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My girlfriend, who is not a native English speaker, asked me this yesterday: why are some geographical regions prefixed with the nouns North, South, East and West, but others are prefixed with the adjectives Northern, Southern, Eastern and Western?

For example, it's far more common (to my British ear at least) to hear people talking about "Eastern Europe" and "Southeast Asia" than the alternatives "East Europe" and "Southeastern Asia."

Why is this the case? I couldn't think of a convincing explanation. Is there a hidden logic that I can't fathom, or is it just one of those wierd idiomatic things?

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South East Asia is the name of a defined sub-region of Asia with a defined identity, united politically through ASEAN - Association of Southeast Asian Nations - and is further sub-divided into maritime and mainland SEA.

Eastern Europe, on the other hand, is not a name, and has no political unity or identity. It is an undefined (or a best only vaguely defined) general reference to the eastern part of the Europe.

Compare with South Africa as the name of a country, and southern Africa which is a general reference to the southern part of the continent.

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    Yep, this was my first instinct for a response. It's still kinda vague though - for example West Africa has no political unity or identity (that I'm aware of) and is somewhat vaguely defined, but it's still more common to say West Africa than Western Africa.
    – GMA
    Oct 9, 2014 at 5:24
  • They have the Economic Community of West African States -> en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic_Community_of_West_African_States Oct 9, 2014 at 6:48
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    The ECOWAS has only existed since 1975, and I doubt most native English speakers have even heard of it. I can't believe that's the reason why we don't say "Western Africa".
    – GMA
    Dec 21, 2015 at 14:36
  • Why "the Europe"? Continent names don't take articles...
    – Enguroo
    Jun 28, 2018 at 1:52
  • There was a time, not very long ago, when Eastern Europe in fact had a readily noticeable political unity and identity, and when using that name carried implications that went beyond 'general reference to the eastern part of the Europe'. On the other hand, I doubt that an average English speaker thinks of ASEAN when using the term 'South East Asia'.
    – jsw29
    Oct 6, 2020 at 21:33

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