Saturday, September 13, 2008

A New Geography: A Proposal

I can tell you with absolute certainty the date that I learned that Germans refer to the nation that is home to the Eiffel Tower as "Frankreich." It was January 4, 1993. The reason I know this to be true is that it was the day after the Buffalo Bills engineered the greatest comeback in NFL history, rallying from a 35-3 deficit to the Houston Oilers in a play-off game to win in overtime 41-38. The Bills starting quarterback at the time was future Hall of Famer Jim Kelly, but he was not the one who led the comeback. Kelly was hurt, so his back-up stepped in, a fellow by the name of Frank Reich.

When I learned in German class the next day that Frank Reich was also a sovereign nation, my first reaction was sheer amusement. What next, Germans referring to Canada as "Brettfavre"? My second reaction was bewilderment. Why don't they just call it France like we do? I wondered. My third reaction was also a bit of a shock, as I realized that I never questioned why we didn't just refer to their country as "Deutschland." Despite studying "Deutsch" for a couple years at that point (in theory anyway), I had just accepted as axiomatic that "Germany" was our translation of the word "Deutschland." But now I had a question: what would be so hard about just referring to that nation as "Deutschland"?

And I'm afraid that question is still largely unanswered. I know there are legitimate linguistic explanations for why we say "Japan" instead of "Nippon," "India" instead of "Bharat," or "Spain" instead of "Espana." But I think it is rather obvious that underlying the linguistic explanations are cultural reasons. It used to be common practice to force immigrants into this country to Anglicize their names. That impulse doesn't exist anymore. Even Lou Dobbs wouldn't dare to suggest that anyone named "Juan" should change their name to "John."

Therefore, I don't believe there would be a lot of theoretical opposition to referring to nations by the names nations use for themselves (for lack of a better term, let's refer to this proposal as the "Defence of Cultural Pluralism in Nomenclature Movement"). The problem is more practical; specifically, the challenge is to overcome inertia. Once you've printed maps a certain way for centuries, that way becomes pretty entrenched. The effort to downgrade Pluto from planet-status drew such a popular uprising that it seems possible that the effort to re-write geography maps may lead to armed revolt.

But then again, maybe not. Geography is one of the areas in which U.S. students tend to test rather poorly. Supposedly a fifth of Americans can't identify America on a map. If we never learned geography correctly in the first place, how about we all go back to school, and embark on a national resolution to re-learn it, but with the intention of re-naming countries to more accurately reflect what they call themselves? And should we need more inspiration to get this done, I propose that whoever wins the presidential election nominate a "Geography Czar" to oversee the process. And I have the candidate in mind-- someone known for overcoming long odds, and someone who in recent years has carved out a niche in the motivational speaker circuit. Frank Reich, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.


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