In his Фрегат “Паллада” [The Frigate Pallada], Goncharov uses Ликейские острова for what are now called острова Рюкю, the Ryukyu Islands. I found the old name curious, and when Goncharov goes on to say “Что это такое Ликейские острова, или, как писали у нас в старых географиях, Лиеу-Киеу, или, как иностранцы называют их, Лю-чу (Loo-Choo), а по выговору жителей ‘Ду-чу”‘?” [What are these Likei Islands, or as the old geographers wrote, Lieu-Kieu, or as foreigners call them, Loo-Choo, or in the local accent Du-chu?] I turned to Wikipedia, where I found this section on “Historical usage”:

Ryūkyū” is an exonym and is not a self-designation. The word first appeared in the Book of Sui (636). Its obscure description of Liuqiu (流求) is the source of a never-ending scholarly debate over what was referred to by the name, Taiwan, Okinawa or both. Nevertheless, the Book of Sui shaped perceptions of Ryūkyū for a long time. Ryūkyū was considered a land of cannibals and aroused a feeling of dread among surrounding people, from Buddhist monk Enchin who traveled to Tang China in 858 to an informant of the Hyōtō Ryūkyū-koku ki who traveled to Song China in 1243. Later, some Chinese sources used “Great Ryukyu” (Chinese: 大琉球; pinyin: Dà Liúqiú) for Okinawa and “Lesser Ryukyu” (Chinese: 小琉球; pinyin: Xiǎo Liúqiú) for Taiwan. Okinawan forms of “Ryūkyū” are Ruuchuu (ルーチュー?) or Duuchuu (ドゥーチュー?) in Okinawan and Ruuchuu (ルーチュー?) in the Kunigami language.[13][14] An Okinawan man was recorded as having referred to himself as a “Doo Choo man” during Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s visit to the Ryūkyū Kingdom in 1852.[15]

From about 1829 until the mid-20th century, the islands’ English name was spelled Luchu, Loochoo, or Lewchew. These spellings were based on the Chinese pronunciation of the characters “琉球”, which in Mandarin is Liúqiú, as well as the Okinawan language’s form Ruuchuu (ルーチュー?).

All of which is complicated enough, but none of it explains the Russian term Ликейские острова [Likei Islands] (and the Russian Wikipedia article doesn’t address the issue). Any thoughts?


  1. That’s pretty straightforward. If you want to form Russian adjective from Лиеу-Киеу, you’ll end up with Лиеукиеуйские острова, which is quite impossible to pronounce.

    So naturally it got shortened to more sensible Ликейские острова.

  2. Ah, that makes sense. I was thinking there must be a Chinese topolect in which it sounded something like /likei/.

  3. slawkenbergius says

    Leont’ev’s 1778 abridgment of the Da Qing yitongzhi has Liqiu as Лю цю, for what it’s worth. Generally speaking secondary borrowings of romanized forms (eg Фокиен) were more common before the mid-19th century despite the (limited) availability of direct Russian transliterations.

  4. January First-of-May says

    (Pinyin) Mandarin Liúqiú would have presumably given Люцю in Polivanov transliteration (as far as I understand it), so that’s either surprisingly prescient, or corrected by someone later.

  5. slawkenbergius says

    Leont’ev lived in Beijing for a decade and knew Chinese quite well, so not that surprising.

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