Friday, November 10, 2006

A boiled bean by any other name

Bangalore is no longer Bangalore, and The Economist has an excellent take on it -- and on name changes in general.


Abi said...

Let me be frank: I didn't like the angle the Economist took in this article. Most of its non-Indian examples (Myanmar, Petrograd, and later, Leningrad, etc) were all imposed on the people (as well as outsiders) by authoritarian regimes. There's (still) something offensive about conflating democratic choices with despotic ones.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

abi - yes and no. I agree the Myanmar and Kampuchea comparisons could be construed as offensive. But some of their other examples (Côte d'Ivoire, Sri Lanka) were due to democratic regimes, as were the Catalan name changes like Majorca. And I'm not sure whether the people of Bangalore (or Madras or Bombay) voted to change the names of their cities, i.e. whether it was a part of the election manifestos of the political parties in question. An elected government can still do undemocratic things.

Curiously, in Chennai the new name seems to have caught on among English-speakers, while I often hear the word "Madras" spoken by Tamil speakers who don't know English. It's curious because "Chennai" was always the official name in Tamil.

As the Economist says, only English is affected: nobody is asking the French to change their Birmanie or the Italians their Pechino. But then those countries aren't thrusting Bourgogne or Firenze on English-speakers (much less Kannada-speakers) either. To each language its preferred place-names...

Abi said...

Hmmm. The 'only English names are being changed' argument is not really a great one. The name changes are in English only because it's one of the official languages; not because we -- as in Indians -- have something against the Economist reporters. And also, the name change is only for official purposes; the old names in English are going to be with us for a long time. Interestingly, in some cases, even the official names are not going to change. For example, the University of Mysore has chosen not its name. And we know what happened to IIT-M and IIT-B.

I too catch myself using 'Madras' quite often, whereas others seem to have switched quite comfortably to 'Chennai'.

Bottomline (at least for me): the Economist and other English newspapers and magazines whine too much!

Rahul Siddharthan said...

I didn't think the article was whiny at all actually... maybe I expected worse.

English isn't an official language of China, or Burma, or Cambodia, either. I think English gets attention because it's an unofficial world language.

Has Mysore changed its name? I missed that.

Madras survives in part because many institutions (like the Madras High Court) are named not for the city but for the erstwhile Madras Presidency. As you say, the name will be a part of the cultural background of the city even if it disappears "officially" (which it has done surprisingly fast, given that, unlike the other namechanges, "Chennai" sounds nothing like Madras").

Abi said...

Sorry to be coming in late.

It's not just Bengalooru and Mysooru; names of 12 cities have been changed. See this post.