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Names of Countries are Different Relative to Language for a Reason

Ivorians call their country Côte d’Ivoire, the Thai call their country Prathet Thai, the Chinese call their country Zhōngguó, the Japanese call Japan Nippon, Russians call their homeland Rossiya, the Fins call their country Suomi, the people who live in the Czech Republic call it Česká Republika, Turkey is known to its residents as Türkiye, [...]

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Ivorians call their country Côte d’Ivoire, the Thai call their country Prathet Thai, the Chinese call their country Zhōngguó, the Japanese call Japan Nippon, Russians call their homeland Rossiya, the Fins call their country Suomi, the people who live in the Czech Republic call it Česká Republika, Turkey is known to its residents as Türkiye, and Koreans call their peninsula either Hanguk or Chosŏn depending on if they are from north or south of the 38th parallel. All countries have official names, but these titles are often different, altered, or diversely pronounced when spoken in the various languages of the world. This is normal and conventional, but Ivory Coast now requests to be referred to as Côte d’Ivoire, a French name, in all languages. This motion has gone as far as the English name of the country even being registered with the UN as “Côte d’Ivoire.” Essentially, Côte d’Ivoire is attempting a very unconventional move by challenging a long history of political linguistics and nomenclature in which country names are relative to the language being spoken.

Places have always had name variations for as long as different human groups have spoken different tongues — it is normal for a country to be referred to by many different names in many different languages. Official country names aside, it is my impression that there is no right, correct, or original name of just about any country on earth. The way that a place name is pronounced, or even the word used, is relative to the language being spoken and the current trends of the time you’re living in.

It often strikes me as awkward when someone is speaking one language and then inserts the local or official name for a country in the middle of a sentence — especially when there is a common name for the country  in the language they are speaking in. This is a rising trend that I’m noticing more and more as I travel, but is one that I fail to practice.

When speaking English I pronounce “Mexico” with a hard X sound, as this is how the word should be pronounced in this language. Likewise, when I’m speaking Spanish I pronounce Mexico with an H sound for the X, as this is the proper pronunciation in this tongue. If speaking English, I call China “China;” If speaking Chinese, I call the country “Zhōngguó.” When I’m speaking Japanese, I call Japan “Nippon;” if I were to make an attempt at speaking Finnish, I would call Finland “Suomi;” but if I am speaking English I use the appropriate word and pronunciation for these countries that is conventional in English.

Every country in the world has either a different name or a varying pronunciation depending on what language you are speaking, and this is the same goes for the United States of America, my home country, as anywhere else. In Japanese, the USA is called “Gasshuukoku;” in Chinese, it’s “Meiguo;” in Turkish, “Amerika Birleşik Devletleri;” in Spanish, “Los Estados Unidos de America.” I would not become offended if when speaking one of the above languages if someone called my country by their own name for it. This is normal, but I can see a change coming.

Throughout the world, as many developing countries are maturing in their independence, place name changes are becoming incredibly common. Often, such as the case with India changing the names of many of its major cities to more “Indian sounding” names, this is done in an attempt to erase a legacy of colonialism. Sometimes, such as in the case of Myanmar, official name changes are done to show a political change. While occasionally name changes are done to emphasis a shift of cultural affiliation — such as the case of some ex-Soviet States. Whatever the case may be, there is usually no issue with other languages having their own version of the new country name. Ivory Coast stands as a unique example, the first I know of, of a country attempting to enforce their official name over speakers of all languages.

Côte d'Ivoire soccer team

In the 2010 World Cup Ivory Coast requested to be referred to as Côte d’Ivoire by commentators of all languages. The only ones who abided by this request were the ones speaking English, as in the soccer tournament Ivory Coast was called “Costa de Marfil” by the Spanish, “Costa do Marfim” by the Portuguese, “Costa d’Avorio” by the Italians, “Coasta de Fildes” by the Romanians, and so on. All the names by which they were referred mean the same thing: Ivory Coast.

“Despite the Ivorian government’s request, the English translation “Ivory Coast” (sometimes “the Ivory Coast”) is still frequently used in English. The BBC usually uses “Ivory Coast” both in news reports and on its page about the country.The Guardian newspaper’s Style Guide says: “Ivory Coast, not ‘The Ivory Coast’ or ‘Côte d’Ivoire’; its nationals are Ivorians.” ABC News (USA), The Times, The New York Times, and the South African Broadcasting Corporation all use “Ivory Coast” either exclusively or predominantly.” –Ivory Coast Wikipedia

Global conventions, especially when it comes to language, are hard to break — especially as they are often routed in practicality.

Why not call all countries what the people currently living there call it?

I must admit, calling countries by the name and pronunciation that the people who live there does not sound like a bad proposition — and is right in step with current global trends in political correctness. Though it is my impression that there are very practical reasons why most countries of the world are referred to by different names respective of language, and this has little to do with history, politics, or inter-cultural power dynamics. Simply put, people often have difficulty pronouncing foreign words. This is as true for Latinos as it is for Americans, as true for the Chinese as it is the Portuguese. I guarantee that most of the people in the world cannot pronounce Côte d’Ivoire properly, nor Zhōngguó, nor Nippon, nor Prathet Thai, nor Rossiya, nor Hanguk . . .

That which is normal and conventional very often also turns out to be practical.

If the Côte d’Ivoire trend catches on we are in for some very brutalized pronunciations of country names in this world.

Filed under: Ivory Coast, Language, Politics

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3703 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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  • alf November 23, 2011, 1:12 pm

    Absolutely true.

    While it would be cool and interesting to call each country by the name it is known by its inhabitants, it wouldn’t be practical. I wouldn’t have a clue how to even pronounce a lot of names.

    There are also interesting cases, like american aborigines being called Indians, when the Spaniards first came to the American continent, while the demonym was quickly proved wrong, it is still used casually in the whole continent. Or the Persians, which was a name their historic enemies, the greek, used to called them, and it stuck around as Iran’s name until 1935, when they specifically asked to be called Iranians instead.

    However, during a conversation in English and calling a country or their people by a name in their own language, rings like a lame attempt to appear cultured to me.

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    • Wade Shepard November 23, 2011, 1:34 pm

      Right on.

      Language is so often dominated by simple convention — if you have a set of sounds to represent a certain thing, that’s often good enough. I guess the sounds that make up the word “Indian” for indigenous people, though its roots are incorrect, is now just as good as any other word. The main point of language is to communicate, and if everyone knows what you mean by the vocal sound “Indian” then that word serves its function. Words are just vocal or written symbols that almost everyone of a certain group understands, the history of such symbols is often irrelevant if they don’t have any modern bearing. Words are funny things though, people get really excited about them, and it is often times difficult to find place name words that even everyone who lives there agrees upon. With almost every modern place name change there are often lots of internal disputes with all sides arguing about the history, implication, blah, blah of each potential title (Burma is just the colloquial form of Myanmar (both using English pronunciation), but even this name change is highly disputed both internationally and in Burma itself — both words stand for the dominating cultural majority in the country). I actually think using archaic titles for places (like Persia — who cares about ancient Greek wars anymore?) is a better policy than fighting over such petty issues in modern times. “Place name” just means “Place name” no matter what sounds you use. “A rose of any other name . . .” is the same thing.

      But, that’s just my opinion on the matter. The reason I published this is because I find it ridiculous that Ivory Coast — a country that I can guarantee 95% of the world can’t even locate on a map — wants to be called a name that most non-Franco speakers would have a difficult time pronouncing when it means the same exact thing as its version in other languages. It seems to be a projection of a national insecurity issue.

      Right on about how switching to local pronunciation of place names mid-sentence sounds like a lame attempt at sounding cultured. This made me laugh.

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  • JSkarv December 1, 2011, 5:19 am

    Strangely, in Canada, calling someone Indian is akin to slur. Even though according to law people are still referred to as “Status Indians” they would prefer to be called ‘first nations’, though that doesn’t often happen unless the circumstance calls for political correctness. Most often, in my experience, people descended from North American Indians are called natives, which I believe is the most accurate word for them. This is also considered pejorative though. It’s confusing as all hell.

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    • Wade Shepard December 1, 2011, 11:43 am

      Right on, it is confusing. But political correctness is often the manifestation of inter-group power struggles rather than the use of correct terminology. “Fist nations” or “natives” is really not much more of a historically correct term as “Indians.” There was another part of this article that I edited out that had to do with how place names change over time and that there a no “native” or indigenous people or “original names” for places pretty much anywhere (one exception, perhaps, are aborigines in Australia). People populated the Americas in successive waves of migration where one group moved in when another left or conquered the territory of another. There are no original people anywhere, well, unless you want to start talking about the people who are referred to under the blanket term “Clovis.” So it becomes confusing when a coup of convention is attempted to be justified with a rendering of history.

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