You Say Germany, I Say Deutschland

Back in grade school, there came a time when I learned that people in Germany referred to their country not as Germany, but as Deutschland. I remember wondering why Americans called the place Germany when that wasn’t its name. If the people who live there call it Deutschland, why shouldn’t we? It’s not like Deutschland is particularly hard for Americans to pronounce, and it would be more respectful.

I was reminded of this experience earlier today while listening to this week’s On the Media podcast from NPR. The entire episode focused on Google, and one story in particular explored the role that Google Maps now plays in border disputes. The guest, Washington Monthly editor John Gravois, said the following about Google’s place-naming policy:

A couple of months after the petition [to remove the name “Arabian Gulf” from the body of water often known as the Persian Gulf] went live, [Google] posted a kind of statement about how they decide what to name things, and the statement made no mention of history, made no mention of international standards. They just said, we name bodies of water according to the names that countries adjoining that body of water use. There’s no science, except for the science of just finding out what people say.

Gravois went on to say that the notion of “map” is changing, that maps no longer provide the same kind of “authoritative” information they used to, when they were produced by nation-states. Instead, they are “repositories of a bunch of different opinions.”

I think I’m okay with that. Why should Google tell everyone what to call bodies of water or other places? I like the idea of learning what people call their homes (and neighboring bodies of water). This idea of labeling map elements with all the common names that are used to describe those elements–does it make sense to you? Or do you see value in maps providing more authoritative information on the names of places?

And since this is an education blog, I should add: How do your students think about this issue? How might you teach them to be more information literate when it comes to maps?

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