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Mapping the Terms Used for First-Order Administrative Divisions

Submitted by on July 30, 2013 – 10:06 am 35 Comments |  
Term Used for First-Order Administrative Divisions MapIn examining the various countries of the world, I am often unsure what to call their main administrative divisions. Recently, I found myself writing about Peruvian departments but then wondered whether they might be called provinces instead. As it turns out, Peru is split into regions. Other countries are divided into districts, counties, governorates, divisions, and so on. Around twenty such terms are listed on Statoids, the most authoritative website on the matter. As a result, it is easy to get confused.

As can be seen on the map posted here, and as was discussed in yesterday’s post, these terms are scattered over the globe in a largely haphazard manner, compounding the confusion. The main reason for the lack of clear patterns is the fact that little differentiates the various entities denoted by these terms. To be sure, sovereign states that call their primary divisions “states” are generally organized in a federal manner, devolving considerable authority on these constituent units. Most countries with states are correspondingly large in territorial extent (but not all: exiguous Palau is divided into sixteen states). Otherwise, I see little holding together the various categories. I have considered examining the etymologies and usages of the terms in question, but it hardly seems worthwhile. If any readers have different ideas on this matter, I would be interested to hear them.

One of the main problems is that of translation, as can be seen in the case of Poland. The Polish term for Poland’s own divisions is województwa, directly translated into English as voivodeship. Although this term appears in the OED and Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, it is not viewed as being “in common English usage.” As a result, “province” is more commonly used, as can be seen in the map posted above. But as the Wikipedia article on “voivodship” tells us, “depending on context, historic voivodeships may also be referred to as ‘duchies’, ‘palatinates’ … ‘administrative districts or ‘regions’”.

Ethiopia is another interesting case. In Amharic, its first-level divisions include nine kililoch and two astedader akababiwoch. The term “kililoch” (kilil in the singular) is usually translated either as “state” or as “regional state,” but other English terms would work just as well. The Astedader akababiwoch, on the other hand, are “chartered cities” (Dire Dawa and Addis Ababa, in the Ethiopian case). Globally, it is fairly common for important cities to escape the regular hierarchy of administrative divisions, generating an intrinsic problem for classification.

In the GeoCurrents map posted here, Ethiopia falls into the “state” category. It does so because the map closely follows the Statoids website. (I highly recommend the site, particularly its “factoid” section.)  Statoids’ tables list the primary divisions of almost every country on Earth, and most of the secondary ones as well. They also cover dependencies. As a result, it is easy to slot countries into clear categories based on the terms used for their primary divisions.

I am not ready to follow the website in habitually referring to these divisions as “statoids,” but the term is certainly less cumbersome than “first order administrative division.” As the author of the Statoids, Gwillim Law, argues:

The land area of the world is divided into countries. Most of the countries are, in turn, divided into smaller units. These units may be called states, provinces, regions, governorates, and so on. A phrase that describes them all is “major administrative divisions of countries”. I will use the term “statoid” for short. Since the word has no other accepted meaning, it can be used as a search term on search engines to target this site. The ‘a’ of statoid is long.

This page is a guide to Internet sites about the statoids of each country. It can be used independently, but it is meant to be an update to the book “Administrative Subdivisions of Countries”, by Gwillim Law (McFarland & Company, Jefferson, North Carolina). The international standard ISO 3166 is the source for the list of countries. As a result, some dependencies, and a few integral parts of larger countries, are listed as if they were separate countries.

In making the GeoCurrents map, I deviated from Law’s scheme only by ignoring dependencies. Had I included Greenland, Montenegro would not be the only country divided into “communes.” But I do have a few minor quibbles with his classification system. In particular, it seems to me that the internal divisions of a number of countries are too ambiguous to be so neatly ordered. In the remainder of this post, I will examine two of the more troublesome states: Italy and the United Kingdom. On the map posted above, the former is placed in the “province” category while the latter is in that of the “county,” but I remain dubious in both cases.

On the Statoid webpage, Italy is said to be divided into “provinces” at the primary level and “communes” at the secondary level. Italy is indeed divided into 110 provinces, which are in turn subdivided into numerous comuni (singular comune). But “commune” is usually translated as “municipality” rather than “commune,” a term that has a very different connotation in colloquial English. More important, Italian provinces are grouped together at a higher level into regions, which are usually considered to be the country’s highest-order administrative level, and are so regarded by the European Union through its NUTS system (Nomenclature of Territorial Units for Statistics). When I recently mapped Italian elections, I did so on the basis of regions not provinces, largely because the country’s provinces are too numerous. Italian provinces, moreover, are going to change dramatically in 2014; as a result, the Wikipedia maintains two lists of them, noting that many are “being reorganized.”

British Administrative Divisions Map DetailMuch greater complexities are encountered in regard to the United Kingdom. One could argue that the primary division of this state is the “country,” as England, Scotland, and Wales are “constituent countries” of the UK. (Northern Ireland’s status in this regard is not so clear; the Wikipedia claims that it is “variously described as a country, province or region of the UK, amongst other terms.”). Below this level, diversity prevails. As a different Wikipedia article puts it:

The administrative geography of the United Kingdom is complex, multi-layered and non-uniform… Consequently, there is “no common stratum of administrative unit encompassing the United Kingdom”. … Historically, the subnational divisions of the UK have been the county and the ecclesiastical parish, whilst following the emergence of a unified parliament of the United Kingdom, the ward and constituency have been pan-UK political subdivisions. More contemporary divisions include Lieutenancy areas and the statistical territories defined with the modern NUTS:UK and ISO 3166-2:GB systems. … The highest level subdivisions of England are the nine regions. … Below the district level, civil parishes exist, though not uniformly. Parish or town councils exist for villages and small towns; they only rarely exist for communities within urban areas. They are prevented from existing within Greater London. … Commonly, though not administratively, England’s geography is divided into ceremonial counties, which in most areas closely mirror the traditional counties. Each ceremonial county has a Lord Lieutenant, who is the monarch’s representative.”

British Administrative Divisions ChartAs a result of such administrative intricacy, the map of the UK’s internal divisions is a marvel of cartographic complexity. I have therefore posted a detail of an excellent Wikipedia map on the issue, as well as a chart from the same webpage showing the relationships among these various divisions.


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  • G
    • Thanks! Or “council areas,” although it seems that “counties” are used for land registration. “Principal areas” seem to be much the same as council areas,”

  • Muhammad

    UK’s first-order is not a country but in more technical terms a constituency.

    That is the same for Denmark, New Zealand, Netherlands and some other countries that I can’t remember.

    • Thant is true for elections, but is it true otherwise?

      • Muhammad

        To be honest, I’m confused about it. When I asked my British friends, they confused me even more.

        I always thought it was the UK that acted like a country and the smaller parts more like states/provinces.

        The UAE is like that, in a strange sort of way. The UAE is seen as a country but it is of 7 different emirates. The emirates were one time separate countries with their own rulers, but then they united. So should UK and UAE be classified in the same category?

        If Scotland is a country now, I don’t understand why some people want independence. If you want independence from something, you’re not really a country. Or I just have it all wrong. But I don’t think Scotland today functions like a country in its real definition. Instead it functions more like a subject of a country.

        The only time I see England, Scotland and Wales functioning as separate entities is when they play football.

        I don’t know to be honest. I would love to read your thoughts.

        • Yes it is confusing, and you have found some of the more confusing issues. The UK is the “sovereign state,” and is this an “independent country.” But England, Scotland, and Wales are called “constituent countries,” which is not the same thing at all. The Kingdom of Denmark also has non-independent “constituent countries” (Greenland being one), as does the Netherlands (Curacao, for example). Even though Scotland has it own parliament, it is not sovereign — although many Scottish nationalists would like to see it gain actual sovereignty. The UAE is also an interesting case, as the constituent emirates have a high degree of autonomy — much more, in fact, that the “constituent countries” of the UK. All that I can say in the end is that the situation is indeed complicated!

          • SirBedevere

            The UK seems to have 650 more or less equal constituencies (I nearly called them ridings, but I guess that’s just a Canadian thing), which don’t seem to map onto any administrative system there. They seem to be redrawn according to population by boundary commissions with some frequency, the last time in 2005. Changing administrative districts with that kind of frequency would cause all sort of chaos, of course. The United States and Canada have similar systems, with electoral districts redrawn based on new census data, unrelated to the ongoing county lines. Chicago’s Cook County, for instance, includes all or part of 11 congressional districts, while the entire state of Wyoming is a congressional district. Britain does not, I would think, even have any obstacle like our state borders to worry about.

  • Øystein H. Brekke

    It seems to me this map doesn’t say much about the various countries of the world, but rather about English translation practices – the more or less random terms that happen to have come into usage in English to translate the various original terms. (As you mention briefly in regard to Poland.) Being Norwegian, I can say that using the term “county” to translate the Norwegian “fylke” seems totally random to me. The words have nothing in common etymologically, and this practice has probably come about because translators have considered the Norwegian “fylker” analogous to the English counties. It would certainly be no less correct to translate the term as “province”. The same can be said for the Swedish “län”. That Norway, Sweden and the UK end up with the same colour on the map, doesn’t actually, is therefore entirely random, it seems to me.

    Sorry if this comes across as overly negative – I am a big fan of Geocurrents!

    • Don’t worry about being negative, as that does not bother us at all. I also agree with your comments. The map does not say much — but it could be useful for people writing in English who want to use the most common term (as translated into English) for any given country’s administrative divisions.

    • David Schwartz

      Out of curiosity what would be a better English translation of these statiods in both Norway and Sweden? I realize that since the internal governmental structures of these Scandinavian countries make these “counties” not the same in a political sense as they do in the UK.

      • As far as the Norwegian statoids are concerned, the usual English translation is “county”, even though etymologically “fylke” comes from “folk”, not “count”. But that probably reflects the differences in the social structures in Britain and Norway way back when… As far as I know, Norwegians use “fylke” for US counties too.

        The issue of translating such terms is indeed a tricky one. As several of our readers pointed out on Facebook, the Polish term is perhaps best translated as “warlordship”, but it’s not what a customary English translation.

        Another point to note is that translations sometimes reflect differences/similarities between the administrative units in different countries. So while English uses “county” for both UK and US, in Russian, a UK county is графство (grafstvo), from the word “graf” (count), while a US county is округ (okrug), etymologically related to “krug” (circle).

        • David Schwartz

          I guess in the end one should use what makes sense to them or their readership and be willing to accept it’s not a perfect match.

        • SirBedevere

          An etymologically more appropriate latinate translation for fylke might be “commune,” although, as you note, that has some rather odd connotations in 21c English. Wojewodztwo does, literally mean “warlordship.” “Dux,” though, is Latin for [war] leader, and was used to translate wojewod (at least in Hungary), so “duchy” would probably be the proper literal translation. In calling such things counties, I imagine the translator is not thinking so much of medieval counts, as of an analogy with English or American counties. Of course, those who divided the British North American colonies into counties were probably thinking of just such an analogy, rather than any sort of New World nobility, when they used the term in America as well.

        • Øystein H. Brekke

          Somewhat outdated now, but anyway…
          “County” is as good a translation of Norwegian “fylke” as any other, whichever word you choose, “county”, “region”, “shire”, etc, it will be somewhat random – the point has to be to use a word that will give the English speaking reader the best understanding of what is intended.

          As for the etymology of “fylke” meaning “folk”, you can try drawing inferences from that, but remember also that the word was out of use for several hundred years after the Norwegian medieval state was subsumed under Denmark. Then, the Norwegian administrative divisions were “amt”, like in Denmark, until ca. 1920, when the word “fylke” was “reawakened” and brought back into use. So the fact that the word “fylke” is now in use, is mostly a testament to the national romanticism of the early 20th century, when the newly independent Norwegian state reached back to medieval times to find names for some of its government institutions.

          • peterlund

            “Amterne” don’t exist anymore in Denmark (since 2007-01-01). Lots of “kommuner” were merged and then some of the functions of “amterne” were taken over by them (some of the high schools and roads, for example) and some were taken over by the state (some of the roads, for example). The remainder (hospitals and not much else) were given to the new subdivision “regionerne” of which we have 5 (so they are bigger than “amterne” used to be).

            Since they don’t rule over kommunerne in any sense (and have very little power and influence), I don’t think it is fruitful to call them a first-order administrative division.

            It’s more correct to say that Denmark has several different first-order administrative divisions depending on the subject: regioner for hospitals and major roads, politikredse for the police, retskredse for the courts, stifter for the church, statsforvaltninger for divorces and child custody and adoption, and kommuner for practically everything else.

            Some of these have subdivisions (stifterne are divided into provstier and sogne).

          • Thanks for sharing this, Peter!

      • jax

        There is a random element to it. When I grew up “fylke” was habitually translated with “shire” and “kommune” with “county”. The current translation to “county” and “municipality” seems more appropriate (that’s likely where you got the Greenland “commune” btw), but as administrative units the shire, the amt (Denmark), the län (Sweden), the fylke (current Norwegian) have much in common, as do the titles sheriff, amtmann, lensmann/länsman, and fylkesmann.

        Originally they were the central government’s representative in their respective administrative units, but in several languages/countries the word has been reduced to countryside police.

    • Eskarpas

      A correct note. Lithuanian translation for “Apskritis” as “County” is I think pretty arbitrary. I remember a big discussion on the issue at the start of Wikipedia. At the time some government websites would use “County”, some would use “Region” in their websites, yet others suggested to retain “Apskritis” in the same way as “Oblast” of Russia or “Voivodship” of Poland is retained.
      One of the reasons is that “County” already has two Lithuanian translations: “Grafystė” (from Count – grafas) is used for the UK and “Apygarda” for the US units. On the other hand “Region” also has one or two translations (“Regionas” and “Sritis”). Additionally, translating “Apskritis” creates ambiguity because Lithuania also has “Apygarda” (related to law enforcement zones) and historically it had “Sritis” (under the early Soviet occupation).
      What is perhaps more important is that Apskritis have been disestablished in Lithuania a couple of years ago. Currently municipality is the top-order administrative unit (here there is less ambiguity in translation as savivaldybė and municipality are one-to-one translations).

  • venyanamore

    The question of translation is certainly problematic/complicated.

    Just an aside/correction to the description of English administrative organizations you cite from wikipedia: parish councils are not prohibited from existing within Greater London (although all existing ones in the area that became Greater London were abolished prior to the formation of the Greater London Council in 1965, which was, itself, abolished in 1986 – and it is indeed rare that such councils exist in large cities): Last year a referendum was held in the neighbourhood of Queen’s Park (in the City of Westminster, which, despite its name, and unlike the City of London, is itself one of the 32 London Boroughs) on the establishment there of a parish council, known there as a community council: and such a council has since been the established, as yet the only one in Greater London.

    • Thanks for the additional information. A separate post on this topic might be in order some day.

  • Boop

    “Peru is spit into regions” 🙂

  • H

    It is fairly complicated in translations. In Finland and Sweden there were originally provinces (slottlän in Swedish). Thereafter (in 17th century) they were changed although the older ones remained in context of historical reagions (landskaper, maakunnat) according to wich people still associate themselves. These provinces (län or lääni) existed until 2010 in Finland and they were run by governors. They were representatives of central government locally. In Finland they become ” Regional State Administrative Agencies” whereas the old names exist in Sweden. Lääni was called county in English whereas it was called province in Finland although the terminology was similar in both languages. In Sweden county is also secondary local goverment entity with elected county council. In Finland the secondary elected areas are regions in Finnish maakunta. These regions have often names of historical provinces and are based on decissions of individual municipilities (kommun in Swedish or kunta in FInnish) based originally on regional planning regions, but who suddenly become entities on channeling EU money locally. So the present regions are smaller than the historical provinces, although they have same name as the historical regions.

  • Ryan Lord

    According to the factoids section you linked to the UK comes top in
    terms of total number of first order divisions, and it’s by a
    significant margin too. However if you take the “country” as the first
    order division I can’t find any country with fewer divisions (excluding
    very small nations).

    That suggests to me that the UK is missing a more normal sized halfway division. Is this just an odd coincidence or is there some underlying reason for this?

  • josephboyle

    The generic term for Japanese first-level divisions (similar to Russia’s recent “federal subject” which covers both oblasts and republics) is 都道府県 todōfuken which is literally “capital (Tōkyō), route (Hokkaidō), city (Ōsaka and Kyōto), or prefecture (43 different 県)” but 県 and the Chinese 县 (a second- or third-level division usually translated as “county”) are just different simplified ways of writing the same original Chinese word 縣. The differing English translations are completely arbitrary.

  • Janne

    Didn’t knew we had emirates here in Finland. I suspect rest of the map is about as inaccurate.

    • It’s not emirates but regions, you’ve simply misread the map. Or maybe your screen doesn’t show the colors adequately…

  • Saim Dušan Inayatullah

    Why is Spain listed as a country with “provinces” rather than “autonomous communities”?

    • Yes, Spain’s case is complicated, as can be seen from this GeoCurrents map:

      • Saim Dušan Inayatullah

        The classification of “nationality”, etc. means quite little in practice, from what I can tell. It’s just used to kind of rationalize the weird situation where all regions were given autonomy, even those like Extremadura or Castile and Leon where literally no-one was asking for it. In the Catalan-speaking areas, the Basque Country and Galicia they’re not big fans of this “coffee for everyone” (cafè per a tothom in Catalan), especially since it’s then used by Spanish nationalists to draw equivalences between national groups (Catalans, Galicians and Basques) and ethnically Castilian regional groups (Andalucians, Extremadurans, Castilian-Manchegos…).

  • Zgroza

    Czech Republic is definitely not split into regions! The Czech name for statoids is “kraj” which tranlates neatly into a “state”…

  • Keith Tyler

    You could break this down into U.S. states, too. While most are subdivided into counties, one is subdivided into parishes and another is subdivided into boroughs. (And another, increasingly, has neither…)

  • Shouldn’t “barangay” be the first order administrative division in the Philippines? It’s commonly translated to “village” or “district” in English media.

  • jemblue

    France is divided into regions, each further divided into departments.