Why aren’t all foreign city names translated into Italian?

In Italian, some foreign cities are called by their original names (New York, San Francisco, Madrid…), while others are translated (London –> Londra, Paris –> Parigi, New Delhi –> Nuova Delhi) and so on.

Is there a rule to know which names to translate and which to leave unchanged? Not really… In any case… Let’s clear things up!

NAMES of FOREIGN CITIES in Italian

In this article, we’ll discuss the reasons why the names of some foreign cities have remained unchanged and why others have been translated in Italian!

As we were saying, there isn’t a definite rule that determines which names to translate (and which not to), but it’s based on customs tied to historical or practical reasons.

Main reasons why the names of some cities have been translated:

1. Latin

First, we should say that Italian, along with other Roman languages, has clearly been influenced by Latin. Therefore, it has largely inherited the Latin etymology also for the names of cities, which have remained virtually unchanged in their final form.

For instance, the Lutetia Parisiorum form (ancient name for Paris in Caesar’s work De Bello Gallico) was later changed to “Parigi”: despite some phonetic changes, the influence is considerable.

The same applies for “Barcellona”, which derives from Latin Barcinone(m).

London (“Londra”) was also already known to the Latins as Londinium, although in this case the Italian adaptation distanced itself somewhat from the original Latin version, probably because of the way it was transmitted orally by people over time.

2. The most recent history and Fascism

What happened then in the most recent history?

Generally speaking, all the names of the cities and countries with which Italy had contacts throughout history were adapted to Italian phono-morphological rules.

This is because in the past the idea of an open mindset towards foreign languages was not common, few spoke them and therefore, when foreign cities had to be mentioned (because they had relations with Italy), they were translated or adapted, to make them more understandable and pronounceable by native speakers.

This practice remained in force until the 20th century, and it became stronger during fascism with its strong nationalist imprint.

In July 1923, Mussolini eliminated bilingual teaching in Slovenian schools and changed the denomination of places in much of Northern Italy, deleting non-Italian words in the cities’ names, among other things.

That’s why the Italian language has cases such as Colonia but Dortmund in Germany, Nizza but Cannes in France, and Edimburgo but Glasgow in Scotland.

You can easily guess which one in these couples had more relations with Italy.

3. Lack of characters

In other cases, translation (or adaption) is resorted to due to the lack of certain original characters of the foreign name within the Italian alphabet.

For instance, this is the case of Copenaghen, which is the adaption of København.

The reason for that is the lack of some Danish alphabetic letters in Italian: therefore, the Danish form has been adapted to Italian demands, while not straying too far from the original form.

4. English

Anglo-American toponyms (= place names), on the other hand, remain mainly in their original form.

Why?

For various reasons… Certainly because many of these cities were founded fairly recently. And then, because of the increasing spread of the English language in Italy.

This is the case of cities like Sydney, Washington, Chicago, Cambridge, and the vast majority in English-speaking countries. 

And New York? Is it called “Nuova York” in Italian? Well, this form had a decent spread during the last century but it’s now definitely in disuse.

The case of Philadelphia is the most interesting case among the American toponyms: we can find an “Italianised” version (Filadelfia), thanks to its Greek origins. This form continues to endure, although the increasing spread of English and the frequent use of the word in films, songs, and commercial products means that the most commonly used form is now Anglo-Saxon.

5. The suffix -burgo

Many toponyms of Northern Europe end in -burgo in their Italian adaptions: San Pietroburgo, Edimburgo, Brandeburgo, Friburgo

The suffix, deriving from the same Latin word that produced the term “borgo” in Italian, exists in many other languages, such as English (-borough), French (-bourg) and German (-burg).

In short, the Italian version was only used for translating those names that already contained the suffix in the original language.

If you found this article interesting, you shouldn’t miss the lesson about the Italian geography.

If instead you want to learn all the Italian swear words (and their polite alternatives!), you can find them in our book “Parolacce… e come evitarle!“. Don’t miss the opportunity to understand native speakers and talk like them!

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