From Athina to Beijing

When I was in school, and that’s not that long ago, thank you very much, I learned that the capital of China was Peking. The capital of Great Britain was Londen (note the e) for us Dutch kids, that of France was Parijs1, that of Germany (back then the capital of East Germany) was Berlijn2 and that of Greece was Athene. And that’s how it still is, in Dutch. Except for Peking. Somehow we changed along with the English speaking world and, granted, Beijing sounds much more like the name of the city in Chinese than Peking. But if that’s so important, why aren’t we talking about Athina instead of Athens? Why not Al-Qahira instead of Cairo? Or Warszawa instead of Warsaw?

I bet it’s those damn sports journalists. Some years ago Dutch sports journalists started to suffer from a lust for correct pronounciation. We went to the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer (Norway) and every single one of them tried to pronounce it like the locals, which must have involved putting pingpong balls in their mouths or having their jaws broken. Then we went to the Summer Olympics in Seoul. Now we were used to pronounce that [Say-ool] but all of a sudden that wasn’t good enough anymore. We were to become Soulbrothers, for [So-ool] was the correct way to pronounce the name of the South Korean capital. I don’t know about you, but thinking of South Korea, James Brown is furthest from my mind.

Athens however was not included into the list of names the sports press wanted to see corrected, probably because it was too damn hard for them to say Αθήνα. And during the recent football championships (Germany in 2006 and Switzerland / Austria in 2008 ) it became clear that easy corrections, like [Ber-leen] for Berlin or [Ween] for Vienna, are not interesting enough for the sports press. You can hardly show off your stunning knowledge of languages with those – you’d look like a fool.

The conclusion must be that the sports press – once more – excels in mediocrity. Correcting simple names is below them and correcting difficult names is clearly above them. Too bad that the rest of the country follows suit.

1,2: The ij is pronounced much like [ey] in English, and so it’s [Pa-reys] and [Ber-leyn] in Dutch.


One Comment

  1. I do not thin k it’s the sports journalists fault, and to my mind Dutch are in fact more cosmopolitan than many other nations in this respect. Your average Dutchman visits ‘LA’, not Los Angeles, a city not in America or the USA, but in ‘the States’. A Dutchman is proud of correctly pronouncing ‘München’ for ‘Munich’ or even ‘Monaco di Baviera’. That’s why Dutch people happily accept ‘Beijing’, as a sign that they belong to the big world.

    Though one shouldn’t exaggerate in this field. When a famous sports reporter named Kuiphof went as far as to pronounce the name of a Swedish soccer player, Kindvall, correctly as Sjindvol, he for the rest of his life was to be nicknamed ‘Shuiphof’. I for me I drive a Woulwo car from Sweden, and I’d like to have a So-ob too, though I wouldn’t shun a Buick. Which is a word that, pronounced in Dutch, means ‘Belly.’

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