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).

Click to expand.

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).

Click to expand.

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.


 

 
 
 
 

London’s rail and tube map is out of control

Aaaaaargh. Image: Getty.

The geographical limits of London’s official rail maps have always been slightly arbitrary. Far-flung commuter towns like Amersham, Chesham and Epping are all on there, because they have tube stations. Meanwhile, places like Esher or Walton-on-Thames – much closer to the city proper, inside the M25, and a contiguous part of the built up area – aren’t, because they fall outside the Greater London and aren’t served by Transport for London (TfL) services. This is pretty aggravating, but we are where we are.

But then a few years ago, TfL decided to show more non-London services on its combined Tube & Rail Map. It started with a few stations slightly outside the city limits, but where you could you use your Oyster card. Then said card started being accepted at Gatwick Airport station – and so, since how to get to a major airport is a fairly useful piece of information to impart to passengers, TfL’s cartographers added that line too, even though it meant including stations bloody miles away.

And now the latest version seems to have cast all logic to the wind. Look at this:

Oh, no. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

The logic for including the line to Reading is that it’s now served by TfL Rail, a route which will be part of the Elizabeth Line/Crossrail, when they eventually, finally happen. But you can tell something’s gone wrong here from the fact that showing the route, to a town which is well known for being directly west of London, requires an awkward right-angle which makes it look like the line turns north, presumably because otherwise there’d be no way of showing it on the map.

What’s more, this means that a station 36 miles from central London gets to be on the map, while Esher – barely a third of that distance out – doesn’t. Nor does Windsor & Eton Central, because it’s served by a branchline from Slough rather than TfL Rail trains, even though as a fairly major tourist destination it’d probably be the sort of place that at least some users of this map might want to know how to get to.

There’s more. Luton Airport Parkway is now on the map, presumably on the basis that Gatwick is. But that station doesn’t accept Oyster cards yet, so you get this:

Gah. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

There’s a line, incidentally, between Watford Junction and St Albans Abbey, which is just down the road from St Albans City. Is that line shown on the map? No it is not.

Also not shown on the map: either Luton itself, just one stop up the line from Luton Airport Parkway, or Stansted Airport, even though it’s an airport and not much further out than places which are on the map. Somewhere that is, however, is Welwyn Garden City, which doesn’t accept Oyster, isn’t served by TfL trains and also – this feels important – isn’t an airport.

And meanwhile a large chunk of Surrey suburbia inside the M25 isn’t shown, even though it must have a greater claim to be a part of London’s rail network than bloody Reading.

The result of all these decisions is that the map covers an entirely baffling area whose shape makes no sense whatsoever. Here’s an extremely rough map:

Just, what? Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

I mean that’s just ridiculous isn’t it.

While we’re at it: the latest version shows the piers from which you can get boats on the Thames. Except for when it doesn’t because they’re not near a station – for example, Greenland Pier, just across the Thames to the west of the Isle of Dogs, shown here with CityMetric’s usual artistic flair.

Spot the missing pier. You can’t, because it’s missing. Image: TfL/CityMetric.

I’m sure there must be a logic to all of this. It’s just that I fear the logic is “what makes life easier for the TfL cartography team” rather than “what is actually valuable information for London’s rail passengers”.

And don’t even get me started on this monstrosity.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.