Blog on the Sanctity of Ancient Names

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Apr 3 12:24:01 UTC 2007

Monday, April 2, 2007
On the Sanctity of Ancient Names

An old Aostan lady vouchsafed to me as we walked in the mountains of the
Parco Nazionale Gran Paradiso, that Courmayeur, the beautiful ski resort
on the Italian side of the Mont Blanc, was called Cormaiore during the
days of Fascism, and that the nearby resort of La Thuile was called Porta
Littoria. It is true, and more. Morgex, where they make wine and grappa
now, was renamed Valdigna d'Aosta. Little Pr Saint-Didier with its thermal
baths became Prato San Desiderio. Then, after the Italians decided they
were not Fascists after all and hung Mussolini and Clara Petacci from meat
hooks, they changed the names back. The whole of Aosta, which used to be
Savoy until late in the nineteenth century and was therefore
French-speaking, remains an autonomous region in Italy to this day with
the right to set its own language policy, even though fewer people speak
French every year.

As most young people in Aosta now speak Italian better than French, and
only the diminishing numbers of older people still really speak French,
why not switch to more Italian names? Because those are the names those
towns have borne since everyone's great-great-grandparents were alive?
Because those who seek to change names in the present usually have an
agenda, and it is rarely a pretty one? I am glad they kept the old French
names. There may be exceptions, but those who go around changing names
hallowed by long usage are usually no better than Fascists, at best no
worse than know-nothings.

Consider what happened in Bombay, that island on the Konkan coast where
people have passed through to make money and learn the habits of
civilisation ever since British power guaranteed its safety from the thugs
and pindaris that plagued life in most of India. As all places have
different names in different languages for the plain and simple reason
that all languages have different sound systems, so did Bombay. In English
it was Bombay, in Hindi-Urdu something closer to "Bum-buy", and in
Marathi, the language of the surrounding region though not primarily of
the city itself, something close to "Mwm-buy". ("Mwmbei" in a Welsh
transliteration is closer.) No monolingual English speaker could hope to
approximate those pronunciations, any more than he could without training
hope to pronounce "Warszawa" like a Pole.

The movement to "officially" change Bombay to Mumbai came from the
region's homegrown Fascists, from the party of Bal Thackeray. He is famous
for directing murderous riots against Indian Muslims, in which thousands
died, and then saying publicly of them, "Have they behaved like the Jews
in Nazi Germany? If so, there is nothing wrong if they are treated as Jews
were in Nazi Germany." This frightening man's power base is among the
Marathas. He wanted to place a Maratha stamp on Bombay by making the
city's name in Marathi somehow "official". Never mind that most English
speakers do not speak Marathi and, in their attempts to pronounce the
supposedly official Mumbai, will give vent to something that sounds more
like a strangled "Mum-buy" or "Moom-buy", both ridiculous.

I was born in Bombay and like many others always write that when asked.
There are fewer holdouts from Calcutta and Madras, perhaps because the
bureaucratic decisions there were not so clearly associated with Fascism
as in Bombay, but they do exist. The ancient newspaper The Statesman,
founded in 1875, is now run by snivellers and uses Kolkata; but the
Telegraph, founded by M.J. Akbar in 1982, still proudly carries "Calcutta"
under its masthead. I believe it is the only newspaper in India to hold
the line.

It is an amusing irony that the three Indian cities that have had their
names "changed" in the bureaucratic version (Bombay to Mumbai, Calcutta to
Kolkata, Madras to Chennai) are exactly those that were created by the
East India Company on virgin land. They are, in other words, being renamed
to hark back to their original, pre-British, glorious past, which did not
exist. Delhi, the lone holdout and the lone city with a metropolitan
pre-British history, looks likely to never be changed to Dylli or
Indraprastha or Hastinapura, perhaps because it is the seat of power in
the country. Changing names is the business of people who feel hard done
by and have chips on their shoulders, which is true of most Fascists and
far too many Indians.

It is also the business of know-nothings who do not understand the
complexities of language. When you consider the matter carefully it is
inevitable that places have different names in different languages. Each
language has a sound all its own, which spoken with its own accents and
cadences reveals particular names. The "Paa-RHEE" of the Parisian
Frenchman, and the "PA-riss" of the Englishman, are different names, even
though they are both spelled "Paris". An Englishman who insisted on
peppering his speech with "Paree", a word that can only be used
ironically, as in "Gay Paree", would seem a crank.

Different too are the "Parigi" of the Italians, the "Paryz" of the Poles
with a dot over the Z, the "Paris" of the Spaniards with an accent over
the I, the "Parijs" of the Dutch, the "Parizs" of the Hungarians with an
accent over the A, the "Pariis" of the Estonians, the "Pariisi" of the
Finns, the "Pariz" of the Croats", the "Pariz" of the Czechs with accents
over the R, the I and the Z.... And that is without mentioning the names
of this one city in languages that have drastically different sound
systems and scripts, like Russian or Chinese or Swahili. Good luck to any
bureaucrat who tries to shoehorn a name from one language into all
languages, for they are fighting Nature itself, and those are formidable

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