Exonym - what you probably call 'Roma'

I was intrigued by the concept of Location vs. Locality posed at EarthCode.com. Location is the latitude and longitude that mark a spot, or the address of a building. Locality is the 'area' that is local to you, and is much less defined: downtown Detroit, Northern Virginia, East Coast.

Locality also varies scope depending on what you're talking about. Are you physically going to a restaurant? You probably are looking fairly close. Do you want an update on news? Then the larger metro area is more interesting. Weather? You're looking at national regions (or local too, if you live near interesting geographical features).

But what do you call it?


To add to the concept, or confusion, is what people refer to these localities as. Is it: NoVA ('no-vah'), Northern Virginia, or just DC? And what would a tourist guide from Madagascar refer to it as?

Of course, English speakers are often have it a little easier because many locations have an English name - even if the location itself isn't an English speaking location. Of course, this happens all of the time in other languages as well for English locations. But you probably recognize Roma is Rome, and España, is Spain. However, do you know where Vereinigte Staaten is? Or what about 中國 (Zhōngguó)?

We're constantly referring to locations by names we've given them and not as they're known by the people that live there. The term for giving a name for a location that isn't used by the locals at that location is an exonym. This is what Wikipedia has to say on the subject:

An exonym is a name for a place that is not used within that place by the local inhabitants, or a name for a people or language, that is not used by the people or language to which it refers.

The name that a location is referred to by the locals is an endonym.

What is interesting looking at exonyms is that they are a marker of levels of foreign involvement in the region. As cities and areas became colonized or visited by outside people, they would typically be bequethed a name in the new language. Some of these names would just be used by the visitors, but in many cases, for long periods of time this exonym would be the official name of the city. For example, look at former Soviet states or India (Bhārata Gaṇarājya).

There was a lot of this in New Zealand as well, where the Pakeha (Europeans) would bestow English names to the large ports and coastal cities. But as you venture out of the cities and leave Auckland or Christchurch, you start passing Whangarei, Tonagariro, or Oamarau.

For a demonstration of some variations of the names in Europe, check out the Interactive Map of EUROPE and database of exonyms.

We can all just get along


Internationalization of applications has long been a difficult task and subject. It is made even more relevant as the internet, and websites, becomes widely available in many more countries. Users speaking their native languages will want to view maps of their localities, using the endonyms, localized names.

This will be especially important for projects like OpenStreetMap that seeks to create a global map, for the people. There are projects in many other, non-English speaking, countries that are doing similar projects for their own regions, and presumably in their own languages.

And excellent example is the Mumbai FreeMap that seeks to "develop an open-access spatial data infrastructure, and a set of simple tools and applications in localised in Indian languages, for knowledge transfer and participatory urban planning by communities and citizens in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region."

How do you find all the names for a location? Flickr geocoding leverages people's own terminology for location and maps it to a location. So a photo taken by an English speaker in Germany may be labelled: Germany, Munich. Whereas taken by a native German speaker may be labelled: Deutschland, München. Together, these tags describe the same location, but with the exonym and endonym.

So when developing web applications, in particular geographic services, keep in mind who your users will be and how they will use your tools. They may be locals and want to use their own names, or they may be visitors or virtual tourists and interested in learning more about the world outside their window.

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About the Author

Andrew Turner is an advocate of open standards and open data. He is actively involved in many organizations developing and supporting open standards, including OpenStreetMap, Open Geospatial Consortium, Open Web Foundation, OSGeo, and the World Wide Web Consortium. He co-founded CrisisCommons, a community of volunteers that, in coordination with government agencies and disaster response groups, build technology tools to help people in need during and after a crisis such as an earthquake, tsunami, tornado, hurricane, flood, or wildfire.