Sunday, March 29, 2009

Names, Multiculturalism and Nationalism

I've been quiet here much longer than intended.  Plenty has been happening in Central and East Central Europe.  I don't have currently have access to the kind of information that would give me special insight into the effects of the world financial crisis on various countries in the region beyond what can be gathered elsewhere. So I have not felt the need to clutter cyberspace on those points.  Besides as I have said before this blog was never intended as a purely current events blog. There is so much more to Central and East Central Europe than this or that crisis, which is why I turn now to an issue that recently sparked the most traffic on HABSBURG, the H-Net list dedicated to those regions. -- the problem of name choice when writing in English about places in the region that are known by different names depending on what language one is using.

The multiplicity of names for this or that city and they disputes they pointed to was one of the things that intrigued me about East Central Europe, and enhanced my sense of the region's exoticism.  the Italian writer Claudio Magris touched on this briefly in his delightful book Danube as his narrative reaches the Slovak Capital Bratislava:

Bratislava, the Slovak name, Pressburg, the German one, or Poszony, the Hungarian name derived from Posonium, the ancient Roman outpost on the Danube.  The fascination of the three names bestowed a special glamour on a composite, multinational history, and someone's preference for one or the other was, in a childish way, a basic stance taken towards the Weltgeist.  That is to say, we had to choose between the instinctive celebration of great, powerful cultures such as the German, the ones that make history, or our romantic admiration for the exploits of rebelliousn, chivalrous and adventurous peoples such as the Magyars, or else our fellow-feeling for what is more subdued and hidden, for the small peoples such as the Slovaks, who remain for a long time a patient, unregarded substratum, a humble, fertile soil waiting centuries for the moment of its flowering. (p.220)

For the most part Europeans tend to accept the coexistence of these names.  While the use of Danzig on official documents or the postal addresses is deemed unacceptable by the Polish government, it has not sought to curb unofficial use of the German name in the public sphere.  Even more remarkably Ukrainians raise absolutely no objections when Poles use the conventional name of Lwow for the main city in what is now Western Ukraine and which Ukrainians call Lviv, even though possession of the city was contested until fairly recently.  But woe to an English speaker who uses the wrong name in the wrong context.

So why is the choice of name in English so contentious?  The great problem for English is that with the exception of a few of the most important citie, there are no generally accepted English names for the towns, and yet in the twentieth and now twentieth-first centuries English has been a world language, so the choice of name has been seen as legitimizing a nation's claim to that city.  Thus during the negotiation of the Polish-German border after World War I Polish and German delegations would not even begin to discuss the fate of Danzig/Gdansk until the archaic English name for the city Dantsick was deemed acceptable.  The problem became even more acute after World War II with the border changes that were not universally recognized as legitimate, at least not at the time.  Nor is this problem unique to Eastern Europe.  Indeed, one of the key steps in undermining the use of customary English names came when some Americans rejecting the long-standing name Peking for Peping, because that was the form used by Chiang Kai-Shek.  Now, however, at the insistence of the Chinese government English language newspapers are reuired to use the form Beijing, and today about the only time one still encounters Peking is on Chinese restaurant menus.

Back to East European names, there too the general tendency has been for people to use the English name that best approximates the name as heard in the official language of the state within the boundaries of which a city now finds itself.  It is not a bad solution for the most part, even seeming to encourage instability in a part of the world that suffered so much during the twentieth century just to make a point by using a different name just does not seem right.  Still, even if there is no way to go back to a time when the choice of names were not so clearly determined by poliics, if should not go unremarked that the sense of security this policy provides also covers up a complexity not contained in any single name.  Indeed while this development is completely in tune with our modern world view, which even in its multi-cultural variant remains shaped by nationalism, as English speakers accept that change, we are losing a little bit of the diversity that was a part of our post-tower of Babel world when peoples lived side by side speaking different langauges.

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