I stumbled across the fact that in many cases city names are different across different languages. For example the british capital London is spelled Londres in French and Spanish, but also London in German. That's the case for many other different cities, for example Milan in Italy is called Mailand in German and Milano in Italian. I think there are countless other examples for this, also for different countries.

But on the other hand there are also a lot of cities and countries where there only exist one common name, for example I never heard a lot of different names for US cities. Is there an explanation why for some cities there are language specific names and for others there is only one common name? Does it depend on the historical importance or are there some rules for this. There's some discussion on this wikipedia page about naming conventions: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Naming_conventions_(geographic_names)

3 Answers 3


External names for some foreign toponyms are called exonyms (see here). The reason the exonyms can be different from the endonyms (i.e. the indigenous toponyms) is to be sought for in the history. Linguistically, it depends on how long the name of a certain city was known to the speakers of a certain language. Some cities — like Milan — were founded in the antiquity and have been known by everyone for centuries since then. The ancestors of the contemporary Germans borrowed the name of this city already in the 1st millennium A.D. and it kept evolving together with the general evolution of the German language for a very long period. Time provokes phonetic changes. Latin Mediolanum became Mailand thanks to a folk etymology: the ending -lan (a Celtic word for 'valley') has been transformed in land, which means 'land' in German and was possibly perceived as more appropriate for a city name.

It is interesting to analyse the form a city name had at moment of the borrowing. Sometimes a borrowing depends on some intermediate language. For example, the name of The Hague (Den Haag, in Dutch) sounds very different in Italian: L'Aia. This is because it was borrowed in the Middle Age from Dutch to French and from French to Italian. Note that the French variant must reflect some dialectal variant of the Dutch name, where the final -g weakens into a glide, rather to the nowadays standard fricative.

English has special names for the most important Italian cities, in terms of the medieval commercial routes. Thus, there are special exonyms for Rome, Milan, Genoa, Venice, which were all obviously important cities, but also for Livorno which used to be called Leghorn: it is a small town today but was of great importance in the past. Other small towns of the medieval Italy don't have special exonyms in English because, historically, they were not important enough in the past, while today they are simply borrowed in the official Italian spelling.

Leghorn is the result of a folk etymology. In other cases, English exonyms reflect the Latin form of some Italian toponyms (e.g. Apulia instead of Puglia; see the list here).


It tends to depend on the history on the name itself, not "historical importance" of the city per se, although it is definitely plausible that, generally speaking, cities with a more complicated naming history that spans various languages and civilization are in fact more important.

There are no hard and fast "rules" at all, but I can provide some examples of things that have happened.

  • A single placename can evolve differently in different languages, just like any other element of the language. The city of Cologne was called Colonia in Latin (meaning colony), and the current English name still reflects that clearly enough. However, the name in German is Köln, which reflects the very same etymology, but sounds rather different at this point. Italian calls it Colonia like the original Latin.
  • A name can be borrowed into another language and, in the process of becoming an integrated loanword (which is more likely to happen if the placename it refers to is often mentioned in the recipient language), adapt to the recipient language's phonotactics. For instance, the city of Stockholm, which is also Stockholm in Swedish, is Stoccolma in Italian, reflecting both standard Italian spelling and its phonotactics requiring a final vowel. Spanish goes further and calls it Estocolmo, as the /st/ cluster is not valid at the start of a word.
  • A name's transliteration can change, sometimes resulting in pronunciation changes in languages that base the pronunciation on that. The city of Beijing used to be called Peking in English, and the new spelling usually corresponds to a different pronunciation by English speakers, but the two names are, in fact, just different romanizations of the same original Mandarin 北京, and no actual pronunciation change occurred in China itself when the preferred romanization changed.
  • A foreign language may retain an older version of a placename that stopped being used locally. The city of Istanbul has been called Κωνσταντινούπολη in Greek (corresponding to Constantinople in English) for several centuries, but locals began using the locution εις την πόλιν ("to the city") to refer to it, which developed into the current Turkish name İstanbul. While English stopped referring to the city as Constantinople and started calling it Instabul instead, partly due to pressure from the Turkish government in the early 20th century, Greek usually retains the older name.
  • A foreign language may use a version of a placename that corresponds more closely to the regional language currently or historically employed at that location than to the official language of its country. The city of Milan is, as mentioned, called Milano in Italian, but it is in fact called Milan in the Milanese dialect of Lombard, although foreign names can usually be traced directly to the Latin name Mediolanum.
  • Lastly, a complete exonym might be employed, meaning that a language's term for a city might be completely unrelated to any local name, either current or historical. I do not believe this actually happens very often with cities, being more often found with names of countries and people: Germany, for instance, comes from Latin Germania, and French calls it Allemagne, both unrelated to German Deutschland (which is, instead, related to the English word Dutch and the Italian tedesco, used to refer to peoples).

The normal situation is that locations have a local name in the local language, and that is how the place is known. Certain places become sufficiently famous that they become regularly known to other people, who speak other languages, and the pronunciation may change for them because of the rules of that language. The city "Washington" [ˈwɑʃɪŋtən] is pronounced [wásindoni] by speakers of the language Logoori for that reason. Once a word is adopted into a language, it becomes subject to the rules of that language, and over time, the local pronunciation versus the "foreign" pronunciation can diverge. These kinds of independent developments explain the change of Londinium into "London", "Londres", "Londýn" (and likewise may explain the development of some other word into Latin Londinium, though we don't know what the ultimate source of the place name is).

In some cases, there may be competing local names especially when there are two prominent ethnic groups, each with their own name. The town of Kautokeino has two local names, Kautokeino (in Norwegian) and Guovdageaidnu (in North Saami) – the Norwegian name (by which the town is generally known) is a phonological adaptation of the indigenous name. In the case of Vitoria-Gasteiz (now known with both names though one can find signs with just "Vitoria" and ones with "Vitoria" painted out), it seems to have to do with there being two places merged into one, with Vitoria having been a Spanish location and Gastehiz being a Basque one.

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