The Changing Names of Countries and Cities

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.

The adaptation of Chinese characters into the Japanese language

One of the challenges I’ve found in having studied Japanese for many years before endeavoring to learn Chinese, is that I often see a Chinese character that is the same character in Japanese (and usually has the same or similar meaning but different pronounciation) and pronounce it as it is pronounced in Japanese.  My mind just immediately pulls from my inner Japanese dictionary as my inner Chinese dictionary has not yet been completely written or filled.  I had actually thought that studying Japanese first would give me a leg up on my Chinese studies.

The confusion usually happens when I am reading out loud in Chinese, in front of my teacher, who is listening and hanging on my every word for proper tone (unlike Japanese, Chinese has 4 unique tones, to add to the confusion), pronounciation and flow.

I can literally hear my brain click and the hamster wheel in my head turning while confusion sets in.  The character that frequently trips me up is the character for book 本.  In Japanese, it is “hon” (pronounced like hone).  In Mandarin Chinese,  本 is the measure word for the character for book (书) and is “ben” (pronounced like bun).  For example, if you want to write “three books” in Mandarin Chinese, it is written as 三本书 (3+measure word+book).

Whenever I see the Chinese character 本, my brain processes the character in Japanese and I think and say hon.  I immediately correct myself but it is often too late.  My Chinese teacher, mildly disgusted, says NO. Sharply and in English. Although I had studied East Asian Studies for a year at the graduate level at Harvard and learned quite a bit about Buddhism, ancient Japanese literature and art and the Japanese language itself, I do not remember ever learning exactly how the Chinese characters made their way into the Japanese language. This lack of knowledge almost always leads to a blog entry!

According to my research, Chinese books were first brought to Japan between the 3rd and 5th centuries A.D.  During the Tang dynasty, China was considered to be the single most important cultural power in Eastern Asia.  Chinese writing then began migrating into Japan. The adaptation of Chinese characters during the 6th to 9th centuries A.D. is considered to be the most important event in the development of the Japanese language.

The Japanese borrowed the Chinese language as one of education and culture.  Soon, Classical Chinese was adopted as the official written language of Japan.  Shortly after this time, modified Chinese characters were being used to write the Japanese language. All early Japanese writings are essentially written in classical Chinese.  To be able to write in medieval Japan basically meant to be able to read and write Chinese. This language was called kango by the Japanese.

By the 12th century, the two Japanese syllabic writing systems, hiragana and katakana, were created out of kanji (the Japanese word for Chinese characters). These two writing systems are easier to learn (from my experience) than kanji and give Japanese it’s uniquely beautiful appearance (as it is written from a mixture of kanji, hiragana and katakana).

It is also important to point out that the Chinese language did influence other Asian languages, such as Korea and Vietnam.

I will continue my Mandarin Chinese studies for as long as possible (my aim is to be fluent within 5 years).  The saving grace for me is that there are also some words (like the number 3 and the word for love) that not only share the same character in Japanese and Chinese but are also pronounced the same. Amen to that.


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