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…