The UGEGN (United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names) is currently meeting in Vienna, Austria in its 26th Session.
The purpose of this meeting is to review, discuss and report on resolutions agreed by the United Nations Conferences on the Standardization of Geographical Names, which have occurred at 5 year intervals since 1959.
The conferences are designed to move towards standardization of place names around the world, whilst protecting the cultural heritage that is behind many of them. There are many examples around the world. The UN has a team working specifically in Africa where frequent and rapid political changes have meant that many regions, cities and even countries are known by multiple names. Austria itself includes towns and cities near its Hungarian border with multiple identities to multiple cultures, including Croat, Roma and German language translations.
This can cause headaches when preparing reference materials, developing or executing disaster response, international law and even military activity.
Ultimately the hope is that each country will submit its standardized list of ‘official names’ and the UGEGN will disseminate these names internationally, including a standardized method of translation into languages which use non-roman scripts such as Arabic. Meanwhile, the recording of cultural names to preserve local heritage is another key aim. More than 400 Geographers, Linguists, Cartographers and Planners make up the group from around the world.
The results so far are manifested in the World Geographical Names Database, which contains 2600 full and short country names for 192 UN member states, 4100 names for 2970 cities with populations over 100,000, and 600 audio files to assist with pronunciation.
Given that this seems to have been a moving target since 1959 one can expect that there will be many more sessions before the job is complete……