From Awinion to Zurych: Polish Exonyms

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…

Quiz time!

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?

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20 thoughts on “From Awinion to Zurych: Polish Exonyms

  1. If London is Londyn in Polish and Londres in French, Swindon would be Słyndyn in Polish and Swindres in French.

  2. Name says:

    I have not heard or seen Koływań used instead of Tallinn.

  3. island1 says:

    Thank god for Decoy; plugging away while the rest of the Polandians are tied up doing non-Polandian things.

    A kind-of related interesting fact: Szekspir (Shakespeare) is the only English-language author I’ve come across that has a Polish version of their name.

    I thought at first it might be because the name has been around a long time but, in fact, the first translation of Shakespeare’s works into Polish was made in the mid-19th century.

  4. Ken Milewski says:

    It is interesting that while conventions in language are not legislated, they sometimes seem to carry the force of law. In the past I most commonly saw the English spelling as ‘Cracow’, but lately I have been seeing it spelled as ‘Krakow’.

    I believe that the quiet effort of an individual or a small group of people could influence a change like this. Perhaps some of these odd Exonyms could be ‘fixed’ by refusing to use the nonsensical ones and substituting the more logical ones. I vote for ‘Szikago’, but my ignorant question is what is commonly used now?

    I have a good sized group of ‘friends’ that I tutor on this are native Polish speakers learning English US. I could make suggestions to them there to see if it would spread.

    BTW, English, being the bastard language that it is, probably has the most nonsense exonyms to go along with the nonsense spellings.

    PS, In the US we says the past tense of the verb ‘learn’ as ‘learned’, which of course is not pronounced the same as the adjective ‘learned’.

  5. Ken Milewski says:

    Actually would not ‘Szykago’ be closer?

  6. dave_dc says:

    This brings back some wonderful memories from childhood in upstate Nowy Jork. Part of the fun to us was where the accent was placed. We just thought it was the best thing when the adults around us said “Bó-FA-lo” for Buffalo, “Tsi-RA-kjus” for Syracuse, etc. My Dad was an expert at filling in the blanks with his own exonyms for lesser-known places, most of which I am sure were non-standard, but never failed to delight.

    It also make me remember when a commenter here on a post quite a while back mentioned “Pringlesy.” Awesome.

  7. Przemo says:

    Isn’t it „Włochy” that makes foreigners scratch their heads most often as they try to guess the place hidden behind the name?
    I like exonyms and use them at any occasion. Like perhaps any other nation blessed with neighbouring countries and various historical links we’ve got plenty to choose from. However, I don’t understand why we’ve been using so little exonyms for places in Germany while we’ve got a myriad of towns, villages, lakes, rivers, islands etc. „covered”, mostly in the east of Germany. What surprises me a bit is that among a handful of exonyms for British places Cambridge hasn’t been featured. After all, it not only had a historic and a newer Latin name for it (Duroliponte and Cantabrigia) but was a reknown scholastic centre from middle-ages on – Poles of yore must’ve heard and read of it from various sources just as they’d heard of „Oksford” (although that one is a „weak” kind of exonym, really).
    Pięciokościoły and Koływań must be real oldies and rare. Frankly, I couldn’t put them on the map if my life depended on it. I’ve never come across the former: Pecz – yes, Pięciokościoły – no, never. And only now I recall that I’ve read about old Russsian name for Tallinn from which Koływań derives (but didn’t realise it was used as an exonym too). I think it was the Germanic name of „Rewel” that was being used in Poland before.
    New exonyms seem unlikely to appear – seems like we’re done with using the long established ones and if there are none, the original names. So „Lądek” or „Londek”, which has been a humorous name for London ever since the post-2004 emmigration (I believe it is when it appeared), is not likely to become another legit Polish exonym (it’d have to be OK’d by a Polish language commission too). Wonder if Polish people there will come up with new names like these for other British places or there are more of these already?
    English exonyms are not that tricky (at least those referring to Europe and well-known places) because most of them are after original names or their Latin names of which other Europeans are aware. Besides, English is such a popular language, there’s English everywhere and you just get to know them… Now, I remember watching 1998 World Cup when the French hosts kept displaying French exonyms in TV graphics: „Écosse” was pretty hard to decipher for me but „Pays-Bas” (I didn’t know any Romance languages which would’ve helped there)? What the hell?:-)

  8. scatts says:

    I’ll second Jamie about absent bloggers!

    I got 55, the ones I missed were primarily typing speed combined with knowing the city better by the name they gave than by the buggerised English version!

  9. Ewa says:

    Well, Przemo, maybe “Lądek” got popular with the last wave of Polish getting there, but it is a well known quote from Miś: “There is no such place as London. There is Lądek. Lądek-Zdrój”. As for Pays-Bas it is a direct translation of Niederland, so only knowing French would help :)

  10. island1 says:

    Damn! Only 47. The major problem being I can’t spell, or remember the answers already given in the post.

  11. mjd says:

    One of my favorites: Siedmiogrod = Transylvania

  12. mjd says:

    And let’s not forget “Niemcy”

  13. Paulina says:

    If we mention Włochy and Niemcy, don’t forget about Węgry:)

    It’s good to remember these 3 as they are only exceptions in locative (miejscownik) plural: we Włoszech, w Niemczech, na Węgrzech.

  14. Decoy says:

    I found many of the exonyms for cities here:

  15. Varsovian says:

    Chicago ends with ‘o’, so it has only one noun form in Polish. This is why it is not as usefull to translate it into Polish as in the case of New York or Washington. That would be my guess.

  16. Halina says:

    Some foreign proper names seem to be easier to “polonise” than others and I’m not aware of any hard-and-fast rule in this regard. By and large the bigger and better known places seem to have the Polish equivalents, however there’s an interplay of various other factors, e.g. grammar. The proper names in neuter gender like Chicago, Oslo, etc. tend to preserve their original forms and should not be declined. But there’s no rule without exceptions and (off the top of my head), Mexico is one. I usually play it by ear.
    Incidentally, the term “exonym” is new to me and The New Oxford dictionary doesn’t list it, though Wikipedia does.

  17. Sylwia says:

    Island: “I thought at first it might be because the name has been around a long time but, in fact, the first translation of Shakespeare’s works into Polish was made in the mid-19th century.”

    Well, but Shakespeare was known in Poland much earlier. In fact he became known yet during his life because of the large Scottish immigration to Poland at that time. There were troupes coming from England to stage his plays, and an English theatre built in Gdansk. His plays were also staged in German in other cities. Poland was a multiethnic country and people could speak several languages.

    Some other examples are Jan Wiklef = John Wycliffe or Tomasz Morus = Thomas More. There were also Scots: Jan Duns Szkot = Johannes Duns Scotus and Aleksander Czamer = Alexander Chalmers, a city mayor of Warsaw.

    Przemo: “What surprises me a bit is that among a handful of exonyms for British places Cambridge hasn’t been featured. After all, it not only had a historic and a newer Latin name for it (Duroliponte and Cantabrigia) but was a reknown scholastic centre from middle-ages on.”

    Because it wasn’t. Between the middle ages and the 20th century neither Oxford nor Cambridge were seen by Europeans as international centres of learning. Even Polish Protestants preferred to send their kids to the Catholic universities in Italy rather than to Oxbridge. The reason for studying abroad was to exchange views and ideas with other Europeans and bring them back to Poland, while the 16th-17th century England looked like a somewhat barbarian country on the fringes of the continent.

    The view on England changed only later in the 18th century and only among some of the magnates and burghers who began to appreciate the English aristocrats’ way of making money. Some of them studied there, but that only meant hanging around for a year in Edinburgh, Scotland, during their Grand Tour. No Catholics were allowed in Oxford or Cambridge, and if one considers how little one had to study there at that time, they were much better off in Italy or France.

    Even the various Polish reformers of the 18th century, many of whom travelled to England, took the French schools as an example for our Szkoła Kadetów. Something like the Commission of the National Education was created in England only in the 20th century.

    “However, I don’t understand why we’ve been using so little exonyms for places in Germany while we’ve got a myriad of towns, villages, lakes, rivers, islands etc. „covered”, mostly in the east of Germany.”

    Places in Eastern Germany, like Berlin, Gorlice, Lipsk etc. used to be Slavic long long time ago, and their Slavic names remained in Polish. So it was first Lipsk, and only later it became Leipzig when German settlers renamed it for their own use. That also refers to all of the rivers, lakes and villages where the Slavic people used live. Actually there are still Sorbs living in some areas. See the street sign from Cottbus/Chociebuż for example:

    As to the rest of Germany, there’s the same rule as in reference to other countries. Large cities have their Polish versions, other places don’t.

    Decoy: “Are there any rules around which names should be ‘translated’ or not?”

    Until well into the 19th or even early 20th century there was a custom of translating names. I think it was the same for the entire Europe, not just Poland. Later people learnt to use the original names.

    It’s well seen in Lithuanian, a language revived in the late 19th century, where they still insist on translating all names into Lithuanian.

    The names that were known to Poles earlier are translated, those that became known only later are used in their original form. Chicago may be a case of the generally illiterate early Polish immigration to the US. If they couldn’t write, they couldn’t Polonize it.

    Some names were translated or transliterated at some point but were reverted to their original form later i.e. Ruso = Rousseau (a clear proof that the French waste letters ;)).

    Names that had their translations but became fairly little known later are more likely to be reverted back to their original form, hence Cracow = Krakow in English, but still Warsaw.

  18. Steve says:

    Strangely, I thought Prague was Praha, since I was told it was called that to differentiate it from Warsaw’s east bank. I don’t know whether it’s a general Warsaw thing or just use of the original by a few people – like saying Paree for Paris.

    I only learnt the spelling Cracow instead of Krakow in Poland. I assumed it was just the spelling used in the USA, but I later did find some English examples.

    As for both difficult and changing names, I was puzzled by the Polish name Rus, which sounded like Russia, but was in the wrong place. It survives today in Belarus, which is not White Russia. I tracked it down to Ruthenia, which I’d never heard of and which sounded like somewhere that Peter Ustinov might be ruling. I just called it Rus anyway. I see today that Wikipedia also has a reference to Kievan Rus’ and that back in 2006, information was being swapped between this and Kievan Ruthenia. Name changing in progress.

  19. Sylwia says:

    Prague in Polish is Praga, the same as Warsaw’s right bank. Praha is a Czech word.

    Ruś (Kievan Rus) and Ruthenia are the same, the latter is its Latin version. White Rus (Belarus, Białoruś) means just the northern part of Ruś. The pagan folks didn’t use the world’s directions as we know them today. They substituted them with colours. Similarly, White Serbia and White Croatia are supposed to have been somewhere in Germany and Poland respectively. “White” means “north”. Red Rus (Czerwona Ruś) is somewhere near Kraków. Of course, at the beginning Ruś was just a region, not a state. So Kraków didn’t belong to Kievan Ruś, and Lviv (Lwów) was first Polish, then for a century or so Kievan, then Polish again. Now it’s Ukrainian.

    Kievan Rus was conquered by Lithuania, and later divided into two parts when Lithuania united with Poland. White Rus (Belarus) remained in Lithuania while the southern Rus was annexed to Poland.

    Later, Ivan the Terrible of the Duchy of Muscovy made himself the tsar of All Rus, by that suggesting that Rus should be his. Not a view supported by the Rus princes living in Poland-Lithuania.

    Muscovy changed its name to Russia to make the claim sound more justified, and by the end of the 18th century Russia annexed the entire Rus and called it “Russia”. Belarus became White Russia and the southern part – Little Russia. It’s when the Ukrainians came with the name Ukraine to differ it from Russia. But you can still find the division in the Russian words: Bolsheviks = Great Russians from Muscovy, and their enemies – Mensheviks = Little Russians from Ukraine.

    Anyway, the word “ruski” properly refers to Rus, and not to Russia. For example, Tadeusz Kościuszko considered himself a Polish national of ruski ethnicity.

  20. Dawid says:

    Polish “Londyn” actually derives from Latin “Londinium”, not English “London”.

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