Friday, 19 February 2010

Dictionary fail

There are certain nationalities we don’t really have a proper word for in English, or at least feel pretty uncertain about. I’m talking demonyms, or gentilics if you prefer. What’s the name for someone from Afghanistan? An Afghan surely, but we often hear Afghani, presumably on the model of Pakistani. There is also of course the afghani, the unit of currency of Afghanistan, but dictionaries do not tend to recognise it as an adjective or a nationality.

Especially problematic are Francophone ex-colonies where English just uses the French word; there’s a pattern of sorts with Senegalese, Congolese, Togolese,¹ but there are many other possibilities. Seychellois, but Chadian and Burundian. Benin — Beninese or Beninois? Comoros? — Comorian, but I had to look it up; I could have believed Comorese, and there’s some evidence for that idea on Google if not in dictionaries.² Madagascar? — Malagasy (not to be confused with Monegasque which means from Monaco). Burkina Faso? “Burkina Fasan” gets over 1000 Google hits, but looks ridiculous; Burkinabé seems to be the word even in English. Côte d’Ivoire? — Ivorian, but how do you pronounce it, “eye-VORE-ian” or “ee-VWAR-ian”?

Zaire/Zaïre no longer exists (read all about it in that seminal work of “nostalgic geography”, Whatever Happened to Tanganyika?, if you can still find a copy), and perhaps linguistically speaking we should be glad of that, but what was the adjective: Zairean? Zairian? Zairese? Zairois? All with or without dots above the i, of course. The Central African Republic, perhaps the world’s most soulless and inconvenient country name, is a puzzle. Surely not “Central African Republican”; Wikipedia says it’s just “Central African” but that’s hopelessly ambiguous. We can only hope they revert one day to Oubangui-Chari/Ubangi-Shari, or perhaps Ubangi, or even just Bangui after the capital — presumably that works for Mexico and Panama and Guatemala. And/or Andorra.

But I digress, as ever. It’s often when a country is thrust from obscurity, and seemingly always for bad reasons, into the spotlight of the news that we become aware of these uncertainties. Niger has always been an odd one. The river is the Niger (“NIE-dger”) but the country is Niger (“nee-ZHAIR”, à la française). But what on earth do you call an inhabitant of the place? Not a Nigerian, that’s someone from Nigeria. The word is Nigerien, or even Nigérien “nee-ZHAIR-ian”, a strange mixture of French and English sounds. Again, with no disrespect to either nation, it’s an inconvenient confusion. You’d certainly want to double-check your travel doocuments; I once saw a travel agent confess on national television to booking someone onto a flight to Abidjan, the capital of Côte d’Ivoire, when they wanted to go to the Caucasian republic of Azerbaijan.

In the light of recent news events, Collins Dictionaries might want to think about revising the entry in their online French dictionary (right). The French for Nigerian is not nigérien, that means from Niger. As the French-to-English entry shows. In this electronic age, it’s all too easy to catch dictionaries out like this.

¹ Oddly perhaps, we also have cases like Marshallese, though the Marshall Islands have no French influence that I know of. There’s also Ceylonese, presumably connected with Sinhalese, and OED records various oddities and archaisms such as Tyrolese and Bengalese, and even Swahilese for Swahili.
² In Dictionarese?

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