Thursday, May 29, 2008

name foreign places after themselves

Africa is a European invention. When the Romans finally defeated Carthage, they turned the place into a province and called it Africa. Originally this referred only to a small part of Tunisia and Algeria, but it later became the name of the entire continent. The same happened to Asia, another province of the Roman Empire, in what is now called the Near East. The names of the two other continents demonstrate even more obviously their European origins: America was named after an Italian traveler . . . and the term Australia comes from the fact that European voyagers who had some vague idea about the existence of this continent but knew nothing about it, called it "The Unknown Southland," Terra australis incognita.

If you go to Google today, you'll see the image above of mountain-climbers in the logo. If you scroll over this image, you'll be told that today is the "Anniversary of the First Ascent of Mount Everest." By using this name for the mountain and by celebrating its first ascent by Europeans, Google is promoting an outmoded, Eurocentric and colonialist view of the world.

This Eurocentric perspective, which pervades "Western" societies and much of the rest of the world, promotes an unthinking conception of Europe as the figurative and even literal center of the world. One of the ways it does this is by applying white Western names to non-Western sites, names that become largely unquestioned standards, obliterating local non-white perspectives and histories.

The mountain we think of as "Mount Everest" straddles the border between Nepal and Tibet, and the people of both of those places have their own names for it--Chomolungma for the Tibetans and Sagarmatha for the Nepalis. But the world knows it as Mount Everest because in the 1860s, it was given that name by Andrew Waugh, a British surveyor who helped with the imperial conquest of India, in honor of his predecessor, George Everest.

I noted a couple of days ago that Asian Americans usually don't like to be asked where they're from. Today I'll add that those with descendants from East Asia also don't like to be called "Orientals." "Orientals are rugs, not people," as an activist bumper sticker used to say. Fortunately, this particular tendency that some white people still enact doesn't seem to merit a blog post of its own, because the term is dying out.

The problem with the word "Oriental" is similar to the problem with the mountain name, "Mount Everest." Both are blithely Eurocentric, implying that it's the European perspective that matters, and that Europe is the center of the earth, and that European "civilization" is the pinnacle of human achievement. "The East" and "The Far East" are also problematic--east of what? Why, of Europe, of course. The word "Oriental" derives from a root meaning of "east," and "rising," as in the sun (people also "oriented" themselves with the position of the sun). The sun rises in the East, and the places and people over there were east of those in Europe, so they became the Orient and Orientals.

Google's celebration today of the ascent of "Mount Everest" promotes a similarly Eurocentric mindset, because it implies that the most important thing about that mountain is its ascent by European explorers. Never mind, Google implies, along with the rest of the West, whatever the mountain might mean to people on either side of it.

Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari is a Tibetan who works with the Dali Lama, and like other Tibetans, he's called for changing the mountain's name. According to World View Magazine, which published his recent plea in this regard, Gyaltsen Gyari was born "in Eastern Tibet and recognized at the age of three as a reincarnate lama, [and] he is also known as Gyari Rinpoche."

Gyaltsent Gyari writes,

It is my view that the concept of renaming places is very much a part of a colonial and imperialistic legacy, which must come to an end. Besides the fact that Chomolungma is the tallest mountain in the world, it is also a very holy place to the Tibetan people, and I believe that places with historical and religious significance should be referred to by their original names. . . .*

Calling a holy mountain by its original name has significance to me and to the Tibetan people, particularly at a time when the very survival of the Tibetan culture, language and identity is at stake. By ensuring that our sacred places are named in our own language, we reaffirm our connection to our land and acknowledge that the great Himalaya, which I came to know so intimately during my journey into exile, has a greater and deeper meaning to Tibetans, beyond its dizzying grandeur.

For Americans, there is a familiar precedent for reclaiming original geographic names. In Alaska, the largest mountain was dubbed Mount McKinley in 1896, after the man who was about to become president. Many locals, however, knew it as Denali, or "the great one," as the Athabasca Indians called it. In 1980, the Alaska Board of Geographic Names changed the name of the mountain back to Denali, which the state government of Alaska now recognizes as its official name. This example should remind us that when we think of the mountain in Nepal and Tibet as Mount Everest, we should at least keep in mind that there are other, less imposed names for it.

Aside from using the name Mount Everest and celebrating a Westerner's conquest of the mountain by climbing it, Google also promotes a Eurocentric world-view in another way. If you go to their search site's Images section and type in "world map," hundreds of maps appear. Among these, it's difficult to find one that isn't literally Eurocentric, with Europe right at the center of things--the center of everything.

Perhaps there's little Google can do with such map searches to avoid promoting a Eurocentric, colonialist view of the world. However, Google should avoid promotions like today's image on its front page, including what the mouse scroll-over says from a particularly "Western" view about a particularly "Eastern" mountain. I sent a message asking that they do so, and you can send a request or demand here and/or here.

* I wonder, though, how the Nepalese would respond to a widespread adoption of the Tibetan name for a mountain that's in both countries.

[Hat-tip to Katie at KitKat's Critique]


  1. I totally agree with you Macon regarding "name foreign places after themselves" Let's examine the types of people who hike this mountain. Usually rich white men who in short have non-whites helping them to get up the mountain.

    I remember last year going to Peru and I told my friends on how much I did not want to go to the Inca Trail (a none europeanized name). I refused to go there because, (and this is probably getting away from the point) but why isn't there a celebration of non-whites hiking up such places like Inca Trail or Mount Everest, oops, I forgot, they do that for a living.

  2. I think it's hilarious that you call out the phrase "Eastern" while talking about "Western Culture". To paraphrase: West of what exactly? (The largest landmass on the planet, that's what).
    I get your point, and for sure Western culture dominates - for lots of historical reasons, mostly relating to colonialism and economics, but I think you're not being particurly thoughtful about what you're saying.

  3. Wednesdaywolf, when you paraphrase and comment on what you've paraphrased, you should paraphrase accurately. The post says "East of what?" not "West of what?" Big difference, I'd say. I discussed "East" and "West" in that paragraph by way of explaining the term "Oriental."

    It looks like your perception of hilarity is a result of you're not being particularly thoughtful about what you're reading.

  4. It's interesting to note as well that, especially in Africa, there is a huge problem with names and boundaries. The countries we know as Uganda, Rwanda, the Congo, etc are not their real names. The rivers that run through them (such as the Congo river) are not known by their real names, rather, we know them by the names white people gave them. And of course, the European explorers would often stick labels onto landmarks in recognition of their patrons or various European royalty--showing incredible disrespect towards the natives and what names they used.
    And also, boundaries have caused HUGE problems in the great continent of Africa, even long after the age of colonization has supposedly ended. The country of Uganda was never really a country with the boundary lines that are drawn the world maps that we all see. Africa has always been a place of tribes and villages rather than the most "modern" European states and countries. With the European imposed boundary lines, some African sects have been divided right in half because of this. Some other tribes have been forced to live under the name of one nation even when they have had centuries of hostility between them. This arbitrary ruling of who is what and which country ends where, coupled with typical European and American manipulation (such as favoring one tribe over another) has caused genocides and crimes against humanity in places such as the Congo, Darfur, Rwanda, and Uganda.
    So, while this is a little bit off topic from simply naming places, it just goes to show how white people often overextend their authority and impositions on other people (especially with b.s. like the Manifest Destiny).

  5. I was thinking about this when I wrote about Arab Americans being Asian Americans. What we think of today as the "Middle East" used to be called the "Near East", and what we think of today as "East Asia" used to be called the "Far East" (the latter which you mentioned).

    Back in the day when people used the term "Near East", the people in the "Near East" were also called "Orientals". In Orientalism, Edward Said wrote about how the knowledge base of "Oriental Studies" was basically based on the idea that the "Orient" needed to be reinterpreted as from a European point of view to be understandable and considered "knowledge". The stereotypes we have today about Arabs can be traced back to very old scholarship, but there are also many stereotypes mentioned in Orientalism that are common to Asia and Asians as whole. For example, Asians as a whole are perceived to be mystical, irrational, and opulent, obeying barbaric laws.

    The continent of Eurasia is also weird. It's one continent, but there is an arbitrary line dividing "Europe" from "Asia". What do East Asians (Chinese, Japanese, Koreans), South Asians (Indians, Pakistanis, Bengalis, Sri Lankans, etc.), West Asians (Arabs, Iranians, etc.), Southeast Asians (Thai, Vietnamese, Laotians, etc.), and other Asians have in common? They're not white.

    Thus, the whole "East versus West" dichotomy is also Eurocentric, because it defines the East as the part of Eurasia where the white people did not live. China did not originally think of itself as having in common with its neighbouring civilizations some "Eastern" property, as everything non-Chinese was considered equally foreign. However, many white people think that the "East" and the "West" are in competition, as if people in Asia consider themselves "Asians" instead of a specific ethnicity or nationality. This belief that there is a "East versus West" competition is based on xenophobia, or at least the belief in a "East versus West" dichotomy is based on Eurocentricism.

  6. Incredible!

    For the most part, naming is organic. What name gets used is subject to change and evolution. Just look at place names in the US, which reflects an odd mix of European and native names. Most people don't know (much less care) about the origin of the name of the place in which they inhabit. Cultural identity is not derived from something as petty as a name, and if it was. How many people in France would identify themselves with the Franks? How many people in England identify themselves with the Germanic tribe that gave rise to that name?

    What you fail to recognize is that this is very common, that it happens on BOTH ends, and that it's really dependent on language. Yes, in English, many names are indeed Anglo-centric. Well, what did you expect? That doesn't mean that local languages then adopt the name given in English. Or that other languages adopt the name given in English. The English name for China is nothing like the Chinese name for China. Nor is the Chinese name for the United States anything like the English name for it. Should the Chinese be more culturally sensitive and change the Chinese name for the US to something that is more faithful to the name "United States of America"? English is, by its very definition, an Euro-centric language, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with English names bearing that bias, just as there is absolutely nothing wrong with other languages bearing their own cultural bias and not being faithful to European languages. C'est la vie.

    The other thing that you fail to recognize is the organic nature of naming. What name sticks and what name gets used is subject to change and evolution, and this is especially true for English, where the acceptance of names, new words, foreign words, etc., all happen without with the ebb and flow of popular usage.

    Finally, one thing that bothers me the most is a focus on the past with no regard for the future. Many cultures look back at their heyday wistfully but do nothing to recover their prominence (e.g., Middle Eastern cultures continually harping on their contributions to mathematics, etc. that had dried up about a millennia ago when they became more religiously insular), whereas some cultures (East Asian ones are an example) don't dwell on that and move forward. You think that the world is too Euro-centric? Fine. Why is it that way? Figure out what allowed it to achieve economic and military dominance and then move your culture forward by implementing the same reforms. There is nothing to be gained by being static.

    (And no, I'm not white :P)

  7. The paper I read (The Express, a free daily published by the Washington Post) listed the anniversary yesterday but credited both Sir Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. Which I thought was indicative of people starting to recognize that we shouldn't only credit the white man on any given team.
    I think part of the renaming is laziness. White people can't be bothered to learn how to pronounce it in a different language, so they name the gorgeous waterfall after their queen. And also, clearly, nothing ever existed until white people laid eyes on it.

  8. i like the work you are doing here.

  9. Ex canadienne here. Wonder why the English in the province of Quebec persevere to remain there, when in fact the francophones are indeed mloving in. The streets are being french ..hooray..and if you have a last french name...your childfren may ONLY attend french schools...hoorah

  10. I never understood why whenever white people found something, they make news about it like "Discovered"

    If Columbus discovered America, then why are living there. Some group of Western discovered a deep cave. WTF. I

  11. I agree, Anonymous. It's like a white/Western mindset only accepts "new" stuff when it's been authorized into recognition by the preeminent authority of its own white/Western system of validation. And often, the hegemonic and cultural specificity of that mindset and system still seem to go unnoticed by those within it. Here's a recent, further elaboration on the topic.

  12. I think that wednesdaywolf's point was that you seem to have an issue with the description of Asia as the 'East', whilst a the same time quite happily referring to the 'West' (ie, West of what?). Such contradictions appear to be common on this blog.

    In any case, it appears that you are yourself presenting a particularly paternalistic view in respect of the naming fo foreign places. As has been mentioned above, names are fluid and organic. It is not for Google, or anyone else to determine the name of a thing or place, but rather for people to determine their own name. If Tibetians want to call the mountain their own name, then so they should (and apparently do). If Westerners want to call it something else, then so they should (and do). Tibetians do not need Westerners to validate the name they have chosen.

  13. Did you mean the Dalai Lama?

    In Nepal, Mt. Everest is known as Sagarmatha, and since the mountain is only safely climable from the Nepali side, renaming it Chomolungma probably wouldn't be taken too kindly.


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