157. Why Do Countries Change Their Names? (English Vocabulary Lesson)



Sometimes a country will change its name. In recent years, Swaziland became Eswatini, Cape Verde became Cabo Verde, and Turkey is now Türkiye! But why do countries change their names? Let’s discuss this today on Thinking in English! 



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Vocabulary List

Intention (n) – something that you want and plan to do

It wasn’t my intention to exclude her from the party – I just forgot her

Anglicised (adj) – made English in sound, appearance, or character

Immigrants to the US often anglicised their names

Pride (n) – feelings of worth and respect

The country’s national pride has been damaged by sporting failures

Synonymous (adj) – having the same meaning

The words “ annoyed” and “irritated” are synonymous 

To adopt (v) – to accept or start to use something new

I think it is time to adopt a new approach to climate change

To ditch  (v) – to get rid of something that is no longer wanted

The criminals ditched the stolen car in a different town

To signal (v) – to show that you intend or are ready to do something

The death of Chairman Mao signalled the end of an era in Chinese history

Long-standing (adj) – having existed for a long time

He broke our long-standing agreement

 

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From Turkey to Türkiye

Spanning the border between Europe and Asia, Turkey is a beautiful country with rich culture, fascinating history, and friendly people. Turkey is home to the world famous Cappadocia balloon festival, the world’s oldest religious site called Göbekli Tepe, and some of the most delicious food in the world. And, perhaps most importantly, Turkey has a lot of Thinking in English listeners – thank you all so much!

Actually, I should apologise here… I made a mistake in my last paragraph. Can you spot what the mistake was? Did you notice my error? Perhaps some of my Turkish listeners picked up on it. I called the country the wrong name. As of earlier this year, the country is officially known in English by its Turkish name Türkiye. 

In late 2021, the Turkish leader Recep Erdogan announced his intention to leave behind the anglicised name, and instead use Türkiye (the country’s name in the Turkish language) for all purposes. Although the pronunciation of both names is quite similar, they are written differently. The request was accepted by the UN, and already in the country all government websites, official announcements, and every Turkish brand is using the name Türkiye. 

As many of you probably know, aside from formerly being the name of the country, a turkey is also a relatively ugly bird commonly eaten for Thanksgiving in the USA and Christmas in the UK. Interestingly, this is thought to be one of the main reasons for the name change – President Erdogan and his supporters were tired and annoyed by the association between the word turkey and the bird. This is even more understandable when you consider the fact that the word turkey is also used informally to refer to “something that is extremely or completely unsuccessful.”

However, the decision to change the English name to Türkiye is also an attempt at increasing national pride. According to Erdogan, “The phrase Türkiye represents and expresses the culture, civilization, and values of the nation in the best way,” Türkiye is the Turkish name for the country, and Erdogan wants this to be the international name!

According to some of my Turkish friends, most people in the country don’t really care that much. Of course, they have called the country Türkiye in their own language for 100 years, but the English translation Turkey has remained globally widespread and popular. Turkey has been struggling with an economic crisis, massive inflation, and political problems – many people see the name change as an attempt to boost Erdogan’s popularity before next year’s elections. 

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Other Country’s Name Changes!

Türkiye is not the only country to change their official English name! In recent years, quite a few countries have done the same.

For example, in 2020 the Netherlands officially stopped using the nickname Holland in official situations. Holland only ever referred to a region of the Netherlands, but it had become synonymous with the country in many places. The Dutch government, tourism industry, and businesses have all agreed to stop using the name Holland!

In 2019, the Republic of Macedonia changed their name to the Republic of North Macedonia to settle a dispute with Greece. Greece has a region also called Macedonia, and by changing the country’s name, North Macedonia was able to convince Greece to support their admission to NATO in 2020. 

In 2018, the African country formerly known as Kingdom of Swaziland changed the official English name to eSwatini to celebrate 50 years of independence. eSwatini translates to “land of the Swazis.”

In 2016, the Czech Republic registered the name Czechia with the UN. However, this name has not been widely adopted across the world yet. I only learned about the name change in 2020 from my Czech roommate at the time, and apparently the Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis also refused to use the country’s new official name in 2020

The Czech government had wanted to use the shorter name Czechia to be in line with other countries – I think the Czech Republic was one of the only countries to use the country’s long name regularly. For example, the full name of my country is The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but it is commonly known as the United Kingdom. Until 2016, the Czech Republic had no short name. 

And in 2013, the West African island country Cape Verde became known as Cabo Verde. Portuguese is the official language of the country, and the new name replaces the English word Cape with the Portuguese translation Cabo!

Why do Places Change Names?

As you can see from the previous six examples of countries changing their names, there are numerous different reasons and motivations to do so. Turkey changed their name for reasons of national pride and to avoid confusion with the bird; the Netherlands ditched Holland to distance itself from the negative stereotypes associated with that name; Eswatini and Cabo Verde both chose names in their own languages; North Macedonia changed to settle an argument with Greece; and the Czech Republic wanted a shorter, more catchy name!

Some name changes are motivated by getting rid of names imposed by colonisers. India is a great example of this – the cities Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras became Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai after independence from the UK. Burma became Myanmar, Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, Ceylon became Sri Lanka, and so on. Once independent from their colonisers, many countries chose to throw out the European inspired names and instead choose names from their own languages and that reflected their own cultures. 

Regardless of the specific reason for changing names, I think the overall motivation is that leaders of countries want to control their national identity and culture. Changing a name can signal a change in culture, politics, or identity. Think about Ukraine. Growing up in the UK, I largely used the Russian language name Kiev for the capital city. Only a few days after the war began the world started using the Ukrainian name Kyiv to signal their support for the invaded country. 

There is barely a place in the entire world where a name doesn’t upset or annoy someone. Names are always political – they tell a story of language and history. By changing names, a country’s leader can try to control the national identity.  

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Does it matter?

Does changing a name really matter? Sometimes name changes are quickly accepted by the world. This most often happens when there is a completely new and unrelated name to the previous – it is much harder for people to get confused. 

However, when the new name is very similar to the old one, it can be confusing.  The Czech Republic has this problem with Czechia. The request to get rid of a longstanding English name and replace it with a new, but similar, alternative is not always respected. Turkey is likely to have this issue with Türkiye.

The key point is that foreign places have old and well-known English names. Many of my listeners are from Italy – an English speaker like me would refer to Rome instead of Roma, and Italy instead of Italia. And in your languages, the chances are that you don’t call countries by the name they want. I come from the UK, but in Japan I come from Igirisu and in Taiwan I was from Yingguo. 

There are a lot of countries that call themselves something different from what the world does. In fact, Turkey is surrounded by Hellas, Sakartvelo and Hayastan – better known in English as Greece, Georgia and Armenia. Deutschland is Germany; Nippon is Japan; Polska is Poland; Suomi is Finland. Sometimes countries even have multiple names for themselves, especially if they have multiple languages – India has about 14 official names!

A country can choose what they call themselves, but they can’t force other countries, peoples, and languages to use the new name. It is really difficult to abandon old names. This is something the Turkish government will likely discover!

Final Thought

On today’s episode of Thinking in English, I have discussed why countries change their names. Turkey has recently become Türkiye officially in English, and they are not the only country to do it! Reasons for adopting a new name are various: the legacy of colonialism, confusion with other areas, to make the name shorter, or using a new language!

 But, it can be difficult to make other languages follow the new rules. There are long standing naming traditions and conventions in English, and it is not easy to change these!  

What is your country called in your native language? What is it in English? 

 


One response to “157. Why Do Countries Change Their Names? (English Vocabulary Lesson)”

  1. The Dutch government would do well to think about changing the adjective, so that the words “Dutch” and “Danish” are not confused with each other. I don’t know how English-speakers are with this confusion, but Russian-speakers, when trying to deal with these adjectives in English, regularly make mistakes. I wonder how the others are doing in this case?

    You mispronounced the name of the Ukrainian capital in Russian. You pronounced it with the stress on the second syllable. Nobody talks like that. The Russians just pronounce the word Kyiv the way you presented the pronunciation in the form of the Ukrainian version. Ukrainians, on the other hand, pronounce Kyiv through a sound that English speakers usually do not pronounce. This sound is denoted in Russian by the letter ‘ы’, and in Ukrainian by ‘и’. In short, without special training, English-speakers have no chance to correctly pronounce the name of the Ukrainian capital. 🙂

    Like

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One response to “157. Why Do Countries Change Their Names? (English Vocabulary Lesson)”

  1. The Dutch government would do well to think about changing the adjective, so that the words “Dutch” and “Danish” are not confused with each other. I don’t know how English-speakers are with this confusion, but Russian-speakers, when trying to deal with these adjectives in English, regularly make mistakes. I wonder how the others are doing in this case?

    You mispronounced the name of the Ukrainian capital in Russian. You pronounced it with the stress on the second syllable. Nobody talks like that. The Russians just pronounce the word Kyiv the way you presented the pronunciation in the form of the Ukrainian version. Ukrainians, on the other hand, pronounce Kyiv through a sound that English speakers usually do not pronounce. This sound is denoted in Russian by the letter ‘ы’, and in Ukrainian by ‘и’. In short, without special training, English-speakers have no chance to correctly pronounce the name of the Ukrainian capital. 🙂

    Like

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