In a recent interview in Salon, the filmmaker Agnieszka Holland is quoted, in reference to her new film In Darkness, as follows:

When I read the story I thought it would be great to try to create a taste of Lwow, even without showing the city — to show its spirit. We wanted to film in Lviv, but it was more expensive than Poland.

True, earlier in the paper there is a parenthetical reference to “Lwow, now Lviv,” but to a reader who might have missed it it would not be obvious, from the quoted statement, that the two toponyms (which should actually be written Lwów and L’viv) in the quotation refer to the same city.

I recently also read Aleksandar Hemon‘s novel The Lazarus Project, where the city is called only Lviv (though another city appears in different parts of the narration, taking place in different time periods, under the names Czernowitz and Chernivts). Yet another recent book dealing with the same place, but specifically with its Jewish history is titled A Murder in Lemberg, using the city’s German/Yiddish name.

In fact, the city was generally known in English as Lemberg throughout the 19th, and well into the 20th century. It is so called not only in the Jewish Encyclopedia (1906) but also in the Catholic Encyclopedia (1907–1912), in the English-language Baedeker Guide to Austria-Hungary (1905) — all these references are available online — as well as news reports from World War I. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency used it as late as 1929, while during the Soviet period (1941–1990) it used the Russian name Lvov.

What gives? Why this compulsion to change the English names of cities in accordance with the preferred language of whoever is currently in control? We seem to do it only when this language changes. Elsewhere in Europe, in countries whose language has remained the same since the Middle Ages, historic cities often have English names that are quite different from their endonyms. In most cases these names are based on French, with the written form usually being the same as in French (Cologne, Munich, Prague, Belgrade, Seville, Turin, Milan, Florence, Rome, Naples) but sometimes slightly modified (Venice, Vienna, Geneva, Saragossa, Athens). In the north of Europe the names are either German-based (Copenhagen) or a hybrid of Germanic (German, Low German, Dutch) and French: Brussels (Brussel/Bruxelles), The Hague (Den Haag/La Haye), Warsaw (Warschau/Varsovie), Cracow (Krakau/Cracovie).

Historic cities in the Arab world are also not called in English by their Arabic names but by names that may be based on their Biblical form (Damascus, Tyre)  or on Italian (Tripoli, Aleppo, Cairo).

Why don’t we, then, stick with an easy-to-say German-based name like Lemberg instead of forcing ourselves to pronounce the very un-English combination /lv/ with a palatal /l/ (palatalized as [ʎ] in Russian and Ukrainian)? It’s what I intend to do from now on.

2 Responses to “Lemberg”

  1. James Woods Says:

    Dear Author,

    I disagree. Lwów was multicultural before WWII and depending on roots people use different names. I consider this as a sign of multicultural history. I am afraid that any unification will kill our memory.

    Best Regards,

  2. Coby Lubliner Says:

    I am talking about what to call the place in English. Jerusalem is also a multicultural city, and has been for millennia, but we don’t usually refer to it as Yerushalayim, or al Quds, or Hierosolyma, depending on whom we are writing about.

    In a review of the movie in question in the latest New Yorker, on the other hand, Lemberg is called Lvov, the Russian form, though there is no Russian point of view involved. I’m just asking for some consistency.

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