Why do countries change their names

Why do countries change their names?

At the end of October, the news flashed on travel sites that New Zealand could be officially renamed Aotearoa. This initiative did not appear yesterday, but we became interested in finding out how real the imminent “rebranding” of New Zealand is, and at the same time recalling other countries that have already gone through this.

Why is New Zealand called New Zealand?

New Zealand is now officially called New Zealand. This is how the British navigator James Cook anglicized the Dutch version of “Nieuw Zeeland”. Why Zeeland? Everything is simple here: having discovered distant islands in the south of the globe, the Dutch named them after one of the provinces of the Netherlands – Zeeland. (In general, Europeans didn’t bother with new names too much: for example, New York was once New Amsterdam, and “New York” is just “new York”. Recently, American comedian Trevor Noah ridiculed this inexplicable colonial laziness.)

Naturally, before Cook and before the Dutch, the islands between Australia and Antarctica were somehow called, because people lived on them. It is not known exactly how the indigenous population – the Maori – called the archipelago before the Europeans appeared here, but it is known that the North Island in their language was called Te Ika-a-Maui (“fish belonging to Maui”; Maui is the name of the local demigod), the South Island – Te Waka-a-Maui (“the boat belonging to Maui”), and Stewart Island is Te Punga o Te Waka-a-Maui (“the anchor stone of the Maui boat”). Other names were also in use, including Aotearoa for the North Island. Aotearoa means “long white cloud”. According to legend, during another journey through the endless waters of Central Polynesia, the Maori hero Kupe noticed a white cloud – this was a sure sign that the land was close. Indeed, the land was ahead. Having moored and dried the oars, Kupe named the land he discovered in honor of this cloud – Aotearoa.

Why change “New Zealand” for something unusual?

First, it is familiar. On the beautiful passports of New Zealanders, AOTEAROA is displayed in the same silver letters as NEW ZEALAND. In the Maori version of the country’s national anthem, the country is named after the Maori people call it. On fresh banknotes, the word is also there. Yes, these are all relatively new things, but the Maori used to call their country Aotearoa. They just didn’t listen to their voices before.

Secondly (and most importantly), we are talking about historical justice. Activists of the Te Pāti Māori party, which promotes Aotearoa at all official levels, are confident that a national identity based on the Maori language is important for the whole country, despite the fact that, according to 2019 data, Maori make up only 16.5% population. According to the authors of the initiative, New Zealanders should not forget that the indigenous population has significantly thinned out during the dashing years of the Great geographical discoveries – after the Europeans “kindly” introduced him to firearms and strong alcohol.

In the summer of 2022, Te Pāti Māori submitted a 70,000-signature petition to the New Zealand Parliament to rename the country Aotearoa. Party co-chair Debbie Ngareva-Packer is optimistic, saying that the question is not whether the name will be changed, but the question is when. The positions of other officials differ. A referendum, of course, cannot be held, because the Maori, at the behest of the colonialists, became an ethnic minority. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern welcomes the initiative, says she uses both options in her speech, and notes that New Zealanders, regardless of nationality, are increasingly saying “Aotearoa”, building their identity around the “indigenous” name. Be that as it may, the Te Pāti Māori party intends to go to the end, because it is one thing to recognize that some phenomenon has a right to exist, and another to document this right.

And what about the names of cities and other points on the map?

Place names of European origin in New Zealand still predominate over Polynesian ones. However, the trend to change this state of affairs is obvious.

Since 1946, the country has had a Board of Geographical Names. Anyone can apply here with an initiative to assign a new name or change the old one, and then there will be a public discussion and its result. The renaming of the capital – Wellington, named after the British commander – has not happened yet, but there are plenty of successful cases. For example, in 2009, the Council recommended that the city of Wanganui (Wanganui) be renamed Whanganui to reflect the Maori pronunciation in the name. In the end, the government did not abandon the old toponym, but made the options equivalent. А вот названия Nigger Hill, Niggerhead и Nigger Stream в 2016 году исчезли из употребления совсем (кажется, объяснять, почему так вышло, не нужно). To find replacements that would not hurt anyone, experts turned to the local tribe.

Such initiatives are now moving the wheel of history forward in many countries where, during the Age of Discovery, Europeans for some reason renamed something that had already been called somehow.

Why do countries change their names

Is it easy to rename yourself?

Many countries, having freed themselves from the yoke of the mother country, regained their native names. In Africa, Bechuanaland became Botswana, Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, Nyasaland became Malawi. But such decisions are not always unanimously approved.

  • King’s whim. In 2018, in honor of the 50th anniversary of Swaziland’s independence, the absolute monarch Mswati III renamed the country Eswatini and proudly announced that now his homeland would no longer be confused with Switzerland. However, not everyone agreed that this is indeed a great achievement for a country in which the incidence of HIV is the highest on the planet.

The citizens of Swaziland were not even asked if they needed a rebrand, much less told how much it would cost. And a lot of money is needed for such undertakings. Rewrite the constitution. Rename official bodies. Print new banknotes. Rename Swaziland Airlink and other companies with “Swaziland” in the name. Update official sites. Register a new name in international organizations. Dress up the athletes. Replace license plates. Luckily for Eswatini, at least the country’s name doesn’t appear in its anthem…

One blogger tried to calculate how it would all turn out: it turned out to be $6 million dollars. You can read more about the controversy that flared up around Eswatini-Swaziland at the link.

  • The name given by the junta. Being “under the British”, Myanmar was called Burma, and even then, in the status of an independent state, for more than forty years it bore an externally imposed and unpopular name among the locals (they were familiar with “Bama”). In 1989, a military coup took place in the country, the new government renamed Burma the Union of Myanmar. Then the countries that considered the new government illegitimate considered the name illegitimate as well.

Attitudes towards the place name changed along with the political climate within the country, however, during an official visit in 2011, Hillary Clinton did not call Myanmar Myanmar – she managed “this country”. In 2022, Mrs. Clinton would also have a hard time – but now democratic leaders do not go to Myanmar: the military is again at the helm, and the name of the country is the last thing anyone can worry about.

What other reasons do countries change names for?

In addition to the desire to get rid of the colonial burden of the past, the decision can be political – with an eye to the present (to establish a new order) or to the future (to receive some benefit).

  • If you want to the European Union. After the breakup of Yugoslavia into six countries, one of them took the name Macedonia, which neighboring Greece did not like very much. The fact is that in Greece there is a region of the same name, bordering the former Yugoslav Republic, and the Greek authorities considered the “appropriation” of this name outrageous and dangerous for their country. The dispute over the name dragged on for a long time. Greece blocked Macedonia’s attempts to join the European Union, and Macedonia filed against Greece in the Hague court. The consensus was found only in 2018 – since then the country in the Balkans has been called North Macedonia.
  • If you change the mode Cambodia under the Lon Nol regime was called the Khmer Republic, under the Khmer Rouge regime it was called Democratic Kampuchea, under the Vietnamese-controlled government it was called the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, and under the control of the UN interim body it was called the State of Cambodia. Finally, in 1993, the circle closed: Cambodia became the Kingdom of Cambodia again.
  • If you want certainty. Burkina Faso was once called Upper Volta, after the name of the river. But for the world, the Upper Volta looked too diverse: in French – Haute Volta, in English – Upper Volta, in Spanish – Alto Volta. When the local Che Guevara came to power – the brave captain Thomas Sancar – he renamed Volta into “the land of honest people” – the unambiguous “Burkina Faso”. In Cape Verde, the problem with discrepancies was solved in a simpler way: they asked the world community not to produce translations of the toponym “Cape Verde Island”, and the community ceased to produce. But the toponym Côte d’Ivoire (= “Ivory Coast”), many countries still translate into their languages, ignoring the official decision of the local authorities.

Why do countries care what they are called in the world?

Sometimes countries have questions about exonyms, that is, about variants of the name that they came up with from the outside. Inside the country, these words are not used either officially or in everyday life. There is nothing strange in the practice of exonymization itself: when people A met people B for the first time, they designated it in such a way that it would fit on the tongue itself. Finns do not call themselves Finns, but their country Finland (suomalaiset live in Suomi). The Germans do not call themselves Germans, but their country – Nemechchynai, Germany or Vokietija. And the Germans don’t care what foreigners call them. Problems begin where the exonym is associated with unpleasant, and even tragic moments.

  • Not named as Thanksgiving food. In 2021, Turkey launched a rebranding: the international name is changed from Turkey to Türkiye. They decided to abandon the anglicized version, because the turkey and even “stupid or silly person” are called in the same way. In general, do not be surprised when you read “Made in Türkiye” on the tag of new jeans. Now so.
  • Move away from a dangerous neighbor. Many have already learned how Georgians call their country: Sakartvelo. In the world, however, the Latin Georgia and its derivatives have taken root. Russian-speaking people used to call the country Georgia. But the more tense relations Georgia has with Russia, the more rejection the Russian-language name causes among the inhabitants of Sakartvelo. In the Lithuanian language, a toponym similar to Russian has taken root – Gruzija. In order to indicate its attitude towards the conflict, in 2018 Lithuania officially adopted the Sakartvelas variant (not as the only possible, but as an equal name).
  • Look ahead and build an independent identity. Belarusians strongly dislike the exonym “Belarus”, which is associated with the Soviet past, and exonyms formed according to the model “White + Russia” (for example, the German version of Weißrussland). In 2019, Sweden heard this pain and officially began to call the “land under white wings” Belarus instead of Vitryssland. With “Belarus” it is still more difficult, but there is progress: in 2018, the Russian service of the BBC switched to “Belarus”, at the same time abandoning other Soviet toponyms: Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Turkmenistan.
  • Words certainly have power. And in their power is not only to fix reality, but also to shape it. That is why the voices of those who know the power of words can be very harsh – like the voice of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. In 2019, he stated: “The name of our country was given by Magellan, whose journey was paid for by the Spanish King Philip. That’s why this fool called it the Philippines. These sons of bitches came here and killed us and took our freedom. Over the course of 400 years, our Malay roots have been slowly disappearing. But never mind, someday we’ll change that.” Today the Philippines is still not Maharlika. Will they become it? It depends on how many Filipinos feel they are named after an obscure king, and how many have already turned the pages of the colonial past.