Friday, October 28, 2016

The Gambia's Name Change

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US government map of the Gambia (source)
The Gambia Changes Official Name
If you read our review of world political geography changes in 2015, you might remember a brief note on the official name of the Gambia, a tiny country located along the banks of a river in West Africa. Last December, the Gambia's maverick dictator decided to declare the country an "Islamic republic", a designation that can have various meanings and is used by four other countries in the world.

At the time, at least one regional news source claimed that the country's official name had indeed been changed from "Republic of The Gambia" to "Islamic Republic of The Gambia". But for a country's name to be formally changed, its government normally has to pass a law or at least issue some kind of proclamation, and at the time it wasn't clear whether that had actually  happened.

Flag of the Gambia Country Name:  
• The Gambia
Official Name:  
• Islamic Republic of the Gambia
Capital: Banjul
New Name Registered with UN and ISO
Since most of the world's countries, including the Gambia, are part of the United Nations (UN), it's expected that if the country's name changes, the change will be filed with the administrative offices of the UN so world organizations and other countries will know to start using the new one.

And earlier this year, that finally happened, with the UN updating its terminology database to show that the Gambia's official long-form English name had been changed to "the Islamic Republic of the Gambia".

This confirmed the name change, and soon led to the same modification being made to ISO 3166, the international standard list of countries and country codes that's used by organizations and companies all around the world.

How Often Do Countries Change Their Names?
Out of the world's nearly 200 countries, there's an average of about one official country name change each year, most of them involving changes to the country's full name or preferred English name. Besides the Gambia, no countries changed their names in 2014 or 2015, with the last country to do so being Cape Verde in late 2013. That African island country changed its preferred English name at the UN to Cabo Verde, the same as its native Portuguese-language name; the same year, war-torn Libya clarified its new long-form name as "State of Libya". The year before, Somalia's 2012 constitution changed the country's full name to the Federal Republic of Somalia, and a new Hungarian constitution traded "Republic of Hungary" for just "Hungary".

More substantial changes to countries' names, involving more than just translation decisions or adjustments to full names, are much less common. The best recent examples are Yugoslavia's name change to "Serbia and Montenegro" in 2003, Western Samoa's change to just "Samoa" in 1997, and Zaire's reversion to its previous name of "Democratic Republic of the Congo", also in 1997.

Name Changed in Other Languages
Unlike some countries that have only changed their name for foreign language speakers, English is actually the official language of the Gambia. The UN, on the other hand, has six official languages, so the country's new name also had to be translated and made official in each of those languages:

Language Before After
English the Republic of the Gambia the Islamic Republic of the Gambia
French la République de Gambie la République islamique de Gambie
Spanish la República de Gambia la República Islámica de Gambia
Russian Республика Гамбия Исламская Республика Гамбия
Chinese 冈比亚共和国 冈比亚伊斯兰共和国
Arabic جمهورية غامبيا جمهورية غامبيا الإسلامية

Islam in the Gambia
Although the country's name change might seem to suggest that the Islamic religion will be playing a larger role in the government, this doesn't seem to be the case. Ninety percent of Gambians are Muslims, and there is not complete separation between church and state. But the Gambian constitution does protect freedom of religion, and there's little sign anything is changing in that area.

Graphic of the flag of the Gambia is in the public domain (source).