06:25:15 pm on
Thursday 25 Jul 2024

What's in a Name
Sjef Frenken

Jack was recounting an incident on a trip he took to New Guinea a few years ago. He'd gone into the hinterland -- New Guinea is pretty much all hinterland -- and he'd come to a small native village where there was only one man who spoke a bit of English, pidgin English at that, although for clarity's sake I've turned his remarks into proper English. The man had worked for a British missionary for a few weeks.

"So after a few hours of friendly chit-chat," said Jack, "the man asked me something along the lines of why the English had got the names of the week wrong. I asked the man what he meant. The man explained: 'You have Two's-day, and then One's-day and then Three's-day. They're not in the right order.' I couldn't make him understand that that's not the way it worked," said Jack.

I said "Jack, are you sure he wasn't pulling your leg?"

Jack said "I don't think so, he seemed genuinely mystified at our quaint Western ways."

I said "Speaking of travels, you've been to India. Where in hell is Mumbai? I've looked on my globe, I've checked my atlas, and I can't find it. From what I gather it must be a fairly large city, so why isn't it on the map?"

Jack said "Where've you been? Mumbai is the new name for the old Bombay. How old is your atlas?"

I said "Forty years. But why do we need a new name?"

Jack said "It's what the people in that part of India call the city. It's the British that gave it the name Bombay."

"So why don't the native use Mumbai and the rest of the world use Bombay?"

"Because," said Jack, "Mumbai is the city's real name, don't you get it?"

"Yes, Jack, I get it. But there's such a thing as transliteration, where you provide an equivalent name, especially if there's some difficulty in pronouncing the local name. I thought it was stupid for us to drop Peking and instead use Beijing. Does it make the Chinese any happier? Are we?"

"But Beijing is that city's real name," countered Jack.

"So what?" I said, "do you propose that we should start calling Paris Paree. And what about Moscow -- which in English should be pronounced Mos-coh, by the way, not Mos-cow -- should we say Moskvah instead? Should we say Lisboa for Lisbon, and give it that typical Portuguese nasal twist? Nonsense! It's just another instance of political correctness being its insufferable, self-righteous self. And inconsistent, obviously."

"So what do you want?" asked Jack.

"Nothing," I said, "just to leave well-enough alone. The French don't mind that we call their city Paris, and the English don't mind that the French call their city Londres. Take the Dutch city of The Hague, which is not, as many people think, the capital of the Netherlands, although it is the seat of the government. In Dutch the name of the town is Den Haag. English people have difficulty with that final 'g', which is pronounced like the 'ch' in the Scottish 'loch', making a sound like a cat when it's spitting mad. Or take the big name of the little Dutch city of 's-Hertogenbosch. There's isn't even an equivalent English name, so in English you're supposed to use the French name Bois-le-Duc, which, if I know the British, they probably pronounce Bwah-le-Duck. And then, of course, there's that popular painter: do you really want English-speakers to hurt themselves trying to pronounce Van Gogh's name?"

Jack said "How do the Dutch pronounce his name?"

I said "the 'van' is not pronounced like the vehicle, but more like the German 'von'. As for the rest of the word, have the cat make that spitting sound both at the front end and at the back end of the 'o', like this ....."

Of course, dear reader, I can't really render the poor man's name properly on this page. But if you happen to be at the Bayshore Food Court some day when Jack and I are having our lunch, just ask me to demonstrate.

But wait till I have finished my mouthful ....

Sjef Frenken is a renaissance man: thinker, writer, translator and composer of much music. A main interest, he has many, is setting to music the poetry, written for children, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nimble of mind, Sjef is a youthful retiree and a great-grandfather. Mostly he's a content man, which facilitates his relentless multi-media creativity.

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