Why are English and German geographical names so different?
November 27, 2006
Q:Call me clueless, but it only recently dawned on me that the Donau and the Danube are one and the same river. I’m wondering if since I’ve been over here in Europe I’ve seen other geographical landmarks that I remember drawing on the map in eighth-grade social studies class. And why the differences in German and English names, anyway? What’s up with that?
A: You’ve seen the Donau, you’ve seen the Danube. Ever been to the Bodensee? If so, you can say you’ve been to Lake Constance. What about Italy’s Firenze? Put a star by Florence. Have you been to Poland to pay your respects at Oswiecim? If so, you’ve seen the horrors of Auschwitz. Have you passed through Germany’s Rheinland-Pfalz? If so, you’ve been in the Rhineland Palatinate. Have you taken the waters in the Czech Republic’s Karlovy Vary? Then put a check by Carlsbad. Have you frolicked in the waves of the Ostsee? Then you’ve set toe in the Baltic Sea.
So are some terms right and others wrong? As you can imagine, standardization of geographical names is a big deal — so big, in fact, that the United Nations even has an expert group engaged in this. A geographical name in a language which is not spoken in the area in which the named object lies is known as an exonym. The name form in the language spoken in the area where the geographical feature is found is an endonym. A quick run-through: Spain is an example of an English exonym; Spanien is a German exonym, and España is an endonym.
So why so many different names in different languages? If a place had historical significance outside of its immediate area, its pronunciation is tricky, or the entity stretches across several countries, chances are good there will be an exonym for it. To learn more than you ever dreamed there is to know about all this, consult the UN document about it.