Monday, June 15, 2020

Foreign City Names in Italian – Why They Are Sometimes in English

The question

Did you ever wonder why in the Italian language some city names are “Italianized” while others are not? Why do Italians say and write Berlino (for Berlin) yet say Amsterdam? Why do they use Londra for London, yet use New York (city) as is? Well, we wondered too and here’s what we found out.

The answer is contained in this Accademia Della Crusca entry, Toponimi stranieri in italiano and it is this in a nutshell: up until 1900, the names of cities with which Italy had frequent contact were adapted to Italian spelling and pronunciation. After 1900, the adaptation of names diminished but already established names stayed around. For example, in the neighboring France, the much older, larger, and historically important town of Nice is referred to as Nizza, while the smaller and relatively newer town of Cannes doesn’t change its name in Italian.

Based on the Crusca article, we went looking for city names and generated two lists below. The first list gives cities that have an Italian spelling and pronunciation. The second list give cities that have an English spelling (and an Italian pronunciation). 
An observation about pronouncing English names when talking with an Italian. Even if you are English native-tongue and give a perfectly acceptable English pronunciation of an English or American place name that doesn’t change spelling between English and Italian, you will get a blank stare and possible correction when the Italian person you are talking to realizes what you are saying. For an Italian, the English name must be pronounced the Italian way, observing the correct vocal sounds and double consonants pronunciations. For example, it’s See – àt – tull for Seattle, giving equal wait to both Ts in an almost exaggerated style. Montana is Mòan – tah – nah.

In this post, we are dealing only with city names, but it seems reasonable to assume the same idea applies to country names as well.

Good sources for names and stressed syllables are Rai’s Dizionario italiano multimediale e multilingue d’Ortografia e di Prounucia (DOP) and the Dizionario Italiano Olivetti.

City names with Italian spelling

The below have an Italian spelling.

Key: English city name (country name) – Italian city (country name) 

For Italian names in the list, the stressed syllable is indicated that would not normally be written. 

* designates a city not exactly “Italianized” but that has a modified form, see reference 1.

Alexandria (Egypt) – Alessàndria (L’Egìtto)
Algiers (Algiera) – Algèri (L’Algerìa) 
Athens (Greece) – Atène (La Grècia) 
Barcelona (Spain) – Barcellóna* (La Spàgna) 
Berlin (Germany) – Berlìno (La Germània)
Bern (Switzerland) – Bèrna (La Svìzzera) 
Brussels (Belgium) – Bruxelles, Brussèlle (Il Bèlgio) 
Bucharest (Romania) – Bùcarest (La Romanìa) 
Cologne (Germany) – Colònia (La Germània) 
Copenhagen (Denmark) – Copenàghen* (Danimàrca) 
Dublin (Ireland) – Dublìno (L’Irlànda)
Edinburgh (Scotland) – Edimbùrgo (La Scòzia) 
Frankfurt (Germany) – Francofòrte sul Meno (La Germània) 
Geneva (Switzerland) – Ginévra (La Svìzzera) 
Gibraltar (United Kingdom) – Gibiltèrra (Il Regno Unito) 
The Hague (Netherlands) – L'Àia (I Pasesi Bassi) 
Havana (Cuba) – l'Avàna (La Repubblica di Cuba) 
Jeddah (Saudia Arabia) – Gèdda (L'Aràbia Saudìta)
Jerusalem (Israel) – Gerusalèmme (Israèle) 
Kraków (Poland) – Cracòvia (La Polònia) 
Leipzig (Germany) - Lipsia (La Germània)
Lisbon (Portgual) – Lisbóna (Il Portogàllo) 
Lyon (France) – Lióne (La Frància) 
London (England) – Lóndra (L’Inghiltèrra) 
Marseille (France) – Marsìglia (La Frància) 
Moscow (Russia) – Mòsca (La Rùssia) 
Munich (Germany) – Mònaco di Bavièra (La Germània) 
Nice (France) – Nìzza (La Frància) 
Paris (France) – Parìgi (La Frància) 
Peking/Beijing (China) – Pechìno (La Cìna) 
Prague (Czech Republic) – Pràga (La Repubblica Ceca) 
Saint Petersburg (Russia) – San Pietrobùrgo (La Rùssia) 
Salzburg (Austria) – Salisbùrgo (L’Àustria) 
Tunis (Tunisia) – Tùnisi (La Tunisìa) 
Zaragoza (Spain) – Saragòzza (La Spàgna) 
Seville (Spain) – Sivìglia (La Spàgna) 
Stockholm (Sweden) – Stoccólma (La Svèzia) 
Strasbourg (France) – Strasbùrgo (La Frància) 
Tolouse (France) – Tolósa (La Frància) 
Warsaw (Poland) – Varsàvia (La Polònia) 
Zürich (Switzerland) – Zurìgo (La Svìzzera)

City names with English spelling

These city names do not change spelling in Italian. How they are pronounced is another story.

Amsterdam, Beirut, Budapest, Cambridge, Cairo, Cannes, Chicago, Dortmund, Dubai, Glasgow, Istanbul, Madrid, Málaga, Marbella, New York, Oslo, Sydney, Tunisia, Vienna, Washington


[1] Accademia Della Crusca: Toponimi stranieri in italiano
[2] Rai Dizionario italiano multimediale e multilingue d’Ortografia e di Prounucia (DOP)
[3] Dizionario Italiano Olivetti
[4] People and Place Names in Italian: Correct Pronunciation

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