Thursday, October 02, 2008

Endonyms and exonyms

Boxer Muhammed Ali began life as Cassius Clay. An adult conversion to Islam changed that.

What did not change were some of the sports reporters who continued calling him by the name Clay, even as he called it his "slave name," and refused to answer to it.

Calling someone by the name they call themselves is polite and accurate. But we usually have terms that we call countries which is not the one the inhabitants of the land use. Thus, we speak of Spain while who live there call it Espana. Or Germany, when folks in Munich speak of Deutschland. Even worse -- from our perspective -- is China, which has traditionally used the endonym "the middle kingdom" in referring to their land. "Middle" meaning that which the entire world centers around. In popular speech, Mandarin is referred to as "the universal tongue," meaning the language which everyone who is of any importance whatsoever speaks. (I was treated to a similar phenomenon while visiting Seville 5 years ago. Our family was having our usually heated discussion while walking down a street, and a Spanish man passing us made grunting noises. My son, Matt, fluent in Spanish, and having been there several months, explained that the man was indicating that our English sounded like an animal's grunting. How rude).

But, for some reason, Americans of a certain variety cannot bring themselves to call "Ivory Coast," preferring instead the endonym "Cote d'Ivoire." "But it's what they call it themselves!" these Americans plead, ignoring the fact that we don't do this with any other country.

The term for a non-native name for a country or place is an "exonym."

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