What’s in a country’s name?

Country names is one of those lessons that invariably come up when learning a new language, as each language seems to have its own conventions on naming. Vietnamese is no different – official country names run the gamut from Sino-Vietnamese readings of Chinese country names to transliterations of Spanish and French. It’s amazing how much this reflects Vietnam’s history, from the strong influence of classical Chinese to French colonisation and alignment with the Eastern Bloc. The names adhere roughly to the following conventions:

  1. Sino-Vietnamese: Many countries are referred to by Sino-Vietnamese readings of their Chinese names, which themselves are frequently transliterations, meaning that they often bear little resemblance to their original versions. Many of these Vietnamese names are also shortened or modified versions of the Chinese original, adding further confusion. This grouping can mostly be found in the Indo-Pacific region, such as China (Trung Quốc), South Korea (Hàn Quốc), North Korea(Triều Tiên), Japan (Nhật Bản), Mongolia (Mông Cổ), India (Ấn Độ), Australia (Úc) or in/near Europe, such as the United Kingdom (Anh), France (Pháp), Germany (Đức), Spain (Tây Ban Nha), Portugal (Bồ Đào Nha), Netherlands (Hà Lan), Belgium (Bỉ), Switzerland (Thụy Sĩ), Sweden (Thụy Điển), Norway (Na Uy), Denmark (Đan Mạch), Finland (Phần Lan), Poland (Ba Lan), Italy (Ý), Greece (Hy Lạp), Egypt (Ai Cập), Turkey (Thồ Nhĩ Kỳ), and Russia (Nga). The United States (Mỹ/Hoa Kỳ) also fall into this category, along with South Africa (Nam Phi) and the Central African Republic (Cộng Hòa Trung Phi). Many other countries, such as the Philippines, New Zealand, Mexico, Ireland, Argentina, and Iceland used to be referred to using Sino-Vietnamese names but common usage has shifted to versions that match their native names more closely. Sino-Vietnamese names are distinct in that they are not hyphenated (Vietnamese orthography dictates that multi-syllabic western loanwords be hyphenated).
  2. French: Due to the legacy of French colonisation in Indochina, several countries’ names are simply Vietnamese transliterations of their French names. This group consists mostly of former French colonies, such as Algeria (An-giê-ri), Tunisia (Tuy-ni-di), Morocco (Ma-rốc), Lebanon (Li-băng), Syria (Xi-ri), Guinea (Ghi-nê), Benin (Bê-nanh), Cote d’Ivoire (Cốt-đi-voa), Mauritania (Mô-ri-ta-ni), and Gabon (Ga-bông), along with several countries (mostly located near the Mediterranean) that are not former French colonies such as Libya (Li-bi), Jordan (Gióoc-đa-ni), Albania (An-ba-ni), Bulgaria (Bun-ga-ri), Romania (Ru-ma-ni), Luxembourg (Lúc-xem-bua), and Cyprus (Síp). The French version of some countries’ names, such as Singapore, used to be more prevalent but has fallen out of use.
  3. Spanish: Countries in Latin America are usually referred to by their Spanish names. Examples that are most obviously Spanish include Mexico (Mê-hi-cô) and Argentina (Ác-hen-ti-na).
  4. Russian: Former Soviet republics are usually referred to using their Russian names. Examples that are most obviously Russian are Lithuania (Lít-va) and Georgia (Gru-di-a).
  5. Countries’ native names: Cambodia (Cam-pu-chia) and Laos (Lào) are both referred to by their native names (in Khmer and Lao, respectively)
  6. Mixed: Some countries mix Vietnamese words with foreign names, usually when the Vietnamese word refers to directions, geographical features, or conjunctions. Examples include Equatorial Guinea (Ghi-nê Xích Đạo), Trinidad and Tobago (Tri-ni-đát và Tô-ba-gô), Solomon Islands (Quần đảo Xô-lô-mông), and Timor-Leste (Đông Ti-mo).
  7. Indeterminate: The remaining countries are referred to using names that are similar to their English counterparts but may have origins from other languages that also use these names (e.g. when the French or Spanish name is largely indistinguishable from the English name).

For example, here is a map of Europe colour-coded by the most likely name etymology in Vietnamese (in several cases, such as Estonia and Latvia, where the name in Russian and English are similar, I made the judgement call of labelling it as Russian, as Lithuania is referred to as Lít-va, which is clearly based on the Russian Литва. Other cases for this are Armenia and Azerbaijan, where Georgia is also referred to as Gru-di-a, based on the Russian Грузия). Ireland and Iceland used to be referred to by Sino-Vietnamese names (Ái Nhĩ Lan/爱尔兰 and Băng Đảo/冰岛, respectively), but neither name is the most common usage at this point. Interestingly, both Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia had SIno-Vietnamese names (Nam Tư/南斯 and Tiệp Khắc/捷克, respectively).

European country name etymologies in Vietnamese

Here is the map for Asia. As in Europe, usage has changed over the years; for example, the Philippines used to be known as Phi Luật Tân/菲律宾, Myanmar as Miến Điện/缅甸, and Singapore as Xanh-ga-pua/Singapour. Cambodia may also occasionally be referred to as Cam-bốt/Cambodge, or, more rarely, using the pre-20th century name, Cao Miên/高棉. Thailand is an interesting case, as Vietnam uses Thái Lan/泰兰 instead of the name that China currently uses, which is 泰國/Thái Quốc.

Asian country name etymologies in Vietnamese

These maps were labelled to the best of my knowledge, so please let me know if I got anything wrong!

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