Exonyms: enemy of uniform place brands abroad?

Finland Suomi Tshirt

An Exonym (Finland) and Endonym (Suomi) on a tourist T-shirt

by Hans Pul
For building and maintaining brands, uniformity in communication is crucial and confusion needs to be avoided. However, many places have different names in different languages. München is Munich in English, London is Londra in Italian, while Mailand is German for Milano. More extremely, some place names look and sound completely different in other languages, some of the most prominent examples being Suomi* (Finland), Hellas (Greece) and Nippon (Japan). In short, there are more exonyms (foreign language names for geographical features) than places out there. How does this affect place branding efforts abroad?

Clearly, the use of different names in different languages for the same place can be a source of confusion. For that reason, tourism bureaus are even willing to (falsely) simplify things a bit. An official tourism site of the Netherlands consciously states that  “the Netherlands and Holland are one and the same place”, which is simply not true, as I argued in this post. The Dutch must be jealous of Salzburg, an Austrian city without an English exonym. Also the city and the province can be marketed in a combined effort, as they are both called Salzburg. In other cases, the  exonym issue leads to dilemmas, which becomes apparent on multilingual tourism sites. On Poland’s tourism website (www.poland.travel), for example, selecting the Spanish language redirects to www.polonia.travel. On that site, the logo contains the Polish name of the country, an English language slogan, as well as the Spanish word for the country: Polonia.

Polska - Polonia - Poland

Polska - Polonia - Poland

It’s good to know that many exonyms are the result of historical contingencies and preferences regarding how phonetic place names should be. However, they can also be related to historical and political sensitivities. This may affect how people who live in these places, as well as how visitors refer to these places. Many Germans, for example, avoid the use of the German place names of contemporary Polish cities (Gdańsk/Danzig, Wrocław/Breslau) that were part of Germany before the Second World War. In some cases, countries request the international community to change the name by which the country is known. As an example, in 1985 the country till then known as “Ivory Coast” requested the international community to use “Côte d’Ivoire” as the country’s name. Successfully, at least in the English-speaking world.

Similarly, the government of the country now known as “Sri Lanka” was previously called  “Ceylon”. The international community was requested to adapt to “Sri Lanka”. Entrepreneurs exporting the world-famous Ceylon Tea, however, weren’t keen on abandoning their valuable brand name. They still export their product as “Ceylon Tea”, sometimes complemented with “produced in Sri Lanka” or “packed in Sri Lanka”.

Ceylon Tea from Sri Lanka (formely known as Ceylon)

Ceylon Tea from Sri Lanka (formely known as Ceylon)

Although exonyms can be a threat to brand uniformity, they can also be instrumentalised by not using them: by using endonyms instead. Endonyms can give a place brand an exotic, authentic or distinctive character. This might be the case with previously mentioned “Suomi”, which arguably sounds a lot more interesting and exotic than “Finland”. This in turn can be of value for attracting tourists. Indeed, place branders seem to be aware of the value of endonyms in place promotion.  Øresund, a more or less artificial region, which covers parts of eastern Denmark and southern Sweden, is only one example. Commentators hold that the “Ø” is consciously used to provide the regional brand with “a Nordic touch”.

Beijing - Peking

北京 - Beijing - Peking

Sport events with a global reach, such as the Olympics and big soccer tournaments, can have a major impact on the exposure of endonym place names. It may even trigger an exonym to loose terrain its endonym twin. Since the 2008 Olympics were hosted in the Chinese capital, that city is more often referred to as Beijing, rather than Peking. That’s also my personal impression from the Dutch context. The fact that “Beijing” sound more exotic, authentic, cooler or international may plays it part as well. It would interesting to see what happens this summer, when the European Championships (football) will be hosted in Poland and Ukraine. Might the German exonyms such as Danzig, Breslau and Kiew become even more obsolete? The official German-language UEFA site accompanying the event suggests so…

Feel free to share your favourite exonym/endonym ambiguities and strategies to deal with them in the comments, thank you!


Edit: As a reaction on Simon’s comment: the video below tries to end confusions about terms like ‘UK’, ‘England’ and ‘Britain’; terms that are often used interchangeably.

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4 Responses to Exonyms: enemy of uniform place brands abroad?

  1. Ares says:

    I think “Deutschland” is quite a unique case with some languages prefering the broader germanic group (Germany, Germania, Γερμανία) and some using a subgroup (Allemagne, Alemania).

  2. Simon Quin says:

    Two thoughts. Is “Finland” really an exonym given that it is the Swedish word for the country and Swedish is one of the official languages of Finland? Secondly, spare a thought for us Brits. We have the United Kingdom, Great Britain and then England, Scotland etc (before we get into exonyms). One of my American colleagues asked me where exactly Scotland was in England. My countrymen will give very different responses when asked their nationality.

  3. hanspul says:

    @Ares: You’re right, Germany has some really interesting exonyms with different etymologies. Wikipedia offers an overview: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Names_of_Germany

    @ Simon: Thanks for your comment.
    Interesting point. I’m not a linguist, but I think you’re absolutely right!
    Regarding your second point: I immediately had to think about a video on that topic. For me it ended all confusion 🙂 As it’s really worth watching, I’ve edited the post and included the video.

    • Simon Quin says:

      @hanspul – thanks for the video. Excellent. Hope no-one is confused now – though it is perhaps worth noting that the Visit Britain website refers to Visit England, Visit Wales, Visit Scotland and Visit London as “our partners”. No mention of Discover Northern Ireland at all (and if you go to Discover Ireland (the independent country as your video explains), you will find the homepage promoting Belfast at the moment!). So guess that is all clear now.

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