Žygimantas Mauricas, a Lithuanian economist and an outspoken Facebook personality, has apparently experienced such situations too often and concluded that the problem is not so much geographic literacy as the English name for the country on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea.
In a Facebook post – that was picked up by the online media – Mauricas has suggested to change the hard-to-pronounce ‘Lithuania’ to a more flowing ‘Lituania’.
Mauricas argues that the ‘th’ sound – which, as a matter of fact, does not exist in the Lithuanian word for the country, ‘Lietuva’ – is hard to pronounce for anyone who is not a native English speaker and therefore ‘h’ should be dropped.
There is a precedent for that, Mauricas says, when Estonians asked in 1921 that their country be called ‘Estonia’ in English and not ‘Esthonia’.
The feat would not be hard to accomplish, Mauricas believes, since English is no longer a national language with one central institution regulating its grammar and spelling, but rather a decentralized international means of communication. “Whatever gets into Google, gets into language,” he says.
A commission of six experts, led by Laurynas Bučalis, which drafted an international promotion strategy for the country, had also noted that ‘Lithuania’ might be somewhat obstructive in making Lithuania better known abroad. The word is very long – five syllables – and contains the ‘th’ sound which might be a challenge for non-native-speakers, according to the commission.
However, linguists do not seem enthusiastic about the idea. Antanas Smetona, dean of the Philology Faculty at Vilnius University, says that while languages evolve and toponyms (names of geographical places) often change – sometimes by conscious institutional decisions – it is not up to Lithuanians to make modifications to the English language.
Smetona explains that English has accepted the Slavic rendition of the Lithuanian sound -ie- (in ‘Lietuva’), -i- (‘Litva’), and must have added the -th- sound, which is particular to the English language. “If Mauricas doesn’t like the sound, there’s nothing I can say about it, since each language has its own sounds and it is not up to us to change them,” Smetona says.
Moreover, he says, it is wrong to claim that there is no institutional control over the English language. “If we want to make any changes in English, we must have our proposal included into Webster’s,” he adds.