Cultural diversity should spell inclusion

By Terry Sarten

The H has come home to Whanganui. The local orphan of the alphabet now has a place to live. Snuggled in the comforting gap between the letters W and A and sheltered from the damaging attacks of mono-linguists, it must now feel safe from further bullying.

The H, though quiet and shy by nature, can now stand proudly among the other letters, confident in its place in the name of the town by the river.

The Land Information Minister, Maurice Williamson, announced the passing of two amendments to the Geographic Board Act that clarify the official options. This means that the town can be spelled with or without an H.

The debate around whether to H or not to H has been long and, at times, rather nasty. In many countries, there are various versions of place names, often created to adapt to the foreign language aversions of the English-speaking world. When I first went to Europe as a young man with backpack and map in hand, I was alarmed to find that many cities had disappeared.

Munich in Germany had vanished, replaced by a city called Munchen, in the country of Deutschland and Holland had been renamed Netherlands.

Then I discovered that many of the place names I had learned at school were adjustments made to compensate for the English-speaking world's unwillingness to adapt.

I recall going through a city in Belgium that had three different names on the signposts to accommodate the Flemish, French and German influence of language.

My favourite was a port town called Flushing on some maps to aid the monolingual English speaker because it seems the correct name, Vlissingen, was considered too hard to pronounce.

Switzerland has three main languages and dozens of local accents. The natives appear to understand each other and do not seem to get into linguistic stoushes.

In Wales, signposts have place names in native Welsh and English. I do not understand the Welsh language and to my untutored eye it looks like bad typing and a puzzle to pronounce but, to the Welsh, it is their language and they take great pride in it.

The debate over the H in Whanganui reminded me of the debate in Taranaki when the mountain was to be given back its indigenous title.

The navigator Cook had named it after an obscure Duke and marked it on his map as Egmont. The furore from those who objected to returning to the Maori name was an eye opener.

The main argument was the objectors had grown up calling it Egmont. It did not seem to occur to them that there was a time before they were born and that the future was ahead.

After much grumbling, the mountain was officially gazetted as Egmont and Taranaki and, in a short space of time, the identity of the mountain became firmly fixed as Mt Taranaki. It remains a shy mountain, often hiding in the clouds and refusing to come out.

I grew up with a view of it from my bedroom window and, when I first went overseas, I missed the reassuring mountain on the horizon. It remains a comforting guardian over the province and a glorious sight on a lovely day.

Terry Sarten is a local writer, musician and social worker. Feedback email:

- Wanganui Chronicle

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