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Many place names in English are anglicizations/transliterations of their native names. Of those, many place names in Asia seem to have undergone a change over the past few decades: they've gone from a more anglicized name to a name more faithfully transliterating the original. For example:

  • the city with Marathi name मुंबई ("mumbaī"), formerly most commonly called Bombay, is now most commonly called Mumbai;
  • the city with Bengali name কলকাতা ("kôlkata"), formerly most commonly called Calcutta, is now most commonly (or also commonly) called Kolkata;
  • the city with Mandarin name 北京 ("běijīng"), formerly most commonly called Peking, is now most commonly called Beijing; and
  • the country with Arabic name عراق ("ʿirāq"), formerly most commonly called /ɑjˈɹæk/, is now most commonly called /iˈɹak/.

Why has the country with Khmer name កម្ពុជា ("gampuchea") gone in the opposite direction? Formerly most commonly called Kampuchea, it's now most commonly called Cambodia. What historical influences effected this change?

  • There are many questions in one. Each name has its own history. You may certainly find some basic info even in Wikipedia: Renaming of cities in India, Beijing. As per Kampuchea, its name has been merely changed for political reasons. From the linguistic standpoint, the original names have not been changed; only transliteration did. If you need historical references, History.SE may be of a better help. – bytebuster Dec 29 '14 at 11:50
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    bytebuster, the only question here is about Cambodia's names. And it's about the English name, not the Khmer name, yes. The Wikipedia page you link to doesn't really give a reason for the change in the English name. – msh210 Dec 29 '14 at 16:52
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    That is an outstandingly written question -- I learned as much reading it as I will from any of the answers! – Marc Cenedella Jan 1 '15 at 15:34
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The name in English (as used in the media) started as Cambodia, and changed briefly during the 70's and 80's after the fall of the Lon Nol government. The name "Kampuchea" went the way of the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese governments of the country, and can be seen as making a break with those regimes. English usage reflects French usage, so current "Kingdom of Cambodia" = "Royaume du Cambodge", "State of Cambodia" = "État du Cambodge", "People's Republic of Kampuchea" = "République populaire du Kâmpŭchéa" and so on. General use in English (as opposed to official governmental use or use by news agencies) did not follow that political trend, and has remained "Cambodia" throughout.

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I believe that at the core this is prescriptivism as applied to orthography, though more examples would be needed to derive a definitive conclusion. In your first three examples1, these are official in some way or another: Kolkata and Mumbai were officially changed by India's government to better match local languages, while Beijing is the Hanyu Pinyin romanization, the official romanization scheme according to the Chinese government, and also later by ISO.

The case is similar for Cambodia. In 1989, it's name was officially changed to the State of Cambodia from the previous People's Republic of Kampuchea. This change was made while the Vietnamese-backed government was still in power. Its unclear, but based on my brief readings, it seems the change was part of wider reforms which were aimed at restoring Cambodia to pre-Khmer Rouge times and improving international image. In 1993, the monarchy was restored, and along with it the official name previously used under the king, the Kingdom of Cambodia.

English does not automatically have to accept official declarations from countries speaking other languages (note that English is an official language of India however). However, unlike other languages, such as French and German, English has no comprehensive language academy such as the Académie française or Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung. This might give English a better chance at accepting the official declarations of countries speaking other languages. Compare:

  • English: Beijing, French: Pékin2, German: Peking
  • English: Kolkata, French: Calcutta, German: Kalkutta
  • English: Mumbai, French: Bombay2, German: Mumbai

Of course, there will always be exceptions. For example Ivory Coast requested they be referred to as Côte d'Ivoire with little success outside official diplomatic communication. Additionally, there's the Burma → Myanmar change, with partial acceptance since that government's legitimacy is questioned. As for Cambodia, it only ever used "Kampuchea" officially between 1975 and 1989.


  1. Iraq's a little different in the sense that there's no orthographic change here.
  2. These are officially recommended.
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