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ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published September 05, 2003, issue of September 05, 2003.

‘BombayForty-five people were killed and at least 135 were wounded Monday by the explosion of two bombs placed in a pair of taxis in the heart of India’s commercial capital, the police said.”

That’s from a front-page New York Times report on August 26. Further on we are told:

“At the scene of the first blast, the state’s tense and shaken chief minister…. attributed the attacks to the success of Bombay, the official name of which is Mumbai.

“‘Mumbai is developing…. tourists are coming, there is peace in Mumbai,’ he said. ‘But there are some forces…. who do not like this peace.’”

Is it Bombay or Mumbai? Some years ago, as a gesture to Indian nationalism, the Indian government changed the official name of the city from its English to its Hindi form, and the Times was trying to do justice to both. Fair enough, no?

But five days earlier, after a bus bombing in Israel, the Times began its story:

“Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel has approved a series of military strikes against Palestinian militants in response to a suicide bombing that killed at least 18 people in Jerusalem.” It did not say “…. in Jerusalem, the Israeli name of which is Yerushalayim.”

Another case of anti-Israel bias in the Times? Of course not. On the contrary: All it means is that the Times recognizes Israel as a developed country.

It is only, when you think of it, Third World countries whose contention we accept that we must call them and places in them as they themselves do. In 1989, for instance, its military government decreed that Burma be known as Myanmar — and Myanmar it became at once in the world’s media, atlases and travel books. Never mind that speakers of English had been saying “Burma” for hundreds of years; the Burmese wanted Myanmar and that was that.

And yet we do not change the English name of Germany to “Deutschland” because this is how Germans call their country or substitute the Italian form “Firenze” on our maps for Florence — nor do the Germans or Italians expect us to. Odd, isn’t it?

One could argue, of course, that it is only because the Germans and Italians do not expect us to do it that we don’t. If they insisted on “Deutschland” and “Firenze” being used internationally, as the Indians and Burmese insist on Mumbai and Myanmar, we would do it.

Well, perhaps we would and perhaps we wouldn’t. But they don’t insist and the reason they don’t is that, not being ex-colonial countries with a history of resentment against their colonizers, they couldn’t care less what we call them. Italians don’t take umbrage at English speakers saying “Florence” because, since Americans or Englishmen never occupied them and tried to teach them English, they consider this entirely our own business.

But though Indians or Burmese may think differently, this doesn’t mean we have to agree. Although they have their traditional names for places, so do we, and if respect for tradition is important, it should be important for us too. Why should we have “Burma” written in every pre-1989 English book, newspaper and map and “Myanmar” in everything that comes after? The only justification for letting such a name be imposed upon us is that we feel so guilty toward decolonialized peoples that we think we owe it to them to give in, which is a poor justification indeed.

Moreover, the decolonialized themselves have been highly inconsistent in this respect. While the Burmese government, for example, makes a point of “Myanmar” and of our calling Rangoon “Yangon,” it goes on using “Mandalay” even though that city’s pre-colonial name was Yadanapon; and the same Indian officials who get annoyed if we say “Bombay” have no objection to “India” rather than “Hind.” (And many Indians themselves go on saying Bombay, since it is the name they grew up with and feel more comfortable with!) Or take the Chinese, who don’t mind our speaking of Shanghai when by them it’s “Shangkhai,” but draw the line at “Peking,” which we have had to change to Beijing.

And what about countries that can’t make up their minds, such as the former Belgian Congo, which was the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 1960 to 1971 when it changed its name to Zaire, which it changed back to its previous name in 1997? It would have saved a lot of confusion, let alone paper wasted on new maps if we had stuck to “Congo” all along.

Some of the sins of colonialism may still need to be atoned for, but not by changing the traditional ways we call places. Say “Bombay” in English and you have evoked a city with a history, associations, a past; say “Mumbai” and you evoke a blank. The Times is to be commended for datelining its story “Bombay.” There was no need to correct this several paragraphs further on.



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