Thursday, 30 October 2008

#52 – How to spell city names

Or knowing your Kievs from your Kyivs.

Globalised world
While we may live in a globalised world, spelling is something that cannot be universally agreed upon. Just ask our American friends with their strange desires to mangle perfectly good English spellings...

Renamed cities
Usually there is a correct and an incorrect spelling, but sometimes with city names, the lines blur a bit. Occasionally a place is renamed, and sometimes there are large discrepancies between the local and the international spelling.

Krung Thep
Bangkok in Thailand is a classic example. The city simply isn’t called Bangkok – the Thais know it as Krung Thep, yet we persist in giving it a totally inaccurate name. But to use Krung Thep all the way through an article would somehow seem wrong. It would just confuse the reader.

Right to be incorrect?
There are plenty more examples of this sort of thing – Florence and Firenze, Prague and Praha, Warsaw and Warszawa spring to mind. And in most cases, a travel writer is right to be incorrect on the spelling. Of course, every editor has a different policy, and it’s best to go with what they deem to be appropriate. As a general rule, however, go with what feels right for the audience.

Kolkata or Calcutta?
This can be a bit tricky, however, when it comes to cities where the name is being officially changed to the local spelling. In the cases of Mumbai and Beijing, it would now be rare to see an article referring to Bombay or Peking. The transition has been made. But it’s less clear cut with Kolkata or Côte d'Ivoire – have enough people converted from Calcutta and Ivory Coast yet?

Kiev or Kyiv?
The trickiest one I’ve had to deal with recently is Kiev in the Ukraine. Or Kyiv as it is now properly known. In my guidebook, it was called Kyiv, but in most other literature it is still called Kiev. And in the end, that was what I plumped for in my articles. It may not be technically correct, but Kyiv would probably have confused too many readers. I suspect that in five years’ time, however, it would not.

Note at the bottom
To cover my bases on this one, I put a small note at the bottom of the articles I submitted explaining the situation. That meant that it was up to the editors to choose their preferred versions. And for somewhere where the spelling is open to debate, this is probably a good plan.

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