Changing Names in a Changing World


South Africa’s capital, Pretoria, is now officially Tshwane. Bangalore, India’s IT capital, will become Bengaluru this year. New names are coming fast as regimes change and countries shake off (often belatedly) symbolic trappings of a colonial past.

In a globalized economy, it is not enough to memorize all those American state capitals. Now we need to know where Kinshasa is, book a flight to Ouagadougou, the vowel-rich capital of Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), and make sure we spell Llubiljana correctly on that overnight package.

The name-changing process began slowly in the quarter century after World War II, as European colonies in Africa and Asia gained independence. The idyllically named Gold Coast became Ghana, the possessively named Dutch East Indies became Indonesia, and North and South Rhodesia – named for the British administrator Cecil Rhodes – became, respectively, Zambia and Zimbabwe, making up for a lack of countries whose names stared with “Z.”

At first, these changes were easily absorbed by cartographers, travelers and social studies teachers. But the disintegration of the Soviet Union accelerated the trend: in less than a year, all the former Soviet republics became independent countries. Georgia was an easy one for Americans to remember. But Turkmenistan’s name was close enough to Turkey’s to cause confusion.

The changes are all about nation-building and asserting ethnic identity. All newly independent nations try to recast history. They tear down statues of colonial administrators or Soviet leaders, rewrite school textbooks, open museums dedicated to long-forgotten national heroes, teach native languages, launch national airlines and, most symbolically, change the names of countries, cities and streets.

But name-changing can be divisive. In the 1830s, the Afrikaners (settlers of Dutch descent) left the British-dominated Cape in ox wagons on the Great Trek to the interior, settling in northern South Africa. Their leader was Andries Pretorius, for whom Pretoria was named. When the city council voted to name the capital for the African king Tshwane, Afrikaners protested that the change undermined their history and traditions. The last apartheid-era president, F.W. de Klerk, said Pretoria was “a symbol of the anti-colonial war that Afrikaners fought against the British, which was one of Africa’s earliest liberation struggles.”

The mayor said Tshwane, which also means “we are the same,” would underscore South Africa’s break with apartheid, and the name change was approved. This is the most high-profile of several battles over name changes. Now a government agency, the South African Geographical Names Council, is charged with reviewing proposals, and has approved more than  200 name changes since 2002. But 57,000 more are under review.

Not all new names translate as nicely as Tshwane. When Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, decided to move the capital from cosmopolitan Almaty in the southeast to a more central location, he selected Aqmola, an agricultural center. In Kazakh, the name means “white tomb.” This seemed to confirm the worst fears of government officials that they were being shipped off to perish on the wind-blown steppe.

Nazarbayev tackled the image problem by changing Aqmola to Astana, which means “capital.”  He also reportedly improved the weather. Journalists claim that in the winter before the move, TV weather forecasts regularly reported that Astana was a few degrees warmer than it actually was.

India has been slower to remove reminders of its colonial past. Over a half century since independence, it has changed the names of only four major cities – Mumbai (Bombay), Chennai (Madras), Kolkata (Calcutta) and Thiruvananthapram (Trivandrum). The change from Bangalore to Bengaluru – the abbreviated name in the local Kannada language – will mark the city’s 500th anniversary this year. The name is said to have been given by a chieftain and his warriors who were offered a meal of boiled beans by a local woman. Tourism officials may decide that “the city of boiled beans” is not exactly the image they want to promote, but most think the similar-sounding name will be adopted quickly.

New names are not just good for business for branding experts, sign-makers and cartographers – or material for geography bees. They symbolize broader political, social and cultural changes, and a struggle to control a country’s past and future. It is less important for us to remember all the names than to understand why they change. As global citizens, it is a geographical challenge we must undertake.   -By David Mould

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