A Linguistic History Of Major European Cities

Where do capitals get their names? Why do we translate the names of certain foreign cities? From Lille to Porto, Munich to Moscow, discover the stories behind city names and their translations.
view from a hill of a major european cities

Picture a city founded near an island in a swampy valley. That river was the Deûle. And the city, rather unimaginatively, was named L’Isle: Old French for “the island.” Since then, it’s become Lille. As it happens, the Flemish name for Lille — Rijsel — is a direct equivalent for “the island” (Ter IJsel). But the island in question was never found. So, urban legend or true story? No one’s really sure. The fact is, behind the names of major European cities — and their translations — are great stories worth telling.

Lyon, for example, has nothing to do with the king of the jungle. And Bordeaux doesn’t come from bord d’eau (“water’s edge”). Both derive from their old Latin names: Lugdunum and Burdigala, respectively.

There’s actually a certain irony in linking “Lyon” to “lion,” when one theory traces it back to the Celtic word lougon…meaning “raven”! The Gaulish god Lug was said to appear in the form of a raven. From bird to beast, the nuance seems lost on the Italians, who translate Lyon as Lione. Which is their word for the big maned cat, just with a capital letter swapped in.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Join us as we discover the linguistic history of the major European cities.

Where Do The Names Of Major European Cities Come From?

Originally, many European cities took their names from their natural environment.

In English, a “mouth” isn’t just what we eat and talk with, but also the mouth of a river. Which is where port cities like Plymouth, Portsmouth and Falmouth all get their names.

In Dutch, the word dam (meaning “dam”!) is the origin of both Amsterdam (dam on the River Amstel) and Rotterdam (dam on the River Rotte).

Similarly, German has many other suffixes that reflect this way of naming cities:

  • Feld means “field,” from which we get Birkenfeld (“birch field”), Eichsfeld (“oak field”), Feldkirch and Bielefeld, among others
  • Fels means “rock,” giving us Braunfels, Felsberg, Rothenfels…
  • Bach means “stream,” giving us Offenbach, Dietzenbach…
  • Burg means “castle,” giving us Bückeburg, Siegburg, Waldenburg…

None of these names are translated in French or English. Though in French, there is sometimes a spelling change. Burg has been Gallicized to bourg, a suffix also seen in Strasbourg and Saint-Pétersbourg. But sometimes, the translation is more complex.

Where does the French word ville come from? Ville comes from the Latin villa, meaning “country house.” And the original Latin term has survived to refer to large, luxury leisure houses. In the Middles Ages, as villas got bigger, they evolved into villages and then later towns (or villes). Many cities in the United States have the same etymology, such as Louisville (literally, “Louis’ city”), Jacksonville and Nashville.

So Why Do We Translate Foreign City Names?

At the end of the day, a city’s name is a noun like any other (“noun” actually derives from the Latin nomen, meaning “name”). We translate city names in the same way we translate common nouns, as well as the names of countries and sometimes even people. Translating a foreign city’s name can thus serve to preserve its original meaning.

Take Munich, for example. In German, its name is München, which derives from the dative plural of Munih, meaning “monk” in Old High German. This etymology doesn’t come across clearly in its French or English names. But it is apparent in Italian, where Monaco (sometimes specified as Monaco di Baviera to avoid confusion with the other Monaco) means “monk.”

Similarly, the Belgian city of Mons comes from the Latin mons, for “mount.” In Flemish, it’s actually called Bergen, which has the same meaning.

Sometimes, translations are based more on phonetic transcription. This is true for the Austrian cities of Linz and Graz, which used to be written as Lintz and Gratz in French to mirror the German pronunciation.

History provides a few interesting anecdotes. Take Porto, the port city on the mouth of the River Douro in Portugal. Its name simply means “port” in Portuguese. The neighboring city of Vila Nova de Gaia, once called Cale, is even meant to have given the country its name — Portugal, or “Port of Cale” (Portus Cale). While less common now, the British used to call “Porto” Oporto, though changing it to Port might have made more sense. So where did this extra letter come from? Simply put, o porto means “the port” in Portuguese. And the phonetic name stuck — at least in English.

Sometimes, European city names can be deceptive. You might think the German capital Berlin takes its name from the German word Bär, meaning “bear” (and pronounced like the “Ber” in Berlin). Especially since the bear has become the symbol of the city. And yet, no. It seems the capital’s name actually comes from the Polabian (a now extinct Slavic language) word berl, meaning “swamp.”

A city’s name is sometimes closely related to the river running through it. You only have to count the number of place names ending in “sur-Seine” in the Paris region. Yet you can’t always tell this from the French translation for these foreign cities.

This is true of Moscow, which must be one of the most translated capitals in the world: Москва (pronounced “Maskva”) in Russian, but Moscow in English, Moskau in German, Moscú in Spanish, Mosca in Italian…which, incidentally, is the same word for “fly” (as in the bug)! It looks like cities and animals often go hand in hand in Italian.

In Russian, Москва is also the name of the river that flows past the Kremlin. To differentiate it from the capital, people sometimes refer to it as Москва-река (река literally means “river”). Not only is this origin unclear in the French translation “Moscou,” they even have a different name for the river itself! In French, the Maskva is called the Moskova. This isn’t an isolated case, as many other river names are translated in French. For example, the Rhin-Rhein (Rhine), the Danube-Donau, the Tamise-Thames, the Tage-Tejo (Tagus) or the Tibre-Tevere (Tiber).

It should be said that city names are not always translations, strictly speaking. Often, changes from one language to another are the result of linguistic evolutions. This is how the Roman colony (colonia in Latin) of Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium became Cologne in French (and then English) and Köln in German.

There are a few rare exceptions. Of all the major European cities, the only one that seems not to have been translated into other languages is…Madrid!

This article was originally published on the French edition of Babbel Magazine.

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Arnaud Bernier

Arnaud is a real language addict. After traveling to Reunion Island at the age of 10, he became conscious of the beauty and diversity of cultures. Now he's become a passionate blogger and insatiable traveler, and he's particularly fascinated by the Russian-speaking world. Sometimes he even dreams of giving up everything to raise Siberian bears.

Arnaud is a real language addict. After traveling to Reunion Island at the age of 10, he became conscious of the beauty and diversity of cultures. Now he's become a passionate blogger and insatiable traveler, and he's particularly fascinated by the Russian-speaking world. Sometimes he even dreams of giving up everything to raise Siberian bears.