Samstag, den 30. Juni

Coming to Vienna has been something of a stressful journey. Not only was last night spent on a night train—one of the World’s least pleasant forms of transport, which I am hesitant to refer as a ‘sleeper train’ because you’re very unlikely to get any—but I have a pathological confusion between Venice and Vienna. This is extremely unfortunate on a holiday during which you plan to visit both.

I know that there are massive cultural, architectural and historical differences, not to mention the 300-mile geographical one between the 4/4-beating heart of European music and everyone’s favourite soggy city. I am not confusing Venice and Vienna, just their stupid English-imposed extremely similar names.

Yet more ammunition to my occasional soapbox that we should refer to places by their local names. Wien and Venezia are almost impossible to confuse. And it’s not like either of them are particularly hard to say. And, if everyone would just stop this petty naming-one-another’s-towns-slightly-differently-to-the-locals, we’d have an international standard of names so you’d not need to know the word for Venice in the language of any country you might happen to be trying to catch a train to there from—a difficulty I can foresee arising in the not-too-distant future since I am on an InterRailing holiday.

We should all learn from newsreaders, and slip momentarily into the local accent—with a slight pause either side to accentuate the change—when describing a place name. I see no reason why we shouldn’t apply the same rationale to places in the UK: I propose ‘Lahndan’, ‘Nuk’astle’ and ‘Liverpyul, like’ as some initial accepted pronunciations. Suggestions welcome.

This approach was pioneered by a Brummie schoolmate of mine, who was physically incapable of pronouncing the name of his home town, Wolverhampton, without slipping unconsciously into the local drawl. French lessons were my personal favourite:

«Ah, oui, d’accord. Et où habites-tu?» enquires long-suffering Miss Walker.

«J’habite à,» and then a short pause of growing inevitability, which might just be my brain editing the memory for dramatic effect, “…Wolva’ramptun.”

One of the big problems with this scheme is France. We spell the place names similarly in general, so it’s fine in writing, but one does sound a little pretentious saying ‘Paree’ instead of Paris, doubly so because crappy British foreign language education (see above) likely equipped you only with French, and of that an eclectic subset concentrated on personal appearance, siblings and directions to the local swimming baths, as your arsenal of foreign culture. So, if you start saying ‘Paree’ it implies that you think you’re some big, cultured French-speaker when, in fact, you can probably half-remember how to ask for the time and tell someone how old you are, assuming it’s less than forty and doesn’t contain a five. By the time you’ve explained to your potential assailant that you’re merely trying to redress the cultural differences between nations and promote worldwide harmony through unified standards of geographical nomenclature and, come on, ‘Paree’ isn’t actually that hard to say, now is it, what are they, some kind of idiot?…you’ve probably been punched in the face. Especially because of that last part about the idiot. You really shouldn’t have said that.

There’s also the mildly thorny issue of coping with places with a different alphabet, like in Greece or Russia. Αθήνα, which transliterates as ‘Athina’, isn’t too hard if you’ve just finished a physics degree and have been using θ to represent angles, ν to represent frequencies and η as the Stokes fluid viscosity for years (I admit people who’ve heard of Stokes fluid viscosity are, thankfully, in a minority), and it’s not like ‘Athina’ is too hard to say, either. It’s when you start trying to get me to pronounce Владивосто́к that even physics nerd boy runs into trouble. And that’s only Vladivostok. What about all those funny little really unfamous Russian towns you’ve never heard of? (I’ve never quite understood why physicists don’t borrow a few characters from the Cyrillic alphabet as well—it’s not like there’s not a serious shortage of letters or anything [a shortage which is quite obvious when you consider how many letters there are compared to the number of complicated words in a physics textbook].)

Little transliteration differences aside, though, this is an idea which makes you look cultured and only puts you at a small risk of a beating. So, join the campaign! And pray that it will allow me once and for all to distinguish Vienice and Venna.

Comments

  1. Not too sure about your transliteration of it as “Athina”… it’s an eta, which I always learnt was pronounced as a long ‘e’ (kind of like the ‘ai’ in “hair”). But I’m just being a pedant, your point about the inconsistency of us sticking with “Athena” for the goddess, but “Athens” for the town, is spot on.

  2. To fit with the whole pronunciation of towns in one’s own accent regardless of language, have any physicists ever referred to Stoke-on-Trent simply as ‘v’ in the midst of an otherwise normal sentence? Then again, someone that has been subsumed so utterly into the world of physics is unlikely to be able to do normal sentences. Or go out in daylight.

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