For some reason, I have always been fascinated by the subject of topographic exonyms, that is, the names by which places are known in languages other than the local ones. Perhaps it’s because, in my multilingual upbringing, I had to learn what places were called in the various languages around me. Or perhaps not.
About year ago I wrote a post proposing that the city that until the 1920s was known in English as Lemberg should continue to be so called, rather than by the hard-to-pronounce Slavic alternatives Lwów, L’vov or L’viv. And a number of years ago (in 2007) I wrote one surveying the pattern of English names of cities in Europe, and finding that, except in northern Europe (approximately north of the 52nd parallel), historically important cities are often known by names derived from French, from Bruges to Belgrade, from Lisbon to Prague, from Seville to Athens.
I want to explore two aspects of this nomenclature, one having to do with the form of the name and the other with the shift over the years from French-based to native names, specifically in German-speaking territory.
The formal aspect I want to look at has to do with names that, in French, have a “silent” e in the final syllable. In most cases this e is retained in English: Seville, Rome, Naples, Florence, Belgrade, Prague. In a few cases it is dropped: Lisbonne → Lisbon, Ratisbonne → Ratisbon, Athenes → Athens, Brusselles → Brussels. Note, in the last two examples, that I am using the older French spellings (Middle French) from which the English forms are derived: no accent marks, and no replacement of ss by x (which is due to a misreading of a Medieval scribal symbol). Such dropping is consistent with what also happened with many common nouns: charte → chart, masse → mass, and so on.
And in a few other cases the final -e became –a. The most obvious examples of this are Geneva, Saragossa and Vienna; but it may well be that such names as Barcelona and Padua are derived from French Barcelone and Padoue by this process. Now, I am not aware of any common nouns that got changed like this, but several French princesses named Mathilde, Isabelle or Henriette Marie turned, on becoming queens of England (or Great Britain), into Mat(h)ilda, Isabella or Henrietta Maria. I am not sure why this happened, but the process may have been the same as the one operating on place-names.
Now, the number of French-derived names of German cities was once much larger than today. Nowadays, in Germany proper, only Cologne, Munich and Nuremberg are still used, perhaps because the German names all have umlauts and, in the days before computer typing, inserting umlauts was too much trouble. There is also, of course, Vienna, which is too well-known to undergo a name change, and, in Switzerland, Berne and Lucerne. (Strasbourg, while historically German, is actually French; Fribourg is primarily French; and Luxembourg is officially French.)
With the help of the Google Ngram Viewer, it’s possible to follow the evolution of the retreat of the French names of other cities in favor of the German ones. We find, for example, that Leipzig began to surpass Leipsic around 1865, perhaps because, the city being a major commercial and educational center, communication by telegraph was simpler if there was no ambiguity about spelling. Basel becomes commoner than Basle (the old French spelling, modern Bâle) around 1897, possibly because the first Zionist Congress, which was held there in 1896, had German (the language of its organizer, Theodor Herzl) as its working language, and the English-language reporters who covered it were more attuned to German than to French. Mainz passes Mayence in 1900, and Speyer passes Spires (French Spire, but the English addition of –s to French names is also evidenced in Lyons and Marseilles) in 1908. But Regensburg does not beat Ratisbon until 1935, Aachen passes Aix-la-Chapelle in 1940, and Frankfort (French Francfort) doesn’t seem to yield to Frankfurt until the end of World War II, 1945. It may be that Frankfort, Kentucky, added to the popularity of that name; when I set Frankfurt am Main against Frankfort on the Main the former passes the latter in 1925.
It might be interesting to check these results against the New York Times Article Archive, which goes back to 1851 and therefore covers the whole period during which these changes took place. But that’s a task for another day.