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The Onomastic Cringe
Who the hell are the Roma?
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The indispensable Michael Kelly, writing in the New York Post (12/8/99, p.41), deplores the silence of the U.S. government in the face of a massive ethnic cleansing currently under way in Kosovo, this time “conducted by the Albanians against their ethnic Serb, Croatian, Roma and Muslim Slavic neighbors.” I certainly share Mr Kelly’s indignation; but — excuse me — who the heck are the Roma?

The question is rhetorical: having been given the novels of George Borrow (Lavengro, Romany Rye) to read at an early age, I happen to know that rom means “man” in the Gypsy language. The Roma are the Gypsies. How many other people know this, I cannot guess, but I feel sure it is not many. So why confuse us like this? Why not say “Gypsy”?

There is more of this going on. A scholarly e-group I belong to recently featured some exchanges about a people called the Saami. This one I didn’t know and had to ask: “Saami” is the new, PC-certified name of the Lapps. Further east, the Samoyeds are now “Nemtsi.” Meanwhile, down in Africa, Hottentots are “Khoi” while Bushmen must be called “San.” What will now become of my party piece, reciting the silliest word in the German language: Hottentotenpotentatenstantenattentäter — “one who assails the aunt of a Hottentot potentate”?

Ethnonymy — the naming of peoples — is apparently headed down the same slippery slope that toponymy — the naming of places — embarked on twenty years ago, when we all had to start saying “Beijing” and “Mumbai” out of imagined deference to the sensibilities of the Third World. Toponymical practice has now passed far beyond the bounds of reason into a realm of utter lunacy. The other day I needed to know the name of that wee gulf up in the top right-hand corner of the Mediterranean. I pulled down my Times Atlas of the World and got the answer: “Ïskenderun körfezi.” Now, I am sure that somewhere in there is the Turkish word for “gulf,” but alas, I had mislaid my Turkish dictionary. (So I went to the attic and looked the place up in my grandfather’s 1922 atlas. “Gulf of Alexandretta”. Ah.)

Granted, it is a nice courtesy to refer to peoples and their places by the names they themselves use. But why is this consideration supposed to override all others? Here are some of the others.


Educational. How are teachers supposed to get even the brute facts of geography, history and ethnology into kids’ heads when the names keep changing? And when the new names are written in a way that nobody but a master of comparative graphetics can pronounce? Who, exactly, is better off for calling Gypsies “Roma” and Jerusalem “Yerushalayim/Al-Quds”? Imagine a bright tenth-grader who wants to do a project on the Opium Wars. He finds a good library with lots of excellent books on the topic, some of them published decades ago (e.g. Maurice Collis’s Foreign Mud, still — after 50 years — one of the best Opium War books). He reads of action going on in places called Canton, Swatow and Amoy. But where are those places? He will not find them on any school atlas published since about 1980. I could tell him, if he knew to ask me, that those cities are nowadays called Guangzhou, Shantou and Xiamen; but of course he doesn’t know. Why are we thus distracting him from his historical researches? Don’t kids face enough distractions?

Phonetic. The principle we started out with was: If a foreign name comes to the attention of English-speakers we are entitled to Anglicize it for our convenience. The Swedish city-name “Göteborg,” for example, contains two sounds — one vowel, one consonant — that English-speakers cannot produce without special training. No prob: we’ll call it “Gothenburg.”

This very sensible principle has been replaced by a new one: Foreign names must be rendered in their native orthography; or, when that involves some alphabet different from ours, in a transcription as phonetically faithful as possible.

The trouble is, this doesn’t work. “Peking” is a fair approximation to the way most southern Chinese pronounce the name of their capital. “Beijing” is a shot at the official — under the current regime — northern pronunciation, but it really gets us no closer. English-speakers voice the “b,” which should be unvoiced; and they Frenchify the “j” into [ʒ], a sound that does not occur in Chinese. And of course nobody attempts the tones, a non-optional feature of Chinese pronunciation. (With wrong tones, beijing means “background.”)

So the net result of all this upheaval is that a familiar Anglicization of a foreign name has been replaced by another Anglicization, no closer than the first. Was our journey really necessary?

Fairness. The need to call peoples and places by their local names is entirely a figment of the Anglo-Saxon liberal imagination — yet another aspect of the absurd cultural cringing our civilization has gone in for this past thirty years. (I hereby christen the whole phenomenon under discussion here “The Onomastic Cringe.”)

The beneficiaries of this consideration do not reciprocate. Chinese atlases show England’s great university city as Niujin, with no hint that we locals actually pronounce it “Oxford.” I have no doubt the Hottentots still call my own people what they have always called them — “white devils,” probably.

There is the same asymmetry here that Peter Brimelow noticed in Alien Nation. After a survey of U.S. immigration policy, Brimelow decided to see how things were done in those countries that send us immigrants. He put through calls to China, India and Mexico to ask what rules there were for immigrating to those countries. The answers, in a nutshell: you better be Chinese, Indian or Mexican.

Want to immigrate to India? Sorry, you’re not brown enough. Want to find Oxford on a Chinese atlas? Sorry, we don’t give a flying fandangle how you locals pronounce it.

Cussedness. Damn whatever committee of the U.N. is foisting this gibberish on us! To hell with them and all their works! GYPSIES! PEKING! LAPPS! BOMBAY! HOTTENTOTS! Come and get me, you bastards!

(Republished from The Weekly Standard by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Ideology 
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  1. Jason L. says:


    You could make a point about the difficulty of teaching when the names keep changing if they changed every five or ten years. But pinyin has essentially been in its modern form for sixty years (forty, I suppose, at the date of publication of this article). Compared to what the actual Chinese have to deal with (changing not only romanization, but also writing systems), I don’t think it is too much of an issue for something that will likely be taught a handful of times in public schools. (Of course, in university, it would have to be taught in more detail, but then again, professors should be expected to keep up with the latest developments.)


    Mandarin is considered the official dialect, and Cantonese is not. There is no reason to teach the non-official pronunciation when it is not used by Chinese officials when interacting with the international community.

    Chinese is also an interesting case because Chinese has a relatively low number of distinct syllables compared to languages such as English.

    It’s also disputed whether other romanization systems (and especially Wade-Giles, which heavily relies on oft-omitted apostrophes to indicate aspirated initials) are actually superior to pinyin. For example, take the pinyin initial “g”, indicated by “k” (not “k’”) in Wade-Giles. It’s supposed to be pronounced as one would pronounce a hard “g” in English, not a “k” in English.

    Where Wade-Giles really does poorly is with sounds like zhi (chih in Wade-Giles). Pronouncing chih as it would be pronounced in English would result in chi (ch’ih in Wade-Giles).

    Pinyin is more concise and more consistent than Wade-Giles. Each letter sequence only represents one sound, and that’s that.


    A great many U.S. maps show the Yellow River as, well, the Yellow River. When something has a sensible English translation, people often use it, e.g., calling China the “Middle Kingdom”. But usually that isn’t used because it sounds silly, and also, Chinese leans heavily on two character names that are understood to represent locations.

    Niujin actually preserves the original etymology of Oxford: ox ford. For true reciprocity, all atlases would show any foreign location in its own script. So there wouldn’t be any need for romanization at all; Beijing, for example, would just be the Chinese characters for Bei and Jing (not sure whether your site supports Unicode, so I’m just leaving them spelled out in pinyin). Of course, that is no help to anyone who doesn’t know Chinese and wants to pronounce the name, so we compromise and romanize the name. In turn, other countries with different writing systems convert foreign names to their own systems. For example, the Chinese use a mix of phonetic characters and translations for foreign names (e.g., Maryland and Baltimore are transliterated, but Oxford, as you mentioned, is translated). The Japanese have a syllabary for foreign names.

    One interesting tidbit is that Japanese names for Chinese are just the Chinese characters, even though the pronunciation is quite different. The same happens the other way around (e.g., Tokyo from Japanese becomes Dong Jing when written with the same characters in Chinese).

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