When and why did Calcutta become Kolkata?

I was reading an article on CNN about Mother Teresa, and was surprised to discover that Calcutta is now known as Kolkata.

I’d guess that the new spelling is closer to how it is actually pronounced?

For starters:

A number of cities have changed their name after independence to escape from their “slave names” imposed by colonial authorities. Also in India, “Bombay” (a name of Portugese origin) has become “Mumbai”.

In Ukraine, the usual name in the West for its capital was “Kiev”. However, this is a transliteration from the Russian name of the city, and since Ukrainian is the sole official language of the country it can seem offensive. Thus, more and more the new transliteration from the Ukrainian “Kyiv” is seen.

This is not a new phenomenon. See “Formosa” becoming “Taiwan”, or “Siam” becoming “Thailand.”


I don’t think that this kind of terminology is called for in the case of Indian place names. After all, cities like Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras were actually founded and built by the colonists themselves. If there had been an existing settlement, it was quite small.

Second, the linguistic reality of India is such that the pronunciation of place names will vary depending on whom you’re talking to.

Third, in many cases, the locals still stick to what you call the “slave name.” Most people in Mumbai refer to their city as “Bombay.” Most people in the holy city of Varanasi still refer to their city as “Benares,” a name that was changed officially almost 60 years ago. Clearly, they don’t view the name as a “slave name.”

Fourth, there is often a considerable amount of doubt regarding whether names such as “Bombay” and “Madras” (now officially “Chennai”) were actually “imposed” by colonials or were derived from native languages.

But, yes, the spelling “Kolkata” more closely reflects the Bengali pronunciation of the name of the city. The native Calcuttan pronunciation is slightly different – “Kolikata.” The name “Calcutta” is still widely used in vernacular speech of Calcutta. You will find Calcuttans using all three pronunciations.

(Personally, I believe that place names can validly be different from one language to another. If it’s “Kolkata” in Bengali, there’s no reason why it can’t be “Calcutta” in English. Similarly, if it’s “Moldova” in Moldavian Romanian, there’s no reason why it can’t be “Moldavia” or “Bessarabia” in English.)

acsenray, I am in total agreement with you. The Chinese can call their capital Beijing and in English it is Peking. They call foreign places by their Chinese names not by their local names. If the English language has a name for a place then it is perfectly good to use it and I cannot see why we need to learn the local names.

Bad example there, sailor. “Beijing” AND “Peking” both are pronounced identically as their difference is merely the translitaration system used.

However, I am in agreement with you on the first half of your last sentence.

Well you might pronounce them identically but you would be the only person I have ever heard pronounce Beijing and Peking identically. How can you pronounce the P and the B the same? How can you pronounce the K and the J the same? and where did the I go?

You’re missing the point, sailor. The point is that those two words are Chinese words with the Chinese system of transliteration into a roman-based alphabet. The difference between the two is not in sound; it’s in the choice of transliteration system.

Minor correction to my last posting above: The PinYin system is Chinese and is the currently preferred system.

AS to your question as how one can pronunce the P and the B the same, that site says that for Pinyin:

Feel free to read the rest of it for correct information on how to read.

The other, now not preferred, transliteration system was the Wade-Giles (aka Wade) system.

nitpic, Actually, Monty, in Wade Giles, the pre-pinyin defacto standard romanization, “Peking” is correct. However, being a linguist, you would understand that Wade Giles also used a apostrophe to denote an aspiration point.

Just about every layman that ever saw Wade Giles didn’t realize that “P” was pronounced something akin to a “B” sound and “P apostrophe” pronounced akin to a “P” sound.

Sorry but I still do not understand what you mean. The English pronunciation of “Peking” is very different from the Chinese proninciation of “Beijing”. Very different. Peking is pronounced in English as it is written and that is not how the Chinese pronounce it.

I always thought (without basis, come to think of it) that Peking and Beijing were the same written characters pronounced in two different Chinese dialects. Is it in fact the same exact sound with different transliteration systems?

p.s. There’s a famous story that when the Japanese government revised the official transliteration system, the passenger ship Chichibu Maru was forced to change its name to Titibu Maru. It was pointed out that Titibu Maru was an inappropriate name, and the name had to be changed to something completely different (Kamakura Maru).

Yes, except as China Guy has just pointed out, it was never supposed to be pronounced that way in English. Instead English-speakers were supposed to be familiar with the Wade-Giles transliteration standards and were supposed to realize that it wasn’t pronounced as it was spelled :). Anymore than “ennui” wasn’t pronounced “in-newy”. Of course not many folks in the west do understand the pronunciation rules for that system…

*The Wade-Giles system is almost guaranteed to be mispronounced by anyone who is not a Mandarin speaker. For example, in the Wade-Giles system the sounds of the English letters b and p are represented as p and p ', respectively.

The Wade-Giles spelling for Beijing is Peking but the pronunciation of Peking was never peh-king except in the West. In the Wade-Giles system the pronunciation of Peking is the same as pinyin Beijing. *

From here: http://www2.sjsu.edu/faculty/watkins/chinalan.htm

For a reverse bit of confusion, in pinyin the official name of the Manchu dynasty is Qing. In Wade-Giles it is Ch’ing. The pronunciation of both are the same. It’s just that in Pinyin q = ch, in Wade-Giles ch’ = ch ( and confoundingly ch with no = j ).

Yep. So I understand.

  • Tamerlane

>> Yes, except as China Guy has just pointed out, it was never supposed to be pronounced that way in English

Well, what was “supposed” to be and what is are two different things. The fact is that, not only in English but in most European languages, the name of the capital of China is Peking or Pekin and has been that for some centuries now. The fact that it is a corruption of the Chinese name is quite irrelevant at this point. It is a different word altogether in a different language altogether and the same can be said about most of the hundreds or thousands of geographic names in English which are different from the local names.

What do you call Hong Kong? Hong Kong is a corruption of the local, native, name. How about Canton? How about Italy? How about Spain? How about Germany? How about. . . well, you get the idea.

English speakers have English geographical names for other countries and cities just like people who speak other languages have their own names for foreign countries and cities. If the Chinese can have their own name for America and its cities so can English-speaking people call Peking whatever they want.

Frankly, the concept that “Peking” is wrong because it originated as a corruption of another word seems to me quite pedantic. Most of the words of any language are an evolution of other words but they are perfectly valid or we must go back to speaking middle English or high German or Sanskrit or whatever they spoke in the beginning of the world.

Sherry wine is named after the town in southern Spain where it is made. The word “Sherry” is a corruption of the local name as it was hundreds of years ago. Then the English and the Sanish names evolved in different directions and today there is no similarity between them. You could say the word Sherry is wrong on two accounts: it is a corruption of a local name and it is outdated and the correct name today is Jerez. And that would be extremely true if you were speaking Spanish but in English, Sherry is the correct term.

English speakers define the English language and nobody else.

So…how are we supposed to pronounce Beijing/Peking? “Pey Zhng,” or something?

Kolkotta is the state capital of West Bengal, and Bengalis have always called the city Kolkotta. The name change is reflective of that as much as it is an attempt to shrug off the city’s colonial legacy. The name ‘Calcutta’ probably came about from a British inability to ponounce the name as it was meant to be. As of today, most non-Bengalis still prefer to call the city Calcutta, or affectionately ‘Cal’.

Just as Mumbai is still referred to by most as Bombay. Maharashtrians (Bombay is the state capital of Maharashtra) have always called the city Mumbai, and the name change was reflective of that. The origins of the name Bombay perhaps come from when Francis Almeida sailed into the harbour of the island - the Portugese eventually came to call it Bom Bahia (the Good Bay).

And the same goes for Chennai. Tamilians have always called the city Chennai, and non-Tamilians continue to call the city Madras. I don’t know the origins of ‘Madras’ though.

Well, if you want to be fastidiously correct, you should translate the name literally into English as “North Capital”. Then you have Nanking: South Capital, HongKong: Fragrant Harbor, etc. Nobody will know what the heck you are talking about but you will show them how knowledgeable you are.

Well, the first English speakers to write “Peking”, pronounced it as “Beijing” :). But if you consider that excessively pedantic, fair enough .

  • Tamerlane


I’ve always had a theory that the English pronunciation of certain Chinese words and names is such because it was filtered through the medium of Cantonese (due to trade connections in HK, Canton and Macau) - the Canto pronunciation of Beijing being close to “Bak-ging”, which is a hell of a lot more like “Peking” than “Beijing” is. On reading this thread, I am prepared to admit I’m full of gau-si.