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.


 

 
 
 
 

Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

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As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

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In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.