There are 197 countries in the world (give or take one or two controversies). Africa alone has over 50 independent states and both Europe and Asia contain almost 50 too. On top of that, countries are subject to change and it’s hard to keep up with what isn’t a country any more and which places have become countries in their own right. It’s natural that people will get a bit mixed up. Most people in the West probably don’t have the first clue about the difference between Guinea, Equatorial Guinea and Guinea-Bissau. I can point to vague areas on a map, but that’s where my knowledge ends. We can’t be expected to learn everything about every country, but it can be embarrassing to muddle up two very different places.
Sweden or Switzerland?
To make matters worse, some countries that sound fairly different in one language sound extremely similar in another. The Swedish Embassy in China has recently taken measures to help people distinguish between Sweden and Switzerland. I know their anguish well; upon telling people I’ve lived in Switzerland, I’m often asked, “Do you speak Swedish?” (that is, if I’m not asked if I speak “Swiss”). But while the two countries don’t look or sound very similar in English, in Mandarin Sweden and Switzerland are Ruidian and Ruishi, respectively. And they are, after all, on the same continent. Even other countries in Europe may struggle to tell the two apart. Spanish speakers call them Suecia and Suiza and in Italian, one of Switzerland’s four official languages, they’re rendered as Svezia and Svizzera.
Austria or Australia?
English speakers get confused too, apparently between countries as different and distant as Austria and Australia. Despite that one is a small German-speaking country in Western Europe and the other is a vast landmass in the Southern Hemisphere, with English and hundreds of indigenous languages to its name, there’s still confusion over which is which. I struggled to believe this, until a company I worked for sent a package to Austria and it ended up making its way all the way to Australia before reaching its intended destination.
Usually this sort of mix up is nothing more than slightly embarrassing, but it can sometimes have worse consequences. This may be something silly like accidentally flying to the wrong country, but can be more serious. After the tragedy at the Boston Marathon last year, many people confused Chechnya, a disputed region in Russia, with the Czech Republic, a small country bordering Germany. The Czech Republic’s ambassador to the US issued a statement clearing up the mistake, but much vitriol had already been directed at Czechs and their homeland.
Clearing Up the Confusion
China’s Swedish Embassy is clearing up the Switzerland/Sweden confusion with a handy map, helping people to associate certain things with each country. Switzerland has mountains and cows, while Sweden has Vikings and meatballs. This is a cute way to tell the countries apart, even if it’s not very in-depth. Maybe someone could do the same for Austria and Australia.
Are there any countries that you struggle to tell apart?