Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Terminology for parts of a city

Texts about towns and cities can be tricky to translate. One thorny problem which arises again and again is how to translate the terms used for parts of the city. Municipalities are often broken down into smaller parts. Sometimes these smaller parts have an administrative function, sometimes they arise from social or historical traditions. The best way to research the terminology of the parts of towns or cities is to look at actual examples. However, the terms used in my two languages (German and English) turn out to be rather confusing and inconsistent.

Terms used in German

The basic term in German is “Bezirk”, “Stadtteil”, “Stadtbezirk”, “Ortsteil” etc.

I live in Berlin, and here the term “Bezirk” is used with a strictly defined meaning – it denotes an administrative urban district with its own elected parliament and its own administrative structure. There are 12 of these “Bezirke”. My “Bezirk” is called Spandau, which is on the western edge of Berlin and is itself broken down into 9 formally defined sub-districts, known as “Ortsteile”. The most well-known “Ortsteile” are probably Kladow, Gatow and Siemensstadt, closely followed by the area where I live, Staaken. But there are also a number of smaller areas with locally familiar names such as Klosterfelde, Altstadt, Neustadt, Wasserstadt, Waldsiedlung, Pichelsdorf. These are referred to by terms such as “Gebiet”, “Ortsteil” “Ortslage”, “Quartier”, “Kiez”.

What about other towns and cities in Germany? In Mainz there are 15 defined “Stadtteile”, which are referred to as “Ortsbezirke” in administrative texts. The officially defined structure in Stuttgart is rather more complicated, with 23 “Stadtbezirke”, 152 “Stadtteile” and 318 “Stadtviertel”. Munich has 25 official “Stadtbezirke”, but Wikipedia lists many informally used local names for smaller areas, which it refers to as “Stadtteile”, “Quartiere” and “Siedlungen”.

Other German-speaking countries have a similarly broad range of terms. For example, the larger urban districts in Zürich are the 12 “Stadtkreise” or “Kreise”, each of which is made up of 2-4 “Quartiere”. Basel (Basle) has 19 official residential districts called “Quartiere”. Geneva has 4 “Stadteile”, each of which is sub-divided into “Quartiere”. Vienna has 23 “Bezirke”, which the locals often refer to by number rather than by name, and which are made up of “Bezirksteile” and smaller areas known as “Grätzl”.

The list of terms for parts of cities in German is therefore long: Bezirk, Ortsteil, Gebiet, Ortslage, Quartier, Kiez, Stadtteil, Ortsbezirk, Stadtbezirk, Stadtviertel, Quartier, Siedlung, Stadtkreis, Kreis, Grätzl – and this list is certainly not exhaustive.

Terms used in English

In my home city of Coventry (UK), the parts of the city are mainly referred to as “suburbs” – even in central parts of the city and without distinction in terms of size. There are also some smaller units called “wards”. However, the suburbs do not appear to play any administrative role in the government of the city.

Just a few miles to the north-west, in Birmingham, the terminology is more varied, including terms such as “metropolitan borough”, “formal district”, “council constituency” “ward” and “suburb”. In London I found references for terms such as “borough”, “urban district”, “ward”, “suburb”, “neighbourhood”, “local area”, “inner London” and “outer London”.

Other English-speaking countries also present a stunning variety of terms. New York has five formally defined “boroughs” (sometimes spelled “boro”). They are broken up into “neighborhoods”. The term “suburb” is rather emotional, and many New York residents are adamant that suburbs are only found outside the five boroughs. San Francisco has “districts”, “quadrants”, “neighborhoods” and many informally named smaller areas.

The English terms listed here, then, are suburb, ward, borough, boro, metropolitan borough, district, urban district, formal district, neighbourhood, neighborhood, local area, inner, outer, quadrant – and again, this list is far from exhaustive. Further research in other towns and cities and other English-speaking countries is sure to turn up many more examples.

Help! What can I do in my text?

This variety of terms in both languages means first of all that there is no absolute right answer for any terminology question. Perhaps I could suggest a provisional sub-division into primary, secondary and informal parts of the town or city, although some of the terms will overlap, and many distinctions are likely to be relative.

Primary sub-divisions:

German: Bezirk, Stadtbezirk, Ortsbezirk, Stadtteil, Stadtkreis

English: borough, boro, urban district, formal district, inner/outer

Secondary sub-divisions:

German: Ortsteil, Gebiet, Ortslage, Quartier, Kiez

English: district, neighbourhood, neighborhood, local area, suburb

Informal areas:

German: Quartier, Kiez, Siedlung, Viertel, Grätzl

English: quadrant, ward, suburb, local area, residential district, residential estate, housing area

Scratching the surface

I realise that these terms do not cover all that can be said about urban locations. For example, how are the German “City” and “Innenstadt” linked, and how closely do they correlate with the “city centre”, “inner city” or “central business district”? How do we treat terms such as “Stadtrand” and “Randlagen”, and what exactly are “Mittelzentren”? The list of open questions could go on and on, and perhaps I will come back to some of these terms. But hey, I haven’t managed a blog post for about 9 months, and this first venture back into “active service” has to end somewhere, doesn’t it?.