Exonym / Endonym

Just a quick bit of lexicon this morning:

Exonym [Greek – ἔξω, éxō, “out” + ὄνομα, ónoma, “name”]

An exonym is a name referring to an ethnic group (ethnonym), language (glossonym), place (toponym), or person that is used by people outside said group.  The United Nations defines exonym as the name used in a specific language for a geographical feature situated outside the area where that language is spoken, and differing in its form from the name used in an official or well-established language of that area where the geographical feature is located.

Endonym [Greek – ἔνδον, éndon, “within” + ὄνομα, ónoma, “name”]

An endonym is a name referring to an ethnic group (ethnonym), language (glossonym), place (toponym), or person that is used by people inside of said group.  The United Nations defines endonym as the name of a geographical feature in an official or well-established language occurring in that area where the feature is located.

Here are some examples of exonyms with their endonymic counterparts in English and their native languages:

China/Zhōngguó (中国), Dutch/Nederlands [ˈneːdərlɑnts], Greece/Hellas (Ελλάς), Germany/Deutschland, Gypsy/Romani, Moscow/Moskva (Москва), Japan/Nihon/Nippon (日本).

This phenomenon is not, unique to English:

Korea is referred to differently, depending on which Korea is doing the talking.  North Korea refers to “Korea” as Chosŏn (조선), but South Korea refers to it as Hanguk (한국) or Namhan (남한, 南韓 – “South Han”).  The official Korean name for the Republic of Korea is “Dae Han Minguk” (대한민국 – “The Republic of Korea”).  (There are other variations, but you get the picture.)

America is called beikoku (米国) in Japanese and the English language is called eigo (英語).  In China, America is called měiguó (美国) and the English language is yīngyǔ (英语).

Many exonyms were born as a result of the namer not understanding the namee’s language.  In Russian and other languages, for example, the word for “Germans” is Немцы (Nemtsy), which is derived from the word немой which means “mute.”  The accepted folk etymology is that the German language appeared so unintelligible to the Slavs that they dubbed them “mutes.”

In addition to Russian, this word is also used in the Arabic, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Hungarian, Slovak, Slovenian, Serbian, Polish, Romanian, Turkish, and Ukranian languages.  (Interestingly, a theory regarding the word “Slavic” suggests that it comes from slovo, meaning “word.”  This, again, differentiates between those with words and those without.)

Sioux is likely a shortened form of Nadouessioux, a proto-Algonquian word meaning “foreign-speaking.”  Berber comes from a Greek representation of gibberish (“bar-bar-bar”).  The list goes on and on.

Do you know any exonym/endonym combinations?  Please leave a comment and share them with us.



Grad School: The Musical

It’s been a while since I updated everyone (?) on how grad school is going.  So here it is:  It’s going.

I’m finishing up my final day and final paper(s) today.  I have a presentation and research proposal due today in my Second Language Acquisition course, and a literature review in another (due Friday).  After those are submitted, I’m done with my coursework.  Next semester will be spent working on my thesis and taking Chinese 101.

FTL (Feeling The Love)

Apparently, someone out there likes Silent Schwa. Silent Schwa wants you to know that Silent Schwa appreciates this.

Here’s an interesting language blog from one college student with enough time on his/her hands (what, anOTHer one? Just wait till they get a job!).

Actually, his/her blog SHOULD be their job because there’s some great stuff there – e.g. the “Facebook / Twitter – interdits” entry. Ca vaut le détour, franchement.

Silent Schwa thanks you for the love en Français.  BTW, I’m a he in case you were still wondering.  Also, I do have a job, albeit of the part-time student (read: slave labor) nature.



You’ve probably heard of synonyms (words that share the same meaning) and antonyms (words that mean the opposite of each other), but have you heard of contranyms?

A contranym is a word that has seemingly contradictory meanings.  Because of their two-faced nature, they are also sometimes referred to as “Janus words” after the two-faced Roman god.  In a nutshell1, we’re talking about a word that is its own antonym.  Contranyms do not necessarily need to be spelled the same way; those that sound alike, but are spelled differently, are called homophonic contranyms.

Some examples in English are:

  • 1shell (hard outer covering/remove hard outer covering)
    • Peanuts come in shells.
    • These peanuts have been shelled (i.e., the shells have been removed).
  • oral/aural2 (speech/hearing)
    • I have an oral (speaking) exam today.
    • I have an aural (hearing) exam today.
  • fast (speedy/not moving)
    • This car is fast.
    • Stand fast!
  • oversight (to miss/scrutiny)
    • That was an oversight on my part.
    • This program is under strict Congressional oversight.
  • strike (to hit/to miss)
    • Strike one!
    • He strikes the ball with the bat.

Another word that, through misuse, has become somewhat of a contranym is literal.  Some have (confusingly) come use the word to mean “figuratively” (e.g. “I literally died laughing”).  However, the original meaning also remains (e.g. “I am literally typing this on a MacBook Pro”).  Confusion ensues.  To mitigate this, I’ll sometimes write “literal-literal” and “figurative-literal” in blog posts.

While working on a translation today, I happened upon a contranym that appears to cross over linguistic lines:  yama.

Яма (yama): pit (Russian)

山 (yama): mountain (Japanese)

(Of course, because they are spelled differently, they are technically homophonic contranyms, but you already knew that.)

Do you know of any bilingual contranyms?  Please share them in the comments section and I’ll post them in a future article!


2Depending upon your regional dialect, you may pronounce these words differently.

Excuses, Excuses

For as long as I can remember, the prevailing ‘wisdom’ in language learning has been that children are far more capable of easily learning a language than adults.  In linguistic circles, this notion is know as the Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH).

In a non-academic nutshell, CPH suggests that there is a certain period, generally thought to run from early childhood until the early teen years (the exact period seems to vary, depending on whose work you read).  This period is said to coincide with the state of physical plasticity of the brain that starts to wane as adulthood approaches.  As such, it should be harder for adults to learn new languages than it might’ve been for them in youth.

CPH is, however, somewhat controversial in linguistics circles.  Some evidence exists to prove that it applies more to acquiring one’s First Language (L1) than to Second Language (L2).  Other evidence suggests that CPH implies that adults learning a language will never quite get the pronunciation/accent of acquired languages right, but that it doesn’t impede the learning of vocabulary, idiom, etc.  CPH definitely seems to have some implications.  Exactly which implications?  The jury still seems to be out on that.

Personally, CPH has always rubbed me the wrong way.  I learned 3 of my languages after the CPH had already run its course on me.  Professors have dismissed me, saying I’m an “outlier.”  Yet, I’ve known a lot of people who have acquired a second language well into adulthood and learned to speak it rather well.  Anecdotal evidence aside, a look at the current literature on CPH also seems to suggest that I may have been on to something.

I’ve always argued that adults have more language learning tools at their disposal than do children.  Adults already have a grammatical “matrix” built up upon which to “hang” new languages.  Adults already have life experience and the ability to recognize patterns.  Children are having to create (or discover) this “matrix” as they acquire their L1.

Children definitely have an advantage in that they don’t really see what they are doing as “learning.”  No stress = ease of acquisition and retention.  Adults can get hung up on perfecting grammar and pronunciation, while children don’t mind that their utterances aren’t perfect.  “Why can Superman can fly?” is still a perfectly valid question that makes perfect sense, even though it suggests that the child uttering it hasn’t figured out deletion yet.  An adult might be horribly embarrassed to make such an error.  Such embarrassment and stress can definitely adversely affect learning.

NewScientist has published a new article which states that new research may suggest that, under certain conditions, adults may actually be better at learning languages than children:  Age no excuse for failing to learn a new language.  Potentially very interesting stuff.

What are your thoughts?  Do you have any anecdotal evidence of your own that seems to debunk CPH?

I’m Published!

My hometown paper, the Daily Times Herald in Carroll, Iowa, did me the honor of asking me to write an Op-Ed piece on why I think we should learn other languages. It’s a bit long, but they decided to run the full version with very few, minor cuts.

I hope you enjoy it! As always, I welcome any feedback you might have.

Why You Should Know More than One Language



The Russians are coming!  The Russians are coming!

French linguistic protectionists are probably losing their minds over this*, but yet another Russian word has found its way into the French language: malossol (малосоль), meaning “lightly salted.”  It’s usually seen on caviar and pickle labels, but can now actually be found in the Larousse (which, by the way, does not mean “The Russians”) dictionary.  Considering this rather specific usage, I’m not sure there’s much danger in the near future of French kids ordering their pommes frites “malossol.”

What is this world coming to?  What ever happened to good, old fashioned FRENCH words like bistro?  (Wait…  that comes from Russian, too?**  Never mind.)

Read all about it in English or Russian.  Strangely, I had trouble finding a news article on this topic in French.  If you happen across one, please post a link to it in the comments section.

*I don’t know if there’s any relevance here, but the official language of the Russian court used to be French.  Just sayin’.

**This etymology is, not surprisingly, not supported by some French linguists.


Taiwan News published a story today on the “Test of Chinese as a Foreign Language” (TOCFL), a comprehensive test “designed especially for non-native speakers of Chinese.”  I’m guessing that TOCFL is an equivalent to the “Test of English as a Foreign Language” (TOEFL).  TOCFL itself isn’t new (it’s been around since 2003).  What is news-worthy is that it will be offered in a computerized format for the first time this year.

For more information on language fluency testing in general, please see “How Fluent am I?“.

[Read the complete story at Taiwan News]