Part of the process of learning Polish is picking up vocabulary. One of the more interesting areas within vocabulary is the topic of exonyms. The term exonym is defined as “a name used by foreigners for a place, such as Florence for Firenze.” While most languages have their own versions of how places are named, Polish has more than most it seems, partly due to its central location in Europe and thus due to changes during history.
Most exonyms in Polish are fairly understandable, especially those in Balto-Slavic countries, as those languages share common bases. Thus names like Wilno (Vilnius), Praga (Prague), Bratysława (Bratislava) and Kijów (Kiev) are easy to follow, even with a limited level of Polish vocabulary.
Where things get a bit trickier can be when names which are not Slavic in origin are then adapted to become Polish exonyms. There can be a variety of reasons why such names have come about. For example Mediolan (Milan) is the direct Latin version of the current Italian name, and that has been taken directly into Polish. Kolonia (Cologne/Köln), Monachium (Munich) and Gandawa (Ghent) are of the same Latin origin. Of course, for the majority of names with Polish exonyms applied, it just means a small change of spelling to be ‘translated’. Simple examples include Londyn (London), Ostrawa (Ostrava), Budapeszt (Budapest) and Kopenhaga (Copenhagen), meaning they should be understood even by those not learning any Polish.
Finally, there are others which seem to bear little relation to the English (or ‘home’ language) version of the name. Cities such as Koływań (Tallinn), Pięciokościoły (Pécs), Windawa (Ventspils), Kadyks (Cádiz) and Akwizgran (Aachen) would just have to be learnt in order to be understood and remembered.
Exonym or Not
Some confusion can arise around when and how to apply the exonyms into Polish though. For example:
New York becomes Nowy Jork -> However, Chicago does not become Szikago
Washington becomes Waszyngton -> However, Los Angeles does not become Los Andżeles
London becomes Londyn -> However, Manchester does not become Manczester
Edinburgh becomes Edynburg -> However, Cardiff does not become Kardif
Are there any rules around which names should be ‘translated’ or not? Chicago is one prime example where confusion can happen, especially as it would seem like a strong candidate to have a Polish exonym with a strong Polish diaspora. In it’s current spelling, surely it should be pronounced Khitsago when spoken in Polish conversation…
For those of you that would like to test your knowledge of exonyms used in the Polish language, feel free to check out this quiz on Sporcle. Please note, I did not create this quiz, so credit here goes to the Sporcle user Langbartelski. I scored 58 out of 70 earlier, just missing some of the tougher Russian and Belarussian cities. Can you score better than that?