People’s Names and Countries’ Names

A commenter on the country name thread wrote,

Would you apply the same logic to other proper nouns such as individual names? I recall when my brother, George, took Spanish the instructor wanted to pronounce his name “Hor-hay” as it would be pronounced if it were a Spanish word. My brother found this highly objectionable on the grounds that his name was pronounced “George” in English (and lets face it Hor-hay is a pretty silly sounding name to most English speakers).

It seemed like a pretty reasonable objection to me, and I would certainly use the Spanish pronunciation of “George” if a Spanish speaker with that name wished me to.

I’m inclined to think that, when one is learning a language, it’s probably good to adapt one’s name to the language for purposes of the class — I suspect that it helps both the student and his classmates immerse themselves in the language. It’s also often practically useful to adapt one’s name when moving to a different country. That’s why I’m Eugene Volokh, even though I was born Yevgeniy Volokh. When in Roma, do as the Romani do.

But indeed the practice in English is that, if someone wants to use a particular name, people call him by the English version of the name, though not the English translation of the name. Thus, when my father Vladimir came to America, he was named “Vla’dimir,” with the stress on the first syllable, as opposed to “Vladi’mir,” the Russian pronunciation, which stresses the second syllable. This isn’t because English has some fixed stress scheme (like French and Polish do); it doesn’t. Rather, it’s because “Vla’dimir” has (for whatever reasons) become the standard English pronunciation of that name.

I think the reason for the way English speakers treat people’s names (Yevgeniy could stay Yevgeniy if he wanted to, though he’d have to deal with many unsuccessful though good-faith attempts at pronouncing it) and countries’ names (Rossiya is Russia, no matter what the Russkoye government might say) relates to this very point. When Americans first meet Yevgeniy Volokh, they have no name in their minds for him in particular; he gets to pick the name afresh (even though there’s a standard translation, Eugene, available). When American first meet Vladimir Volokh, he too gets to stay Vladimir, though likely subject to the constraint that Americans have a pronunciation of “Vladimir.”

On the other hand, Rossiya already has a longstanding English name for it, and it’s rightly stuck with it. The Russian government, and the Russian people, aren’t entitled to insist that Americans change the name that they have already assigned for the country. (Incidentally, I suspect that if I decided to tell people that from now on I’m “Yevgeniy,” they too would likely be more than a bit annoyed, and wouldn’t feel as obligated to follow my new preference as they did to follow my initial announcement of my name.)

The same goes for Englishmen in Russia. Russians would happily call an Englishman named “John” “John” rather than “Ivan,” the etymologically cognate Russian word. In my experience, they even sometimes call me “Yoodzhin” rather than “Yevgeniy” (unless I introduced myself as “Yevgeniy” at the outset), though they stress the first syllable rather than the second (much as Americans change the stress on “Vladimir”). But if Englishmen decided to insist that Russians call their country “England” rather than “Anglia,” I doubt they would get far with that request.

In any case, I hope this explains the practice. But, as I said, there is little doubt that this is indeed the practice in English, and I suspect it’s the practice in many other languages (I can vouch for Russian): Foreign individuals’ names get rendered as per the individuals’ preferences, subject to existing pronunciation and stress templates for that particular name. But foreign countries’ names get translated into the speaker’s language.

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