Exonym and Endonym

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In ethnolinguistics, an endonym [en-doe-nim] or autonym is a local name for a geographical feature, and an exonym [ex-o-nim] or xenonym is a foreign language name for it. Exonyms and endonyms can be names of places (toponym), ethnic groups (ethnonym), languages (glossonym), or individuals (personal name).

For example, China, India, Germany, Greece, Japan, and Korea are the English exonyms corresponding to the endonyms Zhongguo, Bharat, Deutschland, Hellas, Nippon, and Goryeo, respectively.

Exonyms may derive from different roots (as in the case of Germany for Deutschland), they may be cognate words (share a common etymological origin) which have diverged in pronunciation or orthography, or they may be fully or partially translated from the native language. For example, London is known by the cognate exonyms Londres in Catalan, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Tagalog, Londino in Greek, Londen in Dutch, Londra in Italian, Maltese, Romanian and Turkish, Londer in Albanian, Londýn in Czech and Slovak, Londyn in Polish, Lundúnir in Icelandic, Lontoo in Finnish, Lun Dun in Mandarin and Luân Đôn in Vietnamese. An example of a translated exonym is the name Soviet Union.

Exonyms can also be divided into native and borrowed (i.e. from a third language). For example, Slovene uses the native exonyms Dunaj (Vienna) and Benetke (Venice), and the borrowed exonyms Kijev (Kiev) and Vilna (Vilnius), from Russian and Polish, respectively. A substantial proportion of English exonyms for places in continental Europe are borrowed (or adapted) from French, for example: Navarre (Navarra/Nafarroa), Belgrade (Beograd), Cologne (Köln), Munich (München), Prague (Praha), Turin (Torino), Copenhagen (København) etc.

James A. Matisoff, who introduced the term ‘autonym’ into linguistics, said, ‘Human nature being what it is, exonyms are liable to be pejorative rather than complimentary, especially where there is a real or fancied difference in cultural level between the ingroup and the outgroup.’ For examples, Matisoff notes Khang ‘an opprobrious term indicating mixed race or parentage’ is the Palaung name for Jingpo people and the Jingpo name for Chin people; both the Jingpo and Burmese use the Chinese word ‘yeren’ (lit. ‘wild men’) ‘savage; rustic people’ as the name for Lisu people.

Exonyms develop for places of special significance for speakers of the language of the exonym. Consequently, most European capitals have English exonyms, e.g. Athens (Athína), Belgrade (Beograd), Bucharest (Bucureşti), Brussels (Bruxelles), Copenhagen (København), Lisbon (Lisboa), Moscow (Moskva), Nicosia (Lefkosía), Prague (Praha), Rome (Roma), Vienna (Wien) or Warsaw (Warszawa), while for instance historically less prominent capitals Ljubljana and Zagreb do not (but do in, for example, German: Laibach and Agram). Madrid, Paris, Berlin and Amsterdam, with identical names in most major European languages, are exceptions. For places considered to be of lesser significance, attempts to reproduce local names have been made in English since the time of the Crusades. Livorno, to take an instance, was Leghorn because it was an Italian port essential to English merchants and, by the 18th century, to the British Navy; not far away, Rapallo, a minor port on the same sea, never received an exonym.

In earlier times, the name of the first tribe or village encountered became the exonym for the whole people beyond. Thus the Romans used the tribal names Graecus (Greek) and Germanus, the Russians used the village name of Chechen, medieval Europeans took the tribal name Tatar as emblematic for the whole Mongolic confederation (and then confused it with Tartarus, a word for Hell, to produce Tartar), and the Magyar invaders were equated with the 500-years-earlier Hunnish invaders in the same territory, and were called Hungarians.

The Germanic invaders of the Roman Empire applied the word ‘Walha’ to foreigners they encountered and this evolved in West Germanic languages as a generic name for all non-Germanic speakers; thence, the names Wallachia, Vlachs, Wallonia, Walloons, Wales, Wallasey, and even the Polish name for Italy, Włochy.

Matisoff wrote, ‘A group’s autonym is often egocentric, equating the name of the people with ‘mankind in general,’ or the name of the language with ‘human speech’.’Exonyms often describe others as ‘foreign-speaking,’ ‘non-speaking,’ or ‘nonsense-speaking.’ The classic example is the Slavic term for the Germans, Nemtsi, possibly deriving from a plural of nemy (‘mute’): standard etymology has it that the Slavic peoples referred to their Germanic neighbors as ‘mutes’ because their language was unintelligible.

One of the more prominent theories regarding the origin of the term ‘Slav’ suggests that it comes from the Slavic root ‘slovo’ (hence ‘Slovenia,’ ‘Slovakia’), meaning ‘word’ or ‘speech.’ In this context, the Slavs are describing Germanic people as ‘mutes’—in contrast to themselves, ‘the speaking ones.’

Another example of such development is the exonym ‘Sioux,’ an abbreviated form of Nadouessioux, derived most likely from a Proto-Algonquian term for ‘foreign-speaking.’

White settlers in South Africa thought that the Khoi-San natives gabbled nonsense syllables, and so called them ‘Hottentots.’

Two millennia earlier, the Greeks had thought that all non-Greek-speakers spoke gibberish (‘bar-bar-bar’), and so called them “barbarians,” which eventually gave rise to the exonym ‘Berber.’

While the Irish words for England and its people are Sasana and Sasanach (‘Saxons’), the word for the English language is Béarla, which derives ultimately from a word meaning ‘lips.’ In Old Irish, this word was applied to any foreign language, but by the medieval period it had come to be used exclusively for the English language.

In the late 20th century the use of exonyms often became controversial. Groups often prefer that outsiders avoid exonyms where they have come to be used in a pejorative way; for example, Romani people prefer that term over exonyms like Gypsy (from Egypt), or the French term bohémien, bohème (from Bohemia). People may also seek to avoid exonyms due to historical sensitivities, as in the case of German names for Polish and Czech places which used to be ethnically or politically German (e.g. Danzig/Gdańsk and Karlsbad/Karlovy Vary), much like Russian place names being used for locations once under its control (e.g. Kiev/Kyiv).

In recent years, geographers have sought to reduce the use of exonyms to avoid this kind of problem. For example, it is now common for Spanish speakers to refer to the Turkish capital as Ankara rather than use the Spanish exonym Angora. However, according to the United Nations Statistics Division, ‘Time has, however, shown that initial ambitious attempts to rapidly decrease the number of exonyms were over-optimistic and not possible to realize in the intended way. The reason would appear to be that many exonyms have become common words in a language and can be seen as part of the language’s cultural heritage.’

Other difficulties with endonyms have to do with pronunciation, spelling and word category. The endonym may include sounds which are highly unfamiliar to speakers of other languages, making appropriate usage difficult if not impossible for an outsider. Over the years, phonetic changes may happen to the endonym either in the original language or the borrowing language, thus changing an endonym into an exonym, as in the case of Paris, where the s was formerly pronounced in French. Another example is the endonym for the German city of Cologne, where the Latin original of Colonia has evolved into Köln in German, while the Italian and Spanish exonym Colonia closely reflects the Latin original. In many cases no standardized spelling is available either because the language itself is unwritten (even unanalyzed) or because there are competing non-standard spellings. Use of a misspelled endonym is perhaps more problematic than the respectful use of an existing exonym. Finally, an endonym may be simply a plural noun and does not extend itself to adjectival usage in another language, like English, which has a propensity to use the adjectives for describing culture and language. The attempt to use the endonym thus has a bizarre-sounding result.

The name for a language and a people are often different terms, of course, which is another complication for an outsider.

Sometimes the government of a country tries to endorse the use of an endonym instead of traditional exonyms outside the country: In 1985 the government of Côte d’Ivoire requested that the country’s French name be used in all languages instead of exonyms such as Ivory Coast, so that Côte d’Ivoire is now the official English name of that country in the United Nations. The Ukrainian government maintains that the capital of Ukraine should be spelled Kyiv in English because the traditional English exonym Kiev was derived from the Russian name Kiyev. In 1972 the government of Ceylon (the word is the anglicized form of Portuguese Ceilão) changed the name to Sri Lanka, although the name Ceylon was retained as the brand name for tea. In 1989 the government of Burma requested that the English name of the country be Myanmar, with Myanma as the adjective of the country and Bamar as the name of the inhabitants.

Exonyms and endonyms must not be confused with the results of geographical renaming as in the case of Saint Petersburg, which became Petrograd in 1914, Leningrad in 1924, and Saint Petersburg again in 1991. In this case, although St Petersburg has a German etymology, this was never a German exonym for the city between 1914 and 1991, just as Nieuw Amsterdam, the Dutch name of New York City until 1664, is not its Dutch exonym.

Old place names, which have become outdated after renaming, may afterwards still be used as historicisms. For example, even today one would talk about the Siege of Leningrad, not the Siege of St. Petersburg, because at that time (1941–1944) the city was called Leningrad. Likewise, one would say that Immanuel Kant was born in Königsberg in 1724, not in Kaliningrad, as it has been called since 1946. Sometimes, however, historical names are deliberately not used because of nationalist tendencies to linguistically lay claim to a city’s past. As a case in point, the Slovak Wikipedia article on the 1805 Peace of Pressburg does not use either of the city’s names then in use (the Slovak Prešporok or the official, that is German, Pressburg), but today’s name Bratislava, which became the city’s name only in 1919.

There are a few languages in Europe in which the use of seeming exonyms (in terms of spelling but not necessarily pronunciation) for places and people is actually the norm and not an exception: Latvian, Lithuanian, Turkish, Azerbaijani and Serbian (when written in Roman script), all having Latin-based script, transcribe foreign proper names whenever necessary, including those originally written in Latin script. The reasons are the respective nations’ preference for their own consistent phonetic spelling and the need to add native inflectional endings to most nouns. The resulting advantage is that reading and spelling in these languages remain easy (knowledge of how to spell any unadapted foreign words is not required); a disadvantage is that foreigners may erroneously complain that their names have been ‘misspelled.’

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