Perhaps you can help settle an argument. This was a debate that bubbled up during yesterday’s Monocle 24 editorial meeting, normally the last word in even-handed discussion, rational thought processes and fair-mindedness. It basically boiled down to this: is it Timor Leste or East Timor? Hmm, which side to take? There was a pretty even split between the traditionalists, who some might accuse of tacitly endorsing colonialism by sticking with the entrenched English version. In the other corner were the progressives, supporters of the geographically correct local version. So, who’s right?
This is a discussion that has been simmering nicely for years. While we appear to have finally come around to replacing Peking with Beijing, Bombay with Mumbai, where should we draw the line?
And how far should collective post-colonial guilt go in influencing the process? Few people with a reasonable grasp of history would have argued against replacing Leningrad with the infinitely more elegant and enlightened St Petersburg. But I feel there simply isn’t the same kind of incentive to always apply the most up-to-date local interpretation across the board.
Even if you think you’ve got it right other pitfalls await. I am sure I have deeply offended a number of Walloons (or it might have been the Flemish?) with my varied but no doubt universally incompetent efforts to say Bruxelles convincingly.
And that’s part of the problem. The names are just the beginning: pronunciation is almost as complicated as the language of choice. There is something that seems completely contrived about a non-Russian-speaking Englishman saying, “Mosk-va” where clearly the trusty old “Moscow” is more appropriate. But then I couldn’t bring myself to say anything other than “Marseilles”. Clearly not “Mar-sails”. That way madness lies, or at the very least the kind of linguistic abuse that saw Great War soldiers recalling their time at “Wipers” (Ypres) in Belgium.
A quick straw poll around Midori House suggests that a sizeable majority of our international contingent prefer a more honest, rudimentary, Anglo Saxon pronunciation of place names, rather than an affected effort at capturing a supposedly “authentic” local flavour. If I try and ease into a smooth, South-American-style “Rio de Janeiro” it will probably rile our Brazilian listeners far more than my usual, plodding pronunciation. But if I deliver a robust English “Hel-sink-i” I am told that is guaranteed to offend the ears of my Finnish colleagues. Well, colleague, singular – there’s only one but he was seriously unimpressed.
So what’s my advice? Well, short of a pretty significant historic event or seismic political shift – say the collapse of communism, or the intervention of a despot – we should stick with what we know and stick with how we know to pronounce it. My view is that you get into more trouble trying to please some of the people some of the time than if you just keep to the tried and tested English approach of being happy to insult everyone equally often. At least that way you are being consistent.