Why isn't it "Roma" everywhere?

This is one of those questions that I have never heard answered, yet I fear may be embarrassingly simple to explain: Barring alphabetical or pronunciation-related issues, why isn’t a place name the same everywhere? Please note, I am NOT referring to the whole “Germany” vs. “Deutschland” vs. “Allemagne” thing. (I read somewhere that words like “Deutschland” which are self-referential mean “the one land/people” while the others come from non-Deutschlanders and may translate roughtly to “foreign dogs” or something). What I am referring to is “Rome” vs. “Roma” - why the heck don’t we English-speakers call it Roma? We can pronounce it, spell it - what gives? Same thing for “London” - why do the French call it “Londres”, when they can spell and say London? Is there a historical precedent or tradition that hasn’t caught up with globalization? I want to liken it to someone named “Guillermo” who comes to the U.S. - if he wants to go by “Guillermo”, or “William” or “Billy” most folks will honor that request - why don’t we honor the fact that the Italians call it Roma and Firenza, etc…? Thanks!

Warning! WAG ahead!

Rome goes way back in English. So far back that I can’t even read the first cites in the OED (c. 888). We got the word from French (blame the French!), who of course, got it from the the Latin Roma. My guess is that Rome was the French spelling based on the pronunciation (warning, I know nothing about French), so that French Rome was pronounced very similarly to Latin Roma. English borrowed the French word, but we tend not to pronounce the final “e” anymore, though it was probably pronounced the same to begin with.

As to the general question of why we don’t pronounce things the same (or even use the same words), basically laziness and tradition. Sometimes we pronounce names the way similar -looking words are pronounced. For example, Cuba, which Americans generally pronounce Cue-ba rather than Coo-ba.

JeffB is right, it’s them Frenchpeople’s fault. Currently, a terminal E is not pronounced in French unless it has an acute accent mark. But long ago it was, so the French pronunciation was probably the same as the Italian. The spelling stayed the same, but the pronunciation changed.

The French are responsible for most of the English spellings of western European cities. Because of this, while there are a fair number of such spelling discrepancies in western Europe, there are very few in France. If fact, the only French ones I can think of are Lyons and Marseilles, where the French have dropped the terminal Ss since the spelling became standard in English.

Maybe I’m reading this wrong, but I’m getting the question to be why do different countries have different names for the same place? One that comes to mind personally is “Moscow” which my sixth-grade teacher never wearied of telling us had no “cow” (MOO!) in it. It was moss-koe. Only problem is, according to authorities (Monty Python’s “Cycling Tour”), it is spelled in Russian as if it’s pronounced “Moskva”. No cow, no koe. A kvah. So why don’t we say it like that?

actually, we did (sort of) at one point: the old English name for the Russian state was Muscovy, which actually - if you say it quickly - is a pretty game attempt to pronouce the genitive form of Moskva. I can imagine a Russian traveller in Elizabethan England:

Londoner: So where you from?
RT: Ya iz Moskvy [I’m from Moscow]. I em fram, uh, Moskvy.
Londoner: Muscovy, eh?

I would guess the extra ‘o’ would’ve been added due to the fact that the consonant cluster skv is pretty ‘unnatural’ to English pronounciation.
WAG time: Would the later Moscow (however you want to say it) have come from the French Moscou (moss-coo) or the German Moskau (moss-cow)?
Which of course leads to the question: why do THEY call it that?

I know you’re not referring to Germany but I might as well link you to a relevant Cecil column

I don’t think there’s a universal answer to this. In the case of London, London was actually established by the Roman Empire and called something like Londonium (meaning what I’ve no idea). The English and French versions are probably just separate branches attempting to localize the original Latin.

A couple of other interesting examples:

We say Cairo because early Italian traders corrupted the Arabic version, Al Qahara, which doesn’t sound that much like “Cairo” (the Q is pronounced like a K but farther back in the throat) and could have been better approximated in Italian as alcara (there is no breathy H in Italian).

A friend of mine from Colombia told me they say “Nueva York”.

Go figure.

Thanks for everybody’s replies so far; it seems like the general consensus is that different peoples (speaking different languages) will evolve their own spelling and pronunciation of place names more or less out of the same evolutionary inertia that leads to language dialects. The Londonium example (which I knew about) may be a good example - on one hand, exchanges between what we know as England and France today have been happening for all of recorded history, yet they both developed local versions of the place-name “London”, and appear to be indifferent to what is considered “correct” by actual Londoners. I guess that’s the key observation - I thought that “possession” of the place (e.g., Italians “possess” Rome) broke any ties - if they say it’s Roma, then it is - but it turns out that the other folks just don’t care; they’ll use the “original” name as a base when they want, but won’t police it if changes drift in…

And of course in New York they say “Columbia”.

An extreme case of multiple spelling of a placename is Geneva. In various languages, it’s spelled Genève (French & Dutch), Genf (German & Hungarian), Ginevra (Italian), Geneva (English), Ginebra (Spanish), Genebra (Portuguese), Ženeva (Czech), Genever (Swedish). No doubt it’s spelled other ways in other languages.

Oh no we don’t! We spell it Genève and pronounce it in French.

timchik asks:

It probably has to do with:[list=1]
[li]Translation from Cyrillic/Glagolitic to Roman[/li][li]Differences in the pronunciation of Roman letters by people speaking different languages[/li][li]That, as you comment, some sound clusters are just not “natural” in some languages[/li][li]The changeability of languages[/li][li]Time out of touch with the people who actually live there[/li][/list=1]
(Hypotheses are not necesarily listed in order of efficaciousness or probability).

How was the name of the city pronounced when it was founded in the 12[sup]th[/sup] century? (I don’t know.) However it was pronounced then, it was probably transmitted through some western dialect (a precursor of B(y)elorussian, no doubt) and Polish to Germany, where perhaps it was written “Moskaw” (and pronounced “Moskav”). In late medieval French, the “w” was no doubt interpreted as a vowel, so the word was pronounced “Moskau”. Transmit that word to late medieval English, take it through the Great Vowel Shift, and Vladimir’s your uncle.

Or, perhaps it happened in another way; that’s just a WAG. However, there would have been few Muscovites around to correct Jacobian pedants with a “No, you uncultured stilyagi, it’s MOSKVA, not MOSCOW!”

The Chinese got everyone to switch from Peking to Beijing.

Istanbul was Constantinople in English until the 1930s. The Turkish government got everyone to call it Istanbul since then.

Some years ago, the Saudi Arabian government officially replaced the spelling Mecca in English with Makkah—did anyone notice?

If this trend spread everywhere, think what would happen. No more “The Hague”, that nice easy monosyllable. If we said it the Dutch way, we would have to say 's Gravenhage — pronounced “skhhraafen-haakhha”.

Do we really want to go there?

Sorry, I was misled by an on-line translator program. Or could it be that you used to spell it Genever and the translator database is out of date?

How do the Norwegians and Danes spell it? I couldn’t find translator programs for those languages that had the name in their databases. The same for Finnish and Polish, although I suspect the Polish spelling is the same as the Czech spelling.

I hate the way we were brow beat into accepting Beijing and forgetting Peking. However, they were not completely successful, since it still isn’t “Beijing Duck”.

Sort of, but I hadn’t realized that it was an official change. And it’s not likely to change the spelling of the common journalese word mecca meaning “a place attracting a particular group, other than for religious reasons”.

It’s continuing. Recently Bombay, India changed its spelling to Mumbai.

I sincerely doubt it. Genever is something completely different.

As for Norwegian and Danish I really don’t know but I assume it’s Genève as well.

Hmmm… Perhaps that dictionary was translating another meaning of geneva in English:

Which I was unaware of until I thought to check Merriam-Webster. I’m impressed that the translator’s database had the term.