Which European cities have the most different names in different languages?

Edimburgo! A detail from the Italian version of the map. Image: Alix Mortimer/Google Maps.

When you realise, aged ten in a museum or railway station, that other places shockingly have names for themselves, different to the ones you’re familiar with, it’s like developing a cultural Theory of Mind. This contributes substantially to my enjoyment of international departure boards, even without the clak-clak-clak noise (what will Prague be called here?!)

Last week it occurred to me that I have never seen a map of European cities labelled with their endonyms (names for themselves) and exonyms (external names). And so, I thought I would make one. 

I used a list of the 108 highest population cities in the EU and rendered the names into its five most spoken languages as best I could (English, German, French, Italian, Spanish). This is the result:

My working hypothesis is that that, the earlier a city became highly connected, the more exonyms it should have. More languages named it before conventions were standardised, and political control itself was sometimes up for grabs. So an ancient foundation like Naples (Neapolis), which remained great and contested throughout the middle ages and into the modern era, has four versions (IT: Napoli, ES: Nápoles, DE: Neapel, EN/FR Naples). On the other hand, nobody ever had occasion to create exonyms for the equally estimable Wigan (EN) or Wuppertal (DE), because both experienced their growth in the industrial age.

In fact, my map includes a long tail of German and British cities whose growth lies mostly post-1700, and who mostly don’t have exonyms. Of the 108 cities, 42 have no exonyms across the five languages at all (allowing for some accent mark differences). German and UK cities together are overrepresented in this humdrum sub-group (24 have no exonyms, from a total of 39).

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Even so, sufficiently heavy modern contact can create some orthographic waves. Manchester, a small town before 1700, is spelt the same way everywhere except Spain, where they put a jaunty little quiff on top of the a, and honestly who can begrudge them that.

Counter-examples suggest other processes. Amsterdam was a medieval and early modern trading city and ought to be prime for an exonym or two, but everyone calls it Amsterdam. Is this a case of the phonetics being so uncontroversial that no other renderings sprang to mind? Is Madrid similar?

At the other end, these are the cities with the greatest number of exonyms (note that some use one of the five test languages).

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Mostly these are the historically weighty places one would expect, but again there are odd exceptions. The Hague has five exonyms, though it lacks the historicity of an Athens or a Florence. Probably the explanation is that it’s a toponym – the medieval term for “enclosure/hunting ground”. French (La Haye), Spanish (La Haya) and Italian (L’Aia) seem to be substituting their own terms for that thing, “translating” the name rather than varying it.

I’ve also, hesitantly, included cities (Brussels, Antwerp) with multilingual autochthonous populations, so strictly speaking these are not exonyms at all. It may be that a bigger analysis would find regions where exonyms are more likely to arise regardless, because borders are closer and political control has shifted around. The areas flipping in and out of the Holy Roman and then Austro-Hungarian empires, or trading coasts, would be a neat study.

English has proportionately the fewest exonyms and Italian has the most. Often these are of the “put an -o on the end” school (Berlino, Dublino, Salonicco – conceivably this is revenge for Turin, which everybody else refuses to call Torino). Elsewhere, they preserve an appealing Romanitas – Italian is the only language to have an exonym for Plovdiv in Bulgaria, so they make it count with the classical Philipoppoli. It was also news to me that Munich is Monaco di Baviera, because one Monaco near one border wasn’t enough, so they duplicated it and then had to differentiate again.

Using this dataset made for some haunting omissions of places which have never grown enough to make the cut (Venice, Venedig, Venise, Venezia, Venecia!). Adding Venice, plus half a dozen French cities of similar venerability, would have somewhat undermined my investigation, but made for a much more fun map. This is why we can’t have nice data.


 

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.