Their cities, our language

Have you been to Firenze lately? Followed the news from Kyiv? Enjoyed Beijing duck?

It’s Florence, not Firenze

Well, I haven’t and never will. For me these cities are, have always been and will forever remain Florence, Kiev and Peking.

I do respect, as one has to, the right of any people to call their cities any names that strike their fancy, no matter how ridiculous. I may grumble about it if I don’t like the name, but eventually I’ll have to go along.

Thus, if Italians decide to rebaptise Florence as, for example, Città di Gramsci, I’d toss off an indignant article about the obscenity of naming an ancient city after a communist subversive, but eventually I’ll have to accept the new name. There’s really no other option.

I may bitterly resent seeing Saigon called Ho Chi Minh City, but this fait is very much accompli. The bastards won the war and now they can play fast and loose with urban nomenclature – that’s not the greatest catastrophe that has befallen the Vietnamese.

By the same token, if Kiev and Peking undergo a name change and become, say, Zelensky and Mao respectively, I’ll huff and I’d puff, but I’ll soon relent. Or not so soon, I’ll grant you that.

For example, when Leningrad again became Petersburg, I stubbornly referred to it as Leningrad for another couple of years or so. I genuinely believed, as I still do, that the city still has more to do with Lenin than with the patron saint of Peter the Great. But, having put up a valiant rearguard action, I eventually conceded the point.

Yes, countries are free to give whatever new names, no matter how offensive, to their cities. However, if the names remain the same, they have no right to tell us how to spell and pronounce them in English.

The way the Chinese pronounce the name of their North Capital, it has always come out closer to Beijing than to Peking, inasmuch as Chinese phonetics can be perceived by any European ear, that is. But so what? To us, it has always been Peking. (As, parenthetically, it still is to the French – bien joué to them. They cherish their language more than we do ours.)

We don’t tell the French and Italians that our capital is neither Londres nor Londra, do we? So they mustn’t shove Paree and Roma down our throats. To their credit, they don’t, and even the Russians are happy with our Moscow, although to them it’s the same as the river, Moskva.

This sounds like a small point to make a fuss about, but it really isn’t. For such name changes are symptoms of a ghastly disease, the politicisation of language.

A nation’s language is the most valuable part of its identity, more important than any politics. Over the past 250 years, France, to cite one country I know well, has been governed by several monarchies, a revolutionary committee, a Directory, a military dictatorship, an emperor, five different republics and, from 1940 to 1944, by the Nazis.

But she always remained France, her language has always been French and, as Maurice Chevalier used to sing to SS officers, Paris reste Paris.

To the English, politics matters more and the language somewhat less. Yet even here, English is a powerful national adhesive, uniting into an integral whole such seemingly irreconcilable people as Londoners, Scousers, Geordies and even Scots (apart from Glaswegians; they are sui generis). As such, it shouldn’t be used as an arena for scoring political points. But, alas, it is, very much so.

Variously pernicious groups are aware of the political power of language. He who controls English, controls the English – they sense that in their viscera. I refer to this process as glossocracy, government of the word, by the word but, unfortunately, not just for the word.

It behoves all intelligent patriots (which is a longer way of saying ‘conservatives’) to keep politics out of English, fighting lexical subversion every step of the way. However, when the enemy advances on a broad front, it must be fought for each inch of territory.

If we try to expurgate politicised, un-English woke usages, or at least refuse to use them in our own speech, we can’t cede ground elsewhere. And make no mistake about it, it’s for political reasons that some countries insist that their old city names should be spelled and pronounced the new way in English.

In this case, it doesn’t matter how we feel about the underlying political inspiration. We may sympathise with it, as I sympathise with Ukrainian independence, or deplore it, as I deplore China’s global bossiness. But English is the mainstay of our culture, not theirs. And, unless they change the names of those cities, they’ll bloody well remain Kiev and Peking.

Well, to me, at any rate.

P.S. Speaking of English, I continue to learn new usages by listening to football commentators. The other day, one praised England for “the emergency of many talented young players”. I’m still waiting for the NHS to start providing emergence services.

Another chap commended a winger for his “Olympian speed”, making me wonder if the player could qualify for the Olympian Games.

And of course they all talk about “the amount of goals”, proving yet again that one doesn’t have to be literate to earn a large number of money.   

8 thoughts on “Their cities, our language”

  1. When I ever go to a Spanish speaking country I never feel the need to tell them to say London and not Londres. It is their language even though it is my city.
    It is very very weird that the Chinese feel like that with London.

  2. I read somewhere that the locals referred to Leningrad colloquially as ‘Peter’, as in ‘ I’m going in to Peter today.’ Just as they always had done.

    The locals refer to Myanmar as ‘Burma’ . That’s the name used by the ousted ambassador when he was interviewed on the pavement outside his embassy recently.

    1. Burma is the main ethnic group. Myanamar the political entity. Madagascar the island. Malagasay Republic the political entity. Borneo the island. Kalimantan the political entity. Personally I still prefer Jesselton rather than Kota Kinabalu.

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