Hayastan, Sakartvelo, Druk Yul, Shqipëri . . .

by Mark Krikorian

Never heard of those countries? That’s because these are the native names for them — endonyms — as opposed to the exonyms we use: Armenia, Georgia, Bhutan, and Albania.

I bring this up because there’s a WaPo piece today on what Secretary Clinton should call Burma during her visit there. I think Derb has plowed this field before, but it still bugs me. You can call your own country anything you please; it’s no skin off my nose. But when we have established English words for places, we should stick to them. To the objection that we should accede to such demands out of politeness I respond that it’s impolite to demand that others stop using long-established words in their own language.

Why, for instance, would we refer to Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta as Chennai, Mumbai, and Kolkata? It’s not like we call the country they’re located in “Bharat.” In the case of Burma (which the local gangster regime insists we call “Myanmar”), it’s not even like our name for the place is really an exonym, but just the English version of one of the names locals use:

Linguistically, the difference between the two is murky. In the Burmese language, “Myanma” is the written version often used, and “Bama” the colloquial spoken name. Bama is believed to have derived from Myanma as the “m” sound eroded into a “b.” 

To some, Burma — the name chosen by the country’s British rulers in the 19th century — carries a bitter taste of colonialism. But to others, Myanmar carries equally bitter overtones of its current rulers.

Bitter tastes and bitter overtones are their problems, not ours. I can see why Germany, for instance, would avoid using Danzig and Konigsburg, but it’s not like we colonized Burma. I seldom find myself quoting the UN approvingly, but this, via Wikipedia, is spot on:

“Time has, however, shown that initial ambitious attempts to rapidly decrease the number of exonyms were over-optimistic and not possible to realise in the intended way. The reason would appear to be that many exonyms have become common words in a language and can be seen as part of the language’s cultural heritage.”

We’re not going to start saying Zhongguo, Hellas, Eire, or Misr. Or Österreich, Côte d’Ivoire, Hrvatska, or Suomi. Or even Deutschland, Magyarorszag, Nippon, Hanguk, Dhivehi Raajje, or Crna Gora. I say “Myanmar” is spinach and I say the hell with it.

Now, off to plan my vacation to Persia and Ceylon.

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