For example:

  • Italy = Italia
  • Florence = Firenze
  • Rome = Roma
  • Venice = Venezia
  • Munich = München

Different reasons for different cities? Anglicised for pronunciation? The name changed and English didn't follow suit?

  • I think these examples actually all come from French.
    – z7sg Ѫ
    May 4, 2011 at 21:43
  • interesting, i've noticed we don't do with with French placenames. yet French does call London = Londres
    – russau
    May 4, 2011 at 21:45
  • 14
    Name one language where this is not the case. Every language has its own set of phonemes, so it can't help but merely approximate many words from other languages. We've had a question about Tehran just a few hours ago. Read this answer there.
    – RegDwigнt
    May 4, 2011 at 22:02
  • 7
    You think those are different? Try Hungary vs. Magyarország, or Finland vs. Suomi.
    – Marthaª
    May 5, 2011 at 0:01
  • 3
    I guarantee that there is not one language in the world that pronounces all city/country names the way they are pronounced in the local language. It is impossible.
    – Kosmonaut
    May 5, 2011 at 14:12

10 Answers 10


The section on Anglicised place names in wikipedia states that many have been taken directly from the French name, which itself may come from Latin or a corrupted form of the local name.

There is an interesting example that confirms your idea that some names may have been 'stuck' in English while the local version has changed:

Sometimes a place name can appear anglicised, but is not, such as when the form being used in English is an older name that has now been changed. For example, Turin in the Piedmont province of Italy was named Turin in the original Piedmontese language, but is now officially known as Torino in Italian.

The English/French name for Florence in Italy is closer to the original name in Latin (Florentia) than is the modern Italian name (Firenze).


This is not an English phenomenon. The French, for example, call London "Londres" and Dover "Douvres".

The technical name for this is exonym (wiki).


Fortunately enough there is not a single reason to all these idiosyncrasies. Among all the examples you have cited, I'll just pick up Munich.

The German for Munich is "München". The origin of both Munich and München names is the same older spelling Munichen. In one case, the final "en" disappeared, in the other, the intermediate "i" disappeared.

The origin of the old name Münichen is that the city was founded next to a Benedictine monks settlement (see also West-minster for instance) - in present day German, "Mönchen" means "monks".

The English name "Munich" has no particular signification but in Italian, they have translated it to Monaco (Monaco di Baviera) because the Italian for monk is precisely "monaco". It is also the folk-etymology for the Monaco situated on the French Riviera because the current Grimaldi dynasty took over the citadel in the 13th century disguised as monks (or so the legend says).

This is actually quite confusing if you live in Italy and you don't know this peculiarity: if you want to spend a week end watching bikinis and decide to take a return ticket to Monaco at your favourite travel agency, there is a possibility that you actually end up contemplating Lederhosen.

A picture is probably better than a thousand words.

enter image description here


Generally the English name is the closest pronunciation - which given the English's historic skill with foreign languages can be a bit off.

Sometimes the modern spelling comes from a particular historical usage and since in English, at least until printing caught on, spelling was a bit chaotic - this can be anything.

It also sometimes gets political. Bombay->Mumbai, Peking->Beijing, could be argued that it's none of India or China's business to decide how words are pronounced in English

  • Exactly, it isn't! If the Italians decide to change their spelling and pronunciation of Rome to Berlusconopolis, what are we to do? Ought we to do anything, given that we have never used their old spelling and pronunciation Roma either? I think not. Our using Leningrad was just as silly and inefficient as some journalists' using Beijing now. Let's just at least use one uniform spelling in one language, and not change it every decade: it is very bothersome and confusing, forcing people to look for dozens of different names when browsing archives May 4, 2011 at 22:02
  • For Peking this comes from the Wade Giles romanisation now replaced by the official Pinyin romanisation (Beijing, the Mandarin name never changed). For India, it's Indians re-appropriating their place names (e.g. Kolkata) also an extreme case is Madras => Chennai. In both cases, the concerned countries merely mean to retake ownership of their own place names in reaction to what they perceive as international inaccuracies. Whether English native speakers adapt to the novelty or stick to their former habits is purely up to them indeed. May 4, 2011 at 22:23

It is only fairly recently that speakers of any language have been open to the idea that what they hear in another language is heavily coloured by their own language.

Example one: the area just south of Sydney is called "(The) Illawarra", based on a placename given by the former indigenous inhabitants. Except the original word was more like "Eloura", which has much more recently been re-borrowed.

Example two: when the Japanese first encountered US armed forces some decades ago, the US would identify themselves as "A-MER-ican" unaware that the Japanese language does not have the same cadence as English. This meant the Japanese heard "Merrikan" and so that's the word in Japanese for a US national.


English spelling did not become fixed until the advent of printing and of dictionaries. Many English people would have travelled to those places centuries before then and, in their journals and letters, would have phonetically transcribed the names using a spelling that made sense to an English speaker. I imagine this is one way that English acquired it's own spellings for foreign places.

Some of those places may not have had a standardised pronunciation or spelling in the language of their inhabitants and neighbours.


For example, in the country currently called Myanmar, there is a city called Moulmein in English. The is the garbled form of Mawlamyine, easily pronounceable by locals but an awkward struggle in English which undoubtedly led to its reworking to Moulmein during the times when Burma was a British colony.

"By the old Moulmein Pagoda, Lookin' eastward to the sea, There's a Burma girl a-settin', And I know she thinks o' me; For the wind is in the palm-trees, And the temple-bells they say: "Come you back, you British soldier; Come you back to Mandalay!"

Rudyard Kipling

(and the only thing East of the Moulmein Pagoda, and Moulmein, is about a thousand miles of land.)


Once upon a time, each of these places had a name in Latin. Latin literacy preceded native literacy in some of them, and there was a scholarly parallel latin long after that. Heck, there still is one in some quarters.

So, it's not terrible surprising that various languages then localized the words further.

  • 1
    I'm sure many of the names pre-date latin.
    – UpTheCreek
    May 5, 2011 at 8:50

Some placenames change in the 'home' language: Angora became Ankara to emphasize how Ataturk's capital differed from the Ottoman province. The question is when and how should the English version change? Historically, the answers are usually "over time" and "reluctantly".


Names of places were decided at some time or other, and it depends on when and why they were imported how they ended up being spelled and pronounced.

Mostly names are slightly altered to fit in the English language, some names are even closer to translations.

Take for example the English name for Göteborg, which is Gothenburg. It's more of a translation than an adjustment, because if it would have been based on the pronunciation it would have been something more like Djutiborj.

In some cases, like Peking, the pronunciation has actually changed to Beijing in Chinese, while the English version (among others) remained the same until recently.

  • Why the downvote? If you don't explain what you think is wrong, it can't improve the answer.
    – Guffa
    May 5, 2011 at 16:26
  • The British name for Göteborg is Gothenburg. When I've heard it in the US -- which admittedly has only been in Volvo dealerships -- people pronounce it, roughly goot-uh-berg. A Götebourgeois, if that's the word, I met on a plane once tried for 15 minutes to teach me the correct pronunciation of the name of his home town. I think it's impossible for Americans Jun 4, 2011 at 17:26

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.