Language Log had an interesting post a few days ago discussing the shifts towards Standard Mandarin versions of placenames becoming standard. In short, not only is Hong Kong – known as Hong Kong to countless English and Cantonese speakers – referred to as Xiānggǎng by Mandarin speakers, but now Xianggang is beginning to become more widely recognized as the standard & official placename.
Thinking about this, along with the examples of Tibet (Xīzàng 西藏) and Kashgar (Kāshí 喀什), I can’t help but think that there is an issue here of not only, not simply, pronunciation (i.e. pronouncing the native local name in a Mandarin way), but truly an issue of the Sinification and erasure of local and minority cultures and identities. There’s a reason some people take it very seriously that Hawaiʻi be spelled and pronounced correctly, and indeed a few days ago there was some significant tension in the Hawaii State legislature when Rep. Faye Hanohano presented in Hawaiian, and refused to translate into English, Hawaiian being an official language of the state, though not nearly as typically used or as widely spoken as English. Similarly, there are those who insist on Aotearoa instead of New Zealand, or Uchinaa instead of Okinawa.
I do think this is a serious issue in colonial/post-colonial discourse, and a serious issue in Chinese policy – the Sinification of Tibet and Xinjiang is no accident, but an intentional scheme to normalize the inclusion of these territories and their people within China. But, that said, it’s not as if this is not a common phenomenon throughout the world – we have Cardiff instead of Caerdydd, for example. Of course, we also have countless examples of places being called something different in a different language – España vs. Spain, Deutschland vs. Alemania, Zhong guo vs. Chûgoku, Nihon vs. Riben – but, the key difference here is the denial of local/native people’s ability to determine the standard referent for their own place. Or, is it?
Okinawa seems a sort of half-compromise, where you have placenames like Haebaru which are neither a fully Okinawan version of the placename (Feebaru) nor a fully Japanese pronunciation of the characters – Japanese doesn’t do baru, so a fully Japanized version of the placename would be Haehara. Similarly, Iriomote uses the iri pronunciation from Okinawan, rather than the fully Japanese reading Nishiomote, but also doesn’t go so far as to call it by the Okinawan name, Iriumuti. To name just one example, we have places like Naha and Shuri pronounced in a Japanese or Japanized manner (rather than Naafa and Sui), but then there are also places like Kochinda 東風平, which almost bears its traditional Okinawan placename (Kuchinda), rather than any attempt at a Japanized reading, such as Kochihira. I wonder how these half-and-half placenames came about.
But, in any case, I’m getting a bit off-track. What do you think? Is this just a matter of Mandarin speakers pronouncing things the best they can, and foreign sources (such as the Encyclopedia Brittanica) simply recognizing a genuine shift in word usage? Or is there validity to the (neo-)colonial political concern of erasure of cultural diversity and denial of recognition of cultural identity?