Pride, patriotism and the baffling politics of Indian place names

You may have wondered about Bombay, Mumbai and Calcutta, Kolkata. Here is an explanation:

…Bangalore (Bengaluru) and Mysore (now Mysuru), also in Karnataka, are only two of the many cities and place names to undergo official changes in recent years, causing headaches for journalists torn between the desire to spell correctly and the need to avoid baffling readers. “Indians are very emotional people,” says Mr Pai, a former Infosys executive. “Sometimes you can’t fight this overwhelming emotion to demonstrate their patriotism by changing city names.”

The truth is that a certain kind of name change — from Bangalore to Bengaluru, Bombay to Mumbai or Calcutta to Kolkata — is not really a name change at all, since Bengaluru, Mumbai and Kolkata have always been written and pronounced thus in Kannada, Marathi and Bengali.

Such a decree has none of the political logic behind changing a Russian city from St Petersburg to Leningrad and back to St Petersburg again; or the vain attempt to persuade southern Vietnamese to refer to Ho Chi Minh City instead of Saigon. Nor is it as inevitable as dumping the colonial Northern and Southern Rhodesia, named after British colonialist and mining magnate Cecil Rhodes, and resurrecting them as Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Instead, the Bangalore-Bengaluru shift is akin to the renaming of Burma as Myanmar (which was always its name in Burmese). It is an attempt to force foreigners and non-native speakers to change the way they have transliterated or adopted the word in their own languages, and perversely makes the city or country instantly less recognisable to potential tourists or investors…

…It is surely a sign of political insecurity in rulers to tell people how to say the name of a place when speaking their own language. The British, after all, do not insist that the French stop calling the country Angleterre and the capital Londres. And France tolerates the English quirk of adding a final S to Marseille; Hellas has been stuck with being called Greece by foreigners since the Roman era; and the Italian city of Firenze cannot escape from its Anglo-French label of Florence…

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  • Drunk_by_Noon

    Danged paywall.

    • Frau Katze

      I know, but if you register you should get a few reads. I included all the important points.

    • Frau Katze

      I can dump the whole article if you’re interested.

      • Drunk_by_Noon

        It seems that every time I register at one of these places I wind up hearing from them for forever.
        Yeah, if you can dump it here I’d apperciate it.
        I have always wondered why some countries pulled that nonsense.
        Bombay is so much nicer of a name than Mumbai.

        • Rosenmops

          And I liked Peking better than Beijing.

        • Frau Katze

          Here it is. I’ve seen this explained elsewhere.

          It feels odd to spend the day in one of the world’s biggest cities, and India’s richest in terms of income per head, and to realise that most people outside the country would not even recognise its name.

          Mohandas Pai, a leading citizen of the metropolis, tells me over morning tea that it has more than 1m people working in the IT sector and annual economic output of $85bn; it is the nation’s corporate start-up capital and its most tolerant, cosmopolitan city.

          The reason you may not have heard of Bengaluru is that the name was last year officially adopted by the state government of Karnataka, in the country’s south west. Except to native speakers of Kannada, the official state language, the old spelling and pronunciation of Bangalore is more familiar.

          Bangalore and Mysore (now Mysuru), also in Karnataka, are only two of the many cities and place names to undergo official changes in recent years, causing headaches for journalists torn between the desire to spell correctly and the need to avoid baffling readers. “Indians are very emotional people,” says Mr Pai, a former Infosys executive. “Sometimes you can’t fight this overwhelming emotion to demonstrate their patriotism by changing city names.”

          The truth is that a certain kind of name change — from Bangalore to Bengaluru, Bombay to Mumbai or Calcutta to Kolkata — is not really a name change at all, since Bengaluru, Mumbai and Kolkata have always been written and pronounced thus in Kannada, Marathi and Bengali.

          Such a decree has none of the political logic behind changing a Russian city from St Petersburg to Leningrad and back to St Petersburg again; or the vain attempt to persuade southern Vietnamese to refer to Ho Chi Minh City instead of Saigon. Nor is it as inevitable as dumping the colonial Northern and Southern Rhodesia, named after British colonialist and mining magnate Cecil Rhodes, and resurrecting them as Zambia and Zimbabwe.

          Instead, the Bangalore-Bengaluru shift is akin to the renaming of Burma as Myanmar (which was always its name in Burmese). It is an attempt to force foreigners and non-native speakers to change the way they have transliterated or adopted the word in their own languages, and perversely makes the city or country instantly less recognisable to potential tourists or investors.

          Words are slippery things. I was once assured by a Qatari pearl trader that the Arabic word giwan was used to describe top-quality natural pearls — only to be told by a Bahraini minister that it was simply an Arabic transliteration of the English “G1”, for “grade one”. And a glance in Hobson-Jobson, the century-old Anglo-Indian glossary, tells us that Bombay has been spelt variously by the British, French and Portuguese as Mombaim, Bombaim, Manbai, Mayambu, Mombaya, Bombain, Bombaym, Monbaym, Bambaye, Bombaiim, Bombeye and Boon Bay.

          It is surely a sign of political insecurity in rulers to tell people how to say the name of a place when speaking their own language. The British, after all, do not insist that the French stop calling the country Angleterre and the capital Londres. And France tolerates the English quirk of adding a final S to Marseille; Hellas has been stuck with being called Greece by foreigners since the Roman era; and the Italian city of Firenze cannot escape from its Anglo-French label of Florence.

          India’s most wrenching name change was the transformation of the east coast city of Madras (formerly Fort St George) into Chennai in 1996, when the state government decided Madras (probably derived from the Arabic word for school) did not sound sufficiently Tamil. Yet Chennai, among the world’s largest cities, still has none of the name recognition enjoyed by Madras.

          Foreigners are not the only resisters. The Bombay Stock Exchange is still the BSE, the venerable sailing institution is still the Royal Bombay Yacht Club and Bollywood is not Mollywood. Indians are more determined than foreigners to say Bombay, and no one is publicly suggesting a change from Delhi to Dilli, which is how it is written in Hindi.

          And I have yet to hear any resident of Bangalore say Bengaluru when speaking in English.

          http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/5ac9ceb6-cf23-11e4-9949-00144feab7de.html

          • Drunk_by_Noon

            Thank you!!,

  • What about China. Not only Beijing i/o Peking, but the whole language transliteration change from Wade-Giles to Pinyin – a massive headache for all those interested in Chinese literature.

    • Same thing with Korean place names.

      For example, the McCune-Reischauer transcription calls the city of Busan “Pusan” even though the city begins with a ㅂ (biyut) and therefore should be translated as Busan.

      Lousy transliteration….

  • ontario john

    I blame Harper.

  • Rick

    Is Mysore the town located between Lottapoor and Awfulsad.

  • canuckistan666

    I am a Canadian born in India and travel to India every 5 to 7 years. I don’t have a problem with this name change at all. It is a matter of national pride. Indians should forget about the colonialist mentality. Why should we view Indian cities through that lens? My relatives living in India have no problem with it either. I argued with one dotty Canadian (who has never visited India btw) who insisted that Delhi be pronounced “Del’ “high”. But my relatives who LIVE there, call it ‘Dilee’ even before the official name change.