All about demonyms

Saturday, February 27, 2010

There's a big discussion ongoing here about demonyms that readers here might be interested in. The question that started it off is "Why don't we call countries what the people who live there call them?" Here are a few reasons for this off the top of my head:

- The original name has been changed, and other countries haven't followed along yet. Burma/Myanmar is one example.

- The English name actually is a fairly good approximation of, or even better than the native language. Persian is a good example of this, as Persian comes from Pars, which later on changed to Fars through the influence of Arabic, then add a -i to make it an adjective (in Persian), or an -ian to make it an adjective in English. Some Persians call their language Parsi though, because Persian has and has always had a p.

- A mistake or obsolete convention, which has since become a habit. Dutch is an example of this. Luckily there's no confusion between Dutch and Deutsch since English doesn't use the latter, so it's not a big deal. Also, Dutch is probably a more inclusive term than Netherlandese since Belgium also uses it.

- A pejorative term which has since lost its original meaning. Apparently that's where the Bulgarian (and other Slavic) Nemski (немски) for German comes from. Also the word barbarian.

- Influence from another language. French influence is why English says Italy and not Italia, Spain and not Spania/Espania. Libya and Tunisia and a number of others have retained the -ia ending though.

Every once in a while you'll see a drive by a city or country to have the rest of the world change the way it refers to it. Seoul did that when it decided that the proper way to write the city was 首尔 (shouer) and not the conventional 汉城 (hancheng, or Han Castle). The only problem with that is that it only sounds close to the real pronunciation in Mandarin/Putonghwa, while other Chinese languages/dialects pronounce it differently.

I've had a draft going for a while about a number of places that might want to think about changing their name (or changing it back), so I'll see if I can finish it up within a day or two now that we're on the subject.

Edit: I like this part.


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