What’s in a name? On pronouncing difficult country names

When I traveled through Southeast Asia some years ago, I was amazed by the number of fellow backpackers who ridiculed me whenever I pronounced the “s” in Laos. Apparently, I was supposed to pronounce it “Lao,” just like locals do.

The thing is, those same “s”-dropping travelers never insisted on calling Bangkok by its proper name (“Krung Thep Maha Nakhon”) when they were in Thailand — and when they recalled journeys to East Asia, they mentioned Japan and Korea, not “Nihon-koku” and “Daehan Minguk”. But Laos was “Lao,” and anyone with the temerity to pronounce the “s” ran the risk of being branded a travel-greenhorn in the backpacker haunts of Vang Vieng and Muang Sing.

Oddly enough, Laos seems to be the only place where backpackers are rigid fundamentalists when it comes to nation-state pronunciation. Rarely do you find such tenacious commitment to cultural-linguistic accuracy in the travel cliques of Misr (Egypt), Shqipërisë (Albania), or Suomi (Finland). (One possible exception might be Latin America, where otherwise normal patter among English-speaking travelers is frequently offset with trilled r’s and h-sounding g’s when mentioning places like Honduras and Argentina.)

What makes Laos an exception? Since the Westernized pronunciation is just one consonant away from the local pronunciation, my guess is lazy opportunism among backpackers hoping to showcase their cultural knowledge. Whereas referring to Morocco as “al-Maghrebia” or Greenland as “Kalaallit Nunaat” would make you seem like a jackass show-off to fellow travelers, calling Laos “Lao” allows you to avoid confusing your compatriots while still insinuating that you’ve been in-country long enough to pronounce the place as locals do. Hence, in the goofy realm of backpacker pecking order (where displays of cultural expertise reign supreme, yet all pretensions must be subtle), Laos-pronunciation is the perfect shorthand for distinguishing salty wanderers from newbies.Interestingly, Laos provides a good example for how complicated things can get when dissecting the names of nation-states. The “s” in Laos, for example, dates back to the late 1800′s, when a number of largely autonomous, mainly Lao-speaking kingdoms (including Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champasak) were united under French colonial rule. The “s” was silent in French pronunciation, and only came into spoken use when Anglophones intoned it according to their own rules (much as we do when pronouncing “Paris”). Perhaps the most famous mispronunciation of “Laos” came in 1962, when President Kennedy called the nation “Lay-oss” — reportedly out of apprehension that the American people would resist sending military aid to a country that sounded like the singular of “lice.”

Though it could be easy to write off the “s” in Laos as an insidious remnant of Western imperialism, place-names in Europe are similarly indicative of bygone intrusions. When a Cardiff-born traveler refers to himself as “Welsh,” he is actually using a Germanic word that means “foreigner” (as opposed to the Celtic word for Welsh, “Cymry,” which means “compatriot”). Similarly, the official Laotian name for Laos — “Meuang Lao” — probably sounds a tad strange to the 31% of native-born citizens (including the Hmong, Dao, and Khmu) who are not ethnically Lao.

British historian Norman Davies has noted that place-names aren’t necessarily a fixed concept. “They change over time,” he wrote in his 1996 book Europe: A History. “And they vary according to the language and the perspective of the people who use them. They are the intellectual property of their users, and as such have caused endless conflicts. They can be the object of propaganda, of tendentious wrangling, of rigid censorship, even of wars. In reality, where several variants exist, one cannot speak of correct or incorrect forms.”

This in mind, I’ve decided I won’t worry too much about the “correct” way to pronounce Laos. Outside of backpacker circles, I’ve found that native Laotians don’t mind when I pronounce the “s” in Laos — just like citizens of ” Ellīnikī́ Dīmokratía” understand when I make reference to “Greece,” and residents of “Al Mamlaka al Urduniya al Hashemiyah” don’t scold me for calling their country “Jordan.” Were I conversing in Lao or Greek or Arabic this might be a different matter — but host cultures tend to understand that non-fluent outsiders have their own names for things. When I’m asked by local people to use local pronunciations (or when it makes communication easier) I’m happy to drop my Westernized vocabulary for something more culturally correct. This is, in fact, a normal part of the travel-education process.

I suppose it’s also part of the travel process to foist that linguistic correctness on other travelers, but this can sometimes get obnoxious. Just as rose by any other name would smell as sweet, Laos will remain of terrific place to travel, regardless of whether or not you pronounce the “s” in the company of your fellow backpackers.

[flickr image via Ian @ The Paperboy]