Saturday, April 11, 2020

Still Life with Robin: Let's Talk about....Georgia

Map of Georgia
(Wikimedia Commons)

by Peggy Robin

So many ways to idle away one’s time in quarantine….. For me, the big time-suck for the past few days was the Facebook debate over the name of Georgia (in the Caucasus mountains, pop.3.7 million, capital Tblisi). Whenever you say its name in a conversation in the US, you almost always need to append the phrase, “….the country, not the southern US state.” Or you could say, “the Georgia where Stalin was born, not the one where Sherman marched.” You can never just say “Georgia” without confusion on a hemispheric scale.

Now don’t ask me how I got involved in this topic. That’s a time-suck in itself that I won’t burden you with.

Suffice it to say that the whole thing got going when a Facebook Friend (an American) proposed calling Georgia what its own citizens call it: Sakartvelo. That would end all confusion, he insisted. And it’s not a hard change to make; we’ve done it before. We stopped saying Siam and switched to Thailand. Burma become Myanmar. (Well, not to everyone – see: for the case for sticking with Burma). The Indian cities of Bombay and Calcutta were de-Anglicized to Mumbai and Kolkata, respectively. (See note* below.) So we know we can do this.

But here’s the other side of the coin: The world is full of places that share a name. Do people en route to the Bay Area end up on flights to Costa Rica because they’re confused about which San Jose they want? (Um, yes, that has happened, but not often enough to be more than an occasional comic mix-up-in-a-travel-tale -- though maybe not so much for the passengers involved

Anyway, go around re-naming all the Georgias in the world and where do you end up? I’ll tell you the remotest island on the planet, South Georgia. Nearest things to it are the Falkland Islands (936 miles away) and Antarctica (1,733 miles). See, once you start at this game, you quickly end up going much too far.

Then there’s the precedent it sets for other countries that have easy-off-the-tongue names in English but tongue-twisters if we had to adopt them in their native forms. Did you know Albania in Albanian is Shqipërisë? (I couldn’t begin to tell you how to pronounce it – you can look it up yourself, if you care.) Armenians call their country Hayastan. Sweden is Sverige. And get this, Finland is Suomi. Now think of what it would be like if we had to give up calling it Finland. For a start, it would mean the death of all those puns about the people and how fast they Finnish.

Here's what is for me the clincher of the argument against name-changing to the term used in the language of the people who live there. You’ll only get a percentage of the newspapers and media outlets to hop on board. Then you’ll have a crazy-quilt of usages, and will need to learn which form fits with the stylebook of which user. And many will try to do both – and then you’ve tasked journalists with having to write “Sakartvelo (formerly known as Georgia)” or some other awkward or hyphenated construction. What a waste of space. And time.

I’ve got one last reason to stick with Georgia and avoid Sakartvelo. I think Sakartvelo has a duplicate out there, too. Pretty sure it’s a planet in the Delta Quadrant. Sakartvelo Prime, I think it was. Captain Janeway and the crew of Voyager got into some trouble there, maybe in Season Six? I could look it up for you but I think I’ve written more than enough about Sakartvelo for one day.

Anyway, what does any of this have to do with Cleveland Park? Ah, finally, the neighborhood-related hook! Well, if we're going to go back to the original names for places, Cleveland Park would be “Pretty Prospects.”  I don’t know about you, but that's a bit too cutesy for me. Think about it….and about the Pretty Prospects Listserv, too! So I’m sticking with CP (not PP!)

* You may be thinking, why did she leave out the most obvious example, the switch from Peking to Beijing? I’ll tell you – if you don’t mind getting off on a weird little side-track. The Peking/Beijing story is not strictly speaking a name change. While it’s true that most people would pronounce Peking as “Pee King,” the spelling was actually designed to convey the sounds “Bei Jing.” It’s an obscure and probably not very interesting fact that the spelling Peking comes from an old and little-used transliteration system for Chinese sounds, created by an 18th-century French scholar, Jean-Baptiste Du Halde, who used a P for the unvoiced “p,” (which sounds to our Western ears like a “b”), and an“e” for an é sound, as in café, and – here’s the tricky party – he used a ‘k” for the Chinese “j” sound (because “k” is a superfluous letter in the French alphabet, needed only to spell foreign words – and French does not have a letter that corresponds to the Chinese “j” sound). So in Du Halde’s spelling system “Peking” IS Beijing.

Still Life with Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv and on All Life Is Local on Saturdays. 

No comments:

Post a Comment