Search Thursday May 6, 2004

Meanwhile: Hongkong, Xianggang or Fragrant Harbor?
By Philip Bowring (IHT)
Thursday, April 22, 2004

HONG KONG: Take this dateline. This newspaper - as befits its New York origin - spells it as two words. So too does the Hong Kong government.

But one word for the territory suffices for its largest institution and banknote issuer - the Hongkong Shanghai Banking Corporation. Does this writer care? No, except that his habit - a product of poor typing skills - has been to use one word, which saves a character and omits two key shifts.

Laziness does not necessarily explain why this newspaper, like almost all others, writes Shanghai and Beijing and not - if they followed the Hong Kong logic, Shang Hai and Bei Jing. They are one place name consisting of two characters each with its own meaning - namely, Fragrant Harbor, Toward the Sea, and Northern Capital.

The truly politically correct, however, will already be writing Hong Kong not just as one word but as Xianggang. That is the official version in pinyin, mainland China's version of romanization. Hitherto, China has been prepared to tolerate this deviation from correctness as a concession to One Country Two Systems. One Country Two Names. But given its recent assault on Hong Kong's presumptions to autonomy, for how much longer will it tolerate "unpatriotic" usages?

China has been remarkably successful in dragooning the English-writing world into using the pinyin Beijing rather than Peking and supplanting the anglicized Canton with Guangzhou. English writers have been so anxious to be politically correct that they have forgotten the difference between their own language usage and China's romanization system.

In fact, the English "Peking" is closer to Cantonese pronunciation of the Chinese capital than "Beijing." But that's irrelevant anyway. English speakers have as much right to have their own name for Beijing as Chinese do to create their own names for foreign cities, just as the French are quite right to stick to what they know - Pekin.

China at least doesn't yet make a fuss about being called China rather than its official romanized name, Zhongguo (Central Country), which sounds fine in Chinese but ghastly in English. So long as that's the case, the United States can sit content with being known as Meiguo (Beautiful Country) rather than demanding to be known by some awful Chinese phonetic rendering of A-me-ri-ca.

The insistence on Beijing in English texts is half way down a slippery slope of correctness pioneered by the ruling military in Burma. Fifteen years ago they deemed that the romanized version of the country should be Myanmar. The name in Burmese did not change and the romanization or anglicization (the difference seems lost on the generals) is rejected by many Burmese. There is no good reason why English usage has to change any more than there is for the Deutschen to demand that "Germans," "Allemands" or "Tedesci" be dropped by their European neighbors. The Thais, for example, have not changed their word for that country, which sounds rather closer to Burma than Myanmar.

India is different because English is so widely used that Indians can be allowed to define its usage for their place names. However, regional demands often compete with established usages. Kolkata, for Calcutta, is simply a new spelling. Mumbai for Bombay, however, was a real change - though driven by local politics - from (probably) an English corruption of Portugese to a local (Marathi) language name. Chennai was an exercise in linguistic political point scoring by the Tamil Nadu state government. Madras, whose origin is equally Tamil, is still widely used in English-language documents and institutional names.

International understandings are difficult enough without having to cope with using original, national or regional names. The Anglophone world could probably just about cope - if it had to - with being forced to use Suomi, Magyar, Nihon, and Kypros. But Lietuva, Eesti, Hvratska, Crna Gora and other actual or potential aspirants to the European Union, let alone with Choson, Misr, Shqiperia, Bharat and Sak'art'velo, would indeed be taxing. Even Singapore would be slightly less familiar if it demanded to be known in its national language - which, surprise, surprise, is Malay!

Oh, and by the way: Viet Nam and Ha Noi are two words in the national language. And don't forget the accents. Meanwhile (one word), I will stick to the unaccented English version - Vietnam.