MARCH 1999

Place Names in English

The names of cities or places may have a different spelling in English than in other languages. This article will present some examples which can cause confusion.

I remember going to the library one time in preparation for a ski trip, looking for travel guides about the Swiss canton of Valais. Much to my dismay, there was hardly anything about Valais, all the books seemed to be about some place called Wallis! Later, of course, it dawned on me that Valais and Wallis were the French and German names for one and the same place.

Admit it, we all suffer such lapses in our cosmopolitan awareness from time to time. Even if this would never happen to you, think of your poor readers. If you are writing in English, it is a good idea to use the spelling that is most familiar to your audience. You'd be surprised how unsure people on the other side of the world may be of their European geography.

Right time, wrong place name...

Like Switzerland, Belgium offers no solace to the linguistically naive. Streets, cities and provinces all have names in French and Dutch, and sometimes German. Besides providing visitors with the opportunity for unexpected adventures (imagine how many have jumped on the train for Leuven and ended up in Louvain-la-Neuve), this raises an awkward problem. Which name should you use when writing in English?

Logic, as well as the ever-authoritative European Commission, dictates that you should use the Dutch names for places in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium and the French names for those in the Walloon region. Thus, write Leuven, not Louvain and Ieper, not Ypres. However, this rule is of little help in an officially bilingual region such as Brussels. The Commission recommends simply using the French names in this case, perhaps surmising that more English-speakers will be likely to speak French than Dutch. Of course, if you are uncomfortable with this solution, you could always clarify as follows, "Forest (or Vorst in Dutch)". After all, the point is to help your reader find the place in the end.

There are some important exceptions to this rule. For some cities in Belgium, there are English versions of the names which should be used at all times. There is Brussels, of course, but you should also be aware of Antwerp, Bruges, Ghent and Ostend. Granted, an English-speaker could probably figure out that Antwerpen is the same as Antwerp and Gent is Ghent, but you never know. Also note that on your way to Luxembourg (preferred spelling for Luxemburg), you pass through the Ardennes (les Ardennes). There is no real rule for which cities have separate English names. You just have to learn them as you go along, and when in doubt, list the alternatives.

The Grand Tour

The same principle applies to other major cities in Europe. In Italy it is Milan, Florence, Rome, Turin and Naples for Milano, Firenze, Roma, Turino and Napoli. In Spain, it's Castile (for Castilla). In Germany, it is Munich (München), Cologne (Köln), Nuremberg (Nürnberg), and the states of Bavaria (for Bayern) and North Rhine-Westphalia (for Nordrhein-Westfalen). It may look like a typing error, but the German Hannover becomes Hanover in English. Note that important rivers often have English names, such as the Rhine (for the Rhein) the Danube (for the Donau) and the Scheldt (for the Schelde or L'Escaut), while the Seine remains the Seine, though pronounced "sane". And don't forget the English Channel (La Manche or het Kanaal).

In France, you have the regions of Brittany (Bretagne) Normandy (Normandie) and Gascony (Gascogne) as well as Burgundy (Bourgogne), like the wine. As for French cities, they generally stay the same, but sometimes gain an S in English. If you see Lyons and Marseilles (for Lyon and Marseille), these are not proof-reading errors but the proper English terms. Other city names of note are Lisbon (Lisboa) in Portugal, Geneva (Genève) and Basel (Bâle) in Switzerland, Athens (Athina) in Greece, Copenhagen (Kobenhavn) in Denmark and Gothenburg for Sweden's Göteborg.

Home Sweet Home

A source of amusement if not confusion is what to call the inhabitants of different cities in English. There is no strict rule, and some terms can be downright mystifying. Could you identify the native cities of Liverpudlians, Mancunians and Glaswegians? (Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow). Those are a bit more difficult than simply "Londoners". Would you know enough to call a Melbourne native a Melburnian? And what about the exotic sounding Miamians and Minneapolitans? Do you know any Seattleites, Los Angelenos, Chicagoans or Bostonians? There's at least one thing you can be sure of: whether it's a matter of Brooklynites or Manhattanites, they're all New Yorkers.

Kate Grady