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You know what I want? (*pause*; I can hear Judith's voice now saying, "No, Hol, I never know what you want.")

I would like a book that did a survey of world geography, and examined the difference between what things are called in English, and what they are actually called by the people who live where the things are found, in their own language. And that explained, in the first place, the origins and meaning of the name in the original language; and furthermore, explained why it is that the thing is called what it is called in English.

This is something I've been curious about off and on for a long time, but I thought of it again recently because of a book that I'm reading, that mentioned that the Yangtze river is actually called something like the Chang Jiang by the Chinese (who, I am willing to bet, do not call themselves "the Chinese"). And that brought me up short. Because I know about certain obvious examples of this (we call it "Greece", they call it "Hellas"; etc.), but there are many, many more examples that I've never noticed. I would have assumed for years that "Yangtze" was in fact an accurate English transcription of the river's actual name. And you know, maybe in some twisted, etymological way, it is (bearing etymological history in mind, "Yangtze" is not that far removed from "Chang Jiang", you can kind of squint at it and imagine "Yangtze" as some earlier English-speaker's attempt to transcribe what he was hearing.) But, I don't know, and I'm curious.

And I'm even more curious about things like the Greece/Hellas example. Hellas is quite obvious as a name for the country -- I mean, we have had the term "Hellenic" as a synonym for "Greek" for forever. But where the hell (pardon me) did we get the term "Greek" from, then? And why?

(And I don't just mean -- examples where our official term for a nation is one thing, but in the nation itself it is something a lot longer and more complicated. That's a different phenomenon, although interesting in itself.)

Why do we persist in calling foreign things by our names for them, instead of using the names that the people themselves use? And don't give me the obvious answer, "because we, like the British before us, are imperialist bastards" -- even though the phenomenon probably has its roots in that truth.

So I could look it up. I could try to look up Yangtze; I could try to track down the Greece/Hellas thing. But my point is, there are hundreds of examples of this kind of thing all over the world. And I've love to read a book that delved into all of them, or at least, into many of them. For countries, ethnicities, famous natural features, etc.

If anybody knows whether such a book exists, please tell me!

The book I am reading right now that sparked this train of thought was loaned to me by raqs, who in turn was loaned it by Thomas from Munich (which, I would like to point out, is actually called "München" by locals).

The book is called Last Chance to See, and it was written by Douglas Adams. Yes, that Douglas Adams. He wrote it along with a naturalist named Mark Carwardine, and it is a nonfiction account of the two of them embarking on a project to travel around the world and try to see in the wild a number of extremely rare and endangered animals (komodo dragons; white rhinos; mountain gorillas; kakapos in NZ; river dolphins in China; etc.). It's part travelogue, and part intelligent musing on the problems of extinction and conservation. And all of it is wrapped up in the kind of wry, witty writing that you would expect from Adams. I can't recommend it enough.

(Since this copy must, alas, go back to Thomas eventually, I plan to order one for myself; actually, I didn't even think to check to see if it is available in the U.S. Huh, apparently so! I wonder if the U.S. edition has the photos in it, though. Worth trying, at least.)



( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 16th, 2004 09:11 am (UTC)
I've never understood why we don't use the place names that the people that live there use, either. Maybe I can see "Chinese" because our western tongues had trouble with diphtongs and intonations (who knows) - but why "Spain" or "Venice" or "Florence" instead of "Espana", "Venezia" or "Firenza"?
Jun. 16th, 2004 09:34 am (UTC)
Exactly! Exactly!

Even if the historical reason for this is fairly simple, it would be interesting to see it discussed.

But the above examples make more sense than some others. You can kind of see how the Italian pronunciation of "Venezia" comes to be written "Venice" in English. Same for Spain/España. "Florence" is weird just because while it's partly based on a translation of "Firenze", it's still adapted. And I'd love to find out about the processes by which the English names evolved, in cases like these -- *when* did they evolve and when did they become settled? etc.

But then there's stuff like Greece/Hellas, or Japan/Nippon, where the English version does not (at first glance, or to the uninformed, at least) appear to be closely related to the local version at all. How does *that* happen, and why?
Jun. 16th, 2004 09:49 am (UTC)
Hmm, I did some poking around on the web and couldn't come up with a good, all-encompassing reference. Lots of interesting, slightly related, trivia, though:



And, as an unrelated footnote, a short article about some lunacy that I once got dragged into as a liason between the state and the USGS on "inappropriate" place names.
Jun. 16th, 2004 11:24 am (UTC)
Oooh! I want this as well. I also find the subject fascinating. And kinda fucked up. Which is my favorite combination. ;)
Jun. 16th, 2004 11:53 am (UTC)
I love Last Chance to See! It has got to be my favourite book of Douglas Adams's (and I am one of the world's greatest Hitchhiker's Guide fans.) But I lent my copy to my ex-boyfriend and never got it back, which means I'll have to buy another. And never lend anything to anyone with whom I have a less than rock solid relationship to begin with.

If you like that style of writing, I'd also recommend Bill Bryson's travel books, although they're more humour and less factual (but there's still some good information in there.)
Jun. 16th, 2004 12:10 pm (UTC)
I think, in fact, that raqs pushed this book at me in part because I am always going on and on and ON at her to read Bryson's books! I love all of his stuff. Actually, I read both of his history-of-language books and loved them, before maxineofarc informed me that he writes travel books as well. (My favorite is probably "In a Sunburned Country", but it's a close-run thing.)

What I was saying to Judith, though, is that this book by Adams (which is the first nonfiction piece of his I've read) reminds me a lot more of Michael Palin's travelogue books -- which I did not know existed (although I have been a big, big fan of all his travel TV series for years) until troyswann happened to mention the latest one a couple of months ago, whereupon I went and bought up used copies of all of them and read through them. Palin and Adams, perhaps not surprisingly, have a quite similar-sounding writing style, what with all the dry, sometimes absurd British humor. Adams' writing is distinctly Adams, with all those wonderfully felicitous turns of phrase (describing a white rhino as "bounding away like a nimble young tank", and so on), but he and Palin sound darned similar. (In an extremely good way, of course.)

I *LOVE* travel-writing.

Ideally, I think the thing to do would be to contact Bill Bryson, and say, "Hey, I love all of your books! Now I know what you should write next..."

Because with his background in researching language and etymology, plus his background in travel writing, plus his affection for anecdote and his facility with wit -- the resultant book would be discursive and informative and it would *ROCK*.

Jun. 16th, 2004 01:04 pm (UTC)
Last Chance to See is awesome! I have a copy. It was fascinating, and yet kind of sad too. I laughed over and over at the part where he met Struan Sutherland. :D In fact, that made such an impact on me that I bought Struan Sutherland's autobiography. He's a fascinating man.

I'd buy a book that compared names for places. And I too don't understand why we don't simply call things by their real names. Perhaps back when people had to travel between leaving a place and arriving at home they twisted the word around in their minds. Or maybe it was like a huge game of telephone and a word went from Hellas to Greece through the chain. Ha, I'm a dork.

I do know that I've never been able to call "Milan" by anything other than its real name- Milano. Probably because I've been there. Same with German cities, but that's probably because of my German mother who referred to the cities by their original names. Yeah, I call it Muenchen not Munich. (Too lazy to put the umlauts in.)
Jun. 17th, 2004 12:49 am (UTC)
D'you know, I was just looking at that book recently. A friend of mine owns a copy of it, and we took turns reading out the expedition to find kakapo's here in New Zealand. It was nice to learn stuff about my own country, actually.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )