What’s in a place name?

When I told my friend that I was going to Prague, she replied, “Oh! I love Praha!” Praha, you see, is the Czech name for the city of Prague. My friend insisted upon using the native name for the city. And it irritated me because it sounded pretentious.

When I was younger, I was all for the idea of using native place names. After all, why should we assign a different name to a city or country? What right do we have to change the name given to land by its own inhabitants? The answer is surprisingly simple: we speak a different language. Prague/Praha is a hard case to defend because the Czech government has totally secured possession of the city and the Czech language is firmly established there. But the English name is derived from the German, “Prag”. The region has been under German or at least teutophone control at various times throughout history. Prague’s most celebrated son of the 20th century, Franz Kafka wrote in German. So why shouldn’t we prefer the German name to the Czech?

The Ivory Coast is another interesting example. The Ivorian government insists that the international community use the name “Côte d’Ivoire”. But unlike Prague or Praha, that name has a clear, modern-language meaning. “Ivory Coast” is a literal translation of “Côte d’Ivoire” from French into English. It makes perfect sense that English speakers would use the very readily available English words rather than the French.

An even more clear example of how insisting on using “native” place names doesn’t work is Belgium. The Belgians have three official languages, Dutch, French, and German. So what should we call the capital if we insist on using the “native” name? Brussel? Bruxelles? Brüssel? ) One would face the same problem trying to discuss Swiss cities, or any place that has more than one official language. I imagine that India, with over a dozen official languages, would be the very paradigm of this dilemma.

Aside from places that do not have a single “native” name, what could be done about places that have sounds that do not appear in English. Tonal languages such as Chinese or Thai cannot easily be mastered by native English speakers; should they be expected to butcher the names of Asian cities and countries in futile attempts to sound like the citizens thereof? I say no. There are English names for most places; let those names suffice. There is some idea that by not even trying to use the native name, there is a sense of superiority or snobbishness, but every language works this way. The French do not call England by the name “England”, they call it “L’Angleterre”. Koreans call the United States of America “미국” or “Me-guk”, meaning “beautiful land.” There is nothing haughty about using your own language. If you have a word for something, use it.


Beer of the week: Budweiser Budvar Classic – In an earlier post, I incorrectly identified Budweiser Budvar Original as Budweiser Budvar Classic. This happened because the label read Budějovický Budvar, leading me to believe that the beer was something other than the original Budweiser Budvar. As I noted in that post, Budweiser means “from Budweis”. However, Budweis is the German name for that town; the Czech name is Budějovice. So what I thought was a different beer by the same company is actually the same beer labeled in a different language. However, the gold foil (instead of silver) leads me now to believe that that beer was Budweiser Budvar Original. This week’s beer, with the silver foil, is Budweiser Budvar Classic, the lower alcohol session beer that I thought I was drinking last time. Got it?

Well it doesn’t make much of a difference anyway. After reading my review of the Original, I see that I could basically copy and paste for this week. It is a fairly standard macro lager. It does have a fairly attractive, hoppy aroma initially, though the head fades quickly and the smell with it. Underneath is decent malt for such a pale beer. Overall, it is an ok beer. Not necessarily something I would fight numerous international trademark lawsuits over though.

Reading of the week: The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka – Little seems likely to be lost in the translation of place names. However, in literature, there are some works (principally poetic works) held to be utterly incapable of translation. (Years ago, I searched fruitlessly for a readable version of the Chinese epic “Journey to the West.”) I do not think that Metamorphosis is in that group. I have read, however, that the word “vermin” used throughout the story is not easily translated. I think that the idea shines through, though.

Question of the week: Place names are one thing, but personal names are another. How reasonable would it be to insist on calling Pedro or Pierre by the name “Peter”?

A Not Uninteresting Novella

As I noted in last week’s post, Orwell’s Politics and the English Language had a very pronounced effect on my enjoyment of reading Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor and Benito Cereno. I was arrested surprisingly often by expressions that Orwell would have found objectionable. The not uncommonest objectionable language was Melville’s incessant use of “not un-” structures.

Orwell would that the “not un-” structure be laughed out of existence. “One can cure oneself of the not un- formation by memorizing this sentence: A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field.” As his example shows, this formula is usually a pretentious and asinine way of saying something that could be said more simply and directly. Why say that Billy’s expression was “not unlike that of a dog” rather than “like that of a dog”? What value is there in throwing in a double negative?

I strained my mind for a defense of this questionable structure. The best I could do is quote the great Welsh philosopher Tom Jones: “It’s not unusual to be loved by anyone.” Somehow, that line does not seem to mean the same thing as “it is usual to be loved by anyone.” For the not un- structure to work, there has to be some subtle difference between [adjective] and not un[adjective]. For some adjectives or adverbs, exist a sort of neutral middle ground in that space. But every example I try to put into words seems to fall apart. It seems like simple math; a = -(-a). There is no room for subtle distinctions.

And even if there is a significant meaning between [adjective] and not un[adjective], Melville’s use of the dubious formula never seems to convey such a subtle distinction. I was not unaffected by having to read so many not unwell written sentences from by a not unfamous author. Nevertheless, his stories are not unenjoyable.


Beer of the week: Krušovice Černé – This dark lager comes from one of the Czech Republic’s oldest breweries. In fact, the “1581” does not refer to the founding of the brewery, but to the year the brewery was offered for sale to Emperor Rudolf II. The beer itself is very dark, with a tan head that laces nicely on the glass. The dark roasted malts are evident in the aroma and in the flavor. However, the beer feels very thin and there simply is not a lot of flavor to it. It is not a bad beer, but I would hope for more from a 500-year-old operation.

Reading of the week: Billy Budd, Sailor by Herman Melville – This week’s chapter does not include any not un- sentences. It also does not include any of the characters of the story. It is a tangent on the old glory of naval warfare before clunky ironclads replaced shapely men-of-war and before “martial utilitarians” replaced the likes of Horatio Nelson, “the greatest sailor since our world began.”

Question of the week: Can you think of a situation where a not un- structure adds some meaning to a sentence?