exonyms exist.

And good luck trying to get people who speak languages that don’t use many final consonants in syllables (Japanese and Mandarin).

If it becomes too difficult to refer to a foreign country, one might be inclined to not refer to it at all.

In fact, learning the native name for a country might be thought of as an act of humility and a desire to see the world from the Other perspective. Language works in very subtle ways. Prescriptive changes often do more harm than good. And it isn’t even clear how the good would even work.

Sorry, I’m ranting because I think highly of your blog and this is a very disappointing idea.

Yeah, Jeff, we meant the title humorously, we don’t actually think doing this will create world peace.

Will say this though, both co-authors of the blog lived in Italy for a year.

Finally, this idea is just a suggestion. We think international consistency works better. Why call Deutschland Germany? Or Alemania, as Spanish speakers do? Let’s just call it Deutschland, as the people who live there call it.

If there’s no good reason to keep doing something wrong, let’s do it right.

And I gotta say, I didn’t think this post would be so controversial. This post—and yesterday’s—were more a thought on language differences than anything else.

I respectfully disagree with backing off on your essay’s title and Jeff Wong’s assertions. And…#5 on your list ought to be #1 and expand that anti-jerkiness to eliminating the sense of western predominance of virtually everything.

The world is a great big place of rich individual cultures. Jump on me for anti-Americanism if you must, but if we claim leadership in the world, we must embrace individual world cultures, specifically the native peoples of those various countries. It is not our duty to impress exonyms on the locations of the world, but embrace the endonyms as decided by the residents of those locations.

Yes, this does promote “world peace”. What we have seen in the past decade is the American government promoting war on on foreign governments without the critical analysis of the people of those lands that we bring war upon. Most Americans don’t know a Sunni from a Shia from a Pushtun and unfortunately don’t give a damn about it.

Lets promote respect to those who live in the lands of Endonyms, embrace them, understand them, interact with them on their own terms. This is hardly a surrender to those who have attacked American “interests”, but a plea for greater peace among peoples of the earth.

The only reason I think this would help “create world peace” (which by itself it could never do, promotion of economic integration and democratic governments is the best prescriptions), is that thinking about more different countries is a good thing. America’s woeful lack of geography training definitely hurts us in a globalized world, and makes it easier to demonize our enemies. Learning how countries refer to themselves (even if we keep old pronunciations) would help globalize our population, and decrease the likelihood of war.