The Changing Names of Countries and Cities
Filed under: History, Language, Language Learning, Multiculturalism, Travel
Names have always been very important to me. I had known, even as I child, that I would always keep the surname I was born with because it gives me a sense of identity, heritage and respect for my family. Due to this, I find it personally disconcerting and confusing when a country or city changes its name.
One day many years back, I was reading an article about a city called Mumbai in India. I realized I was then hearing that word a lot and knew it had to be the new term for the city formerly known as Bombay. After researching this name change, I learned that in 1995, the Hindu nationalist party Shiv Sena won elections in the state of Maharashtra and after the election, the party announced that the city had been renamed after the Hindu goddess Mumbadevi, the city’s patron deity. Federal agencies, local businesses, and newspapers were forced to adopt the change. The name “Bombay” was considered to be an English adaptation of “Mumbai”. This was an unwanted legacy of British rule and thus, Mumbai was born.
What about Peking and Beijing? One day, out of the blue, many years ago, I heard someone refer to Beijing, China. This explanation can be a little confusing to a non-native Chinese speaker or someone who is not a student of the Chinese language. The Chinese capital did not change its name but Chinese words became spelled in English differently. According to my research, the name stayed exactly the same and most Chinese people were not even aware Westerners think there has been a name change. Before 1958, the Chinese government used the Wade-Giles system to transliterate Chinese characters into the Roman alphabet. After 1958, the government switched to the pinyin system of transliteration. So now, we call the capital city Beijing (pinyin) instead of Peking (Wade-Giles).
Countries also change their names. I asked myself one day, “What happened to Yugoslavia?”…Why…it became Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Hercegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia, of course! Namibia is a country I’ve just heard of in the last five or so years (Thank you, Brangelina!). Why? Because it was formed in 1990 and was once just known as Southwest Africa.
Here are some other countries who changed their names:
Persia: Modern Persia was founded in the sixteenth century and later became known as Iran.
Siam: Changed its name to Thailand in 1939.
Zaire: Changed its name to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1997.
The USSR: Separated into 15 new countries in 1991: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldovia, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.
Czechoslovakia: Split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.
Zanzibar and Tanganyika merged to form Tanzania in 1964.
Abyssinia: Ethiopia’s name until the early 20th century.
Ceylon: Now known as Sri Lanka since 1972.
Burma: In 1989, this country became Myanmar but many countries still aren’t recognizing the change, such as the United States.
Transjordan: Known as Jordan since 1946.
Due to all these changes, it is interesting that Siamese and Abyssinian cats are not now known as Thai and Ethiopian cats; Ceylon Tea is not now known as Sri Lankan tea; Burmese pythons are not called Myanmar pythons and Persian rugs are not called Iranian rugs.