Sunday, February 20, 2011

North, South, East, West: What's in a Name? by Louis Evan Palmer

There are descriptors added to place names or country names that function like the tip of an iceberg in alerting individuals to a substantial submerged, typically negative, situation. These exist at the national level with such nations as North Korea and South Korea or the former West Timor and East Timor while others appear within a given country or region like Virginia and West Virginia or North and South Dakota within the United States. They is usually one evil twin in these twosomes.

We can argue that most instances of North/South East/West land segments – the names of jurisdictions that clearly represent an area (region, state, country); that is, in an explicit relationship with another area (region, state, country) - are frought with unresolved tensions and potential future discord. This would apply to areas where people live in both of the direction-named land areas versus purely geographic entities like the North and South Atlantic oceans. Yet even then it denotes a closer relationship than the two large continents might otherwise generate.

Secession, or other types of political splits, is a common source of North/South East/West jurisdictions. For example, West Virginia came about as a result of the US Civil War and the split of the Union state of West Virginia from the Confederate state of Virgina. At a national level, the nation of South Ossetia emerged recently (and is disputed) from Georgia with the support and assistance of North Ossetia, or actually Russia. Active, long-standing disputes often lurk behind the North/South East/West monikers. Presently, a new nation may emerge from Sudan which has been in a state of civil war for decades – its currently proposed name? South Sudan. Prognosis based on the proposed name alone – very negative.

Some decades ago, there was a North and South Rhodesia. North Rhodesia became Zambia while South Rhodesia became Zimbabwe after a long armed conflict. The country named South Africa does not stand in opposition, or as a reflection of, a country called North Africa but rather it contrasts to, and contends with, the entire African continent landmass – South Africa versus Africa.

Northern Ireland versus Ireland, Upper Yemen versus Yemen, East Germany versus West Germany (now just Germany), Inner Mongolia versus Outer Mongolia – all these national names create tension and expectation and relationship usually towards a bad end.

East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) versus West Pakistan (now Pakistan) is an example of where dropping the East/West designation might have helped end the connection and prevented the short but deadly civil war which drew in a third country (India) to end it.

Would Germany have re-integrated if the West and East Germany had different names. What if Austria was called South Germany and Switzerland North Germany? Would that not have created pressure to come together? (The National Socialists did annex them anyway on the basis of their shared German heritage) Might that have in turn drawn counter-pressure?

Names have a dynamic of their own whether it's a boy named Sue or a country with a name that implies it's part of, or associated with, another country.

Fortunately, if you get away from the North/South East/West type of names, there currently appears to be either little or no tension between countries with similar names like Niger and Nigeria or Republic of Congo and Democratic Republic of Congo although they are side-by-side and share long borders and have many potential things to disagree about. The thought here is is that it would be much better if their countries' names were not so similar.

If Britain had named East Pakistan Bangladesh right away or perhaps not split the countries at all. If North or South Ossetia had a different separate name? If there hadn't been an Upper Yemen and a South Yemen? Let's think long and hard about naming any country (or internal regions or states) as the North/South, East/West, Upper/Lower, Inner/Outer of something – name it something different and separate and you may have prevented a war.

North, South, East, West: What's in a Name?, Louis Evan Palmer,

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Copyright 2011 Louis Evan Palmer lives in Ontario Canada. His short stories have appeared in numerous publications.