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Toponymic Confusion

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Toponymic confusion

Published by Holger Wandt on 13-02-2009.

Did you know that Urshalim, al-Quds, Yerushalayim and Jerusalem are four names for the same city? There is great international confusion over the names of countries, cities, streets and rivers which have been changing so frequently that postal services, health and rescue workers and transportation companies are struggling very hard to cope.


The UN’s expert committee on names is expanding standardisation efforts in order to to make it easier to find your way in an increasingly globalized world. The most prominent examples of these efforts are the change from Bombay to Mumbai and of Peking to Beijing, thus re-installing the correct names from a pre-colonial era. But the toponymic name battle still has some major challenges. Some examples…

Naming places can be a potentially dangerous decision. The former Yugoslav republic which is now called Macedonia, was actually close to war with neighbouring Greece, because Greece feared an annexation attempt of its northern province, also called Macedonia. Officially, the UN calls the country the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia or FYROM. Fact is, however, that nobody in Macedonia actually uses that name…

After the collapse of the former Soviet Union, a large number of countries changed the names of their cities in order to revert to pre-communist times. For example, the city Tashkent is now called Toshkent. It seems that this is only a small change, but for the people in Uzbekistan it makes all the difference.

In South Africa, which has 11 official languages, one can imagine the naming confusion as well. Is it Cape Town, Kaapstad or eKapa? Standardisation still has a long way to go. In the meantime, we should consider knowledgeable solutions to solve this problem. If we can cope in Brussel/Bruxelles and in Aachen/Aken/Aquisgràn/Aix-la-Chapelle, we should also be able to cope in the rest of the world.

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