African Country Names in Indigenous Languages

Africa in the Endonym MapAfter the recent GeoCurrents post on country names, Asya Pereltsvaig brought my attention to an interesting website called Endonym Map. The site features a single world map that shows the names of countries and dependent territories in their own official or national languages, as expressed in the script used for those languages. (A detail of the Endonym Map, showing most of Africa, is reproduced here.) A table below the map provides the official name of each state in English, as well as the English names of the languages in which country names are expressed. Although the site is elegantly constructed, the map and the table do not always correspond. The table, for example, lists the language used for Djibouti as Arabic, but on the map the label attached to the country is in Somali (Jamhuuriyadda Jabuuti). This mix-up is not surprising; Arabic is Djibouti’s official language (along with French), whereas Somali is its “recognized national language” (along with Afar). By the criterion used by the Endonym Map, Somali would be the correct choice; the site specifies that “in cases where a country has more than one national or official language, the language that is most widely spoken is shown.” As it happens, Somali is much more widely spoken in Djibouti than Arabic. But specifics aside, the point is that political-linguistic complexity makes the identification of endonyms surprisingly tricky.

Wikipedia Map of Africa's Official languagesMultiple official languages are common in Africa, as the Wikipedia map posted here shows. South Africa has elevated no less than eleven languages to official status. When “national” languages are added to the mix, the situation becomes even more complex, partly because the concept of a national language is ambiguous. Narrowly defined, the term refers to the language spoken by the majority of the people within a nation. But since most sub-Saharan African countries have no majority language, such a definition is of little use in this part of the world. Broader definitions, such as that suggested by the Wikipedia, are unhelpful for the opposite reason; it is difficult to imagine what language would not qualify as having “some connection—de facto or de jure—with a people and perhaps by extension the territory they occupy.” The definition of “national language” used by the Endonym Map is unspecified, but it seems to rely on official recognition.

Map of Indigenous and Arabic Country Endonyms in Africa A close reading of the Endonym Map reveals some interesting patterns of African linguistic development. To highlight such patterns, I have constructed two maps that categorize the names used on the Endonym Map. As can be seen here, most sub-Saharan states give official standing to the languages of their former colonial rulers. French, English and Portuguese predominate, giving rise to the terms Francophone, Anglophone, and Lusophone Africa. Equatorial Guinea, a former Spanish colony, has designated Spanish, French, and Portuguese as official languages, but as Spanish is most widely spoken, the country’s name appears in that language. (Fang is probably spoken more widely than Spanish in Equatorial Guinea, but it is designated as a “recognized regional language” rather than a “national language.”)

Map of African Country Endonyms by LanguageThe most intriguing pattern revealed by the Endonym Map is the widespread use of non-European tongues as the dominant official (or national) languages of sub-Saharan African countries. Chad, for example, is conventionally depicted as a Francophone country, and French is indeed one of its two official languages. But Arabic also has official status in Chad, and the Chadian dialect of Arabic has emerged as the country’s lingua franca, spoken by forty to sixty percent of its people. Elsewhere, a number of indigenous languages of sub-Saharan African origin are gaining prestige and have acquired official status. As the map shows, local languages function as the dominant official means of communication across much of eastern and southern Africa.

One of the more intriguing examples of an indigenous official African language comes from the Central African Republic (CAR). Like neighboring Chad, CAR is usually regarded as a Francophone country, and French is indeed one of its official languages. Yet far more people in the country speak Sango, which also has official status. Over the past several decades, Sango has been spreading rapidly, emerging as the country’s effective lingua franca.* The expansion of Sango has been documented by Mark Karan, who shows that it is also spreading into neighboring countries.

Wikipedia Map of Francophone AfricaAlthough Sango is clearly an indigenous language, it has been heavily influenced by French. In fact, most of Sango’s vocabulary is of French derivation, although the most commonly used words, as well as the basic grammatical patterns, are fully indigenous. Most linguists classify Sango as a creole language, or one that “developed from the mixing of parent languages.” Evidently, Sango emerged as a vehicle of inter-ethnic communication along the Ubangi River before the initiation of French colonialism. Its use was later promoted by both the French colonial army and Christian missionaries, and it gained many French words in the process. As a result of such patronage, Sango became the dominant language of the capital city Bangui, enhancing its appeal.

Mark Karan's Spread of Sango Map and Book CoverThe use of a creole language as a dominant official (or national) language is relatively rare. As it happens, another website is devoted to precisely this issue: Peter L. Patrick’s Pidgins & Creoles as National or Official Languages. Patrick lists nine cases: Cape Verde, Central African Republic (CAR), Haiti, Mauritius, Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone, São Tomé and Príncipe, Seychelles, and Vanuatu. With the exception of CAR and Sierra Leone, all are island countries. Of the official creole languages of these countries, all but Sango of CAR are based on European tongues.

Although Patrick lists Sierra Leone as using a creole language (Krio) as its main national language, the Endonym Map depicts the country in English. This discrepancy stems from the fact that Krio is merely the de facto national language of the country, rather than one that has been given official standing as such. According to the Wikipedia, “Krio is spoken by 97% of Sierra Leone’s population and unites the different ethnic groups in the country, especially in their trade and social interaction with each other.” It is also used in some public schools in the country, and has evidently even been recognized as a “home language” by the New York public school system. Eventually, Krio will probably gain some sort of official standing, requiring a change to the Endonym Map.

*According to the Wikipedia, only about half of the population of CAR is conversant in Sango, but Patrick claims that “it is used as a second language by almost the entire population.”


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What’s in a (Country) Name: The Georgia/Grúziya Controversy

Map of Georgia Showing Different Names Used For the CountryNames of countries in foreign languages (exonyms) often bear no relationship to the names of the same countries in their own official language or languages (endonyms). Such differences are generally accepted without complaint; the fact that English speakers refer to Deutschland as Germany and Nihon as Japan is not a problem for the governments or the people of those countries.

Occasionally, however, diplomats from a given country request that other governments change its name. In 1985, francophone Ivory Coast asked the international community to use its name in French only: Côte d’Ivoire. The request was honored by governments across the globe, although many English-language news agencies still use “Ivory Coast.” When East Timor gained independence in 2002, it asked to be called Timor-Leste, leste being the Tetum* word for “east.” (As “Timor” derives from a Malay word meaning “east,” Timor-Leste would translate into English as “East-East.”) Most countries followed suit, but Australia still uses “East Timor.” Such rejections of name-change requests usually reflect diplomatic tensions. Although Burma has insisted on being called Myanmar since 1989, Britain and the United States continue to call it Burma, in deference to Burma’s own democratic opposition. News agencies in the United States vary on this score. It will be interesting to see how this issue works out now that Burma is opening diplomatically and perhaps moving toward democratization.

Diplomatic requests for country name-changes do not necessarily reflect a desire to substitute indigenous names for those of foreign derivation. Both “Myanmar” and “Burma” are Burmese terms for the country—pronounced “Myanma” and “Bama”—the former being more formal, the latter more colloquial. In some cases, foreign governments are asked to switch from one exonym to another. Over the past several years, Georgia has been trying to convince a number of countries to call it “Georgia,” even though the Georgian name for the country is Sakart’velo.

            As the map shows, Georgia is referred to by a number of distinctive names in different languages. The government of Georgia has no problems with most of these terms. That Armenians call the country Vrastan, for example, is not an issue; the President of Georgia recently congratulated the Georgia-based Armenian-language newspaper Vrastan for “strengthening friendly relations between the two neighbor nations.” But the Tblisi government does object to the Russian term Gruziya, and all names derived from it. In June 2011, the Georgian foreign ministry announced with satisfaction that South Korea had agreed to drop Gruzya in favor of “Georgia.” It also pledged to continue to pressure Japan, China, Bulgaria, Belarus, Croatia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Serbia, Hungary, Macedonia, and Ukraine to make the same change.

Several years earlier, in 2005, Georgia began lobbying Israel to drop Gruzia in favor of Georgia. The Israeli case was considered particularly important, as a Hebrew variant of “Georgia” had been widely used before the influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union shifted the designation to the Russian-derived term.  Georgian diplomats argued that the switch to Gruzia could generate historical confusion in Israel, as “Georgian” has long been used to denote the Christian pilgrims and monks from Sakart’velo who once maintained prominent positions in the Holy Land. It was also suggested that Georgia objected to the “Gruzni jokes,” targeting Georgian Jews, that circulate widely in Israel. The Georgian ambassador in Tel Aviv, however, insisted that such crude humor is “an internal Israeli matter.”

The name Georgia itself has a complex and contested history. Various etymologies have been suggested, but most scholars now agree that it derives from “the Persian-Arabic designation of the Georgians—gurğ—which reached the Western European crusaders and pilgrims in the Holy Land who rendered the name as Georgia (also Jorgania, Giorginia, etc.).” The use of “Georgia,” in its various forms, seems to have been solidified in Western Europe through a false etymology; many people concluded that the name must have stemmed from Saint George, an exceedingly popular figure in Georgian Christianity. Supposedly, 365 Orthodox churches in the country are named after Saint George.

As a geography teacher in the United States, I would not mind the international community dropping “Georgia” altogether in favor of Sakart’velo. This is not a matter of preferring endonyns to exonyms; on the contrary, I usually use “Ivory Coast” rather than “Côte d’Ivoire,” as I see no reason to translate an English term into French. The problem with “Georgia” is rather the confusion generated by the existence of a U.S. state with that name. Internet searches of “Georgia” mostly return articles on the American state, making it cumbersome to conduct research on the country that shares its name.

Map Showing Countries Blocking YouTube in Mid 2010Georgian nationals often find this situation frustrating as well. But rather than changing the exonym of their country, some would prefer to rename American Georgia. In response to a YouTube video of Ray Charles singing “Georgia on My Mind” in early December 2011, one commentator opined, “americans rename your matherfucker state! when i want to look something about my country searching system show me your state! from GEORGIA (caucasus) with hate.” That comment, no surprise, elicited an outpouring of obscenity-laced vitriol from offended Americans. One responder, however, tried a more diplomatic approach: “This is an AMERICAN website! Georgian or russian language websites might cater more to your desires. Or maybe you might try searching for T’bilisi. Beautiful city that one! In fact both your country and our state are lovely places!”

But to what extent is YouTube an “American website?” The company, now a subsidiary of Google, is indeed headquartered in San Bruno, California. But the firm isList of YouTube Languages highly international. YouTube videos are readily accessible across most of the world, although a number of countries periodically put up total or partial blocks. Increasingly, YouTube is customized to various languages. According to the Wikipedia article on the company, “The interface of the website is available with localized versions in 34 countries,” employing “51 different language versions.” Georgian is not yet one of these languages, but there is a Facebook page for “YouTube in Georgia.”

*Tetum and Portuguese are the two official languages of Timor-Leste


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