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Toponymy: the study of place names in political geography

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Toponymy (from the Greek tópos, τόπος, place and ónoma, ὄνομα, name) is the study of place names. It is not a central object in geography. How what may seem anecdotal can reveal fundamental issues in geography, political geography and culture.

Definition and classical uses in geography[edit | edit source]

Definition[edit | edit source]

Toponymy refers to place names; it is a discipline devoted to the study of proper names. It is part of onomastics, which is part of linguistics.

Toponymy also refers to an activity that is that of naming, that is, the activity of assigning a name to a place. It is both a study and a practice.

Experts should ensure that naming does not pose problems in terms of spatial orientation and location, which is also the primary function of toponymy, which is to locate a place in space.

There are proposals that may be linked to political issues. It is interested in the proposals and attributions of a number of place names.

Classical Uses in Geography[edit | edit source]

Among the classical uses, there is the attempt to reconstitute successive strata of settlement that are inscribed in the toponymic landscape that allows to reconstitute the spatial archaeologist.

Many studies are interested in toponymy to identify changes in natural environments, it serves as a retrospective marker to identify natural environments at a given period that can identify the environment and landscape.

It is also the study of new place names and related political issues.

Geopolitical and memory issues[edit | edit source]

There can be significant tensions around the naming exercise which can reveal positions around politics and geography. There are contexts where the issues are major, they are geopolitical and memorable issues.

At the international level[edit | edit source]

In the heart of Europe, but in a tense geopolitical context, in the former Yugoslavia, a large proportion of the Yugoslav provinces obtained their independence either in tragic conflicts or in the context of major tensions which did not lead to wars.

This is particularly the case in the former Yugoslav province of Macedonia, which is located in northern Greece and southern Bulgaria. It was a Yugoslav province which would refer to the historical Macedonian identity, but this historical Macedonia which does not only concern this former Yugoslav province of Macedonia. It concerns a large part of Greece and Bulgaria.

When the former Macedonian province claimed and obtained independence, it did so with a denotation that refers to Macedonia. Faced with this demand, there has been a very strong mobilization on the part of Greece to oppose this denomination as the Republic of Macedonia.

On the one hand, Greece has officially protested, particularly in the European media. The argument is that this is unacceptable insofar as it will introduce confusion and lead to a State's desire to give itself a name that refers to a space and a history that also concerns neighbouring States.

Toponymie grece macedoine.png

On the one hand, the challenge was to avoid, in the long term, an annexionist and imperialist temptation in the name of Macedonian history to demand a change of borders to encompass part of historical Macedonia.

What Greece feared was the demand from the Greek side referring to Macedonia for greater autonomy and support from the neighbouring country. There are real geopolitical issues that have to do with neighbours and regional autonomy.

Greece has gone far enough in its fight against this new name by using its membership of the European Union and NATO against Macedonia's accession to these two institutions.

The African continent experienced a very significant decolonization movement from the very late 1950s to the 1970s. The majority of decolonizations took place from the end of the 1950s and especially in the early 1960s with the independence of most African States.

Toponymie pays afrique.png

There were names inherited from the colonial period, a number of colonies had been given names by the colonial powers. The New Independent States opted for a name change that broke with their colonial history.

The stakes were on the one hand to appropriate the national name and to distance oneself from the colonial heritage; but it is also the means to legitimize the new power vis-à-vis pre-colonial historical entities, it had gone to draw from the toponymic heritage, but can refer to an ancient history that may exist even before colonization.

The Gold Coast was the gold coast, it was a resource that the European powers came for. This name refers directly to this colonial project. Present-day Ghana sought a name that had a historical thickness. Within the territory of the Gold Coast existed an ancient pre-colonial kingdom that even fought British colonial power, it was the Ashanti kingdom that existed before colonization and opposed the British that was eventually completely destroyed by colonial power. The new authorities could have used this reference, however this name would refer only to an ethnic group on the Gold Coast.

The authorities went looking among the important pre-colonial entities and found Ghana. The problem is that the Ghana Empire was not centred on the current territory, but more on the current territory of Mali. A positive name has been drawn from the toponymic heritage, but it does not refer exactly to the space of the current Gold Coast.

Benin was a pre-colonial kingdom that did not compromise with the colonists and especially during the phase of drainage of people and wealth on the contrary, Dahomey got rid of its pre-colonial reference that recalled its compromise with the colonists to take the name of Benin.

Benin has served as a reference for many political entities in East Africa. Benin was, however, a kingdom that extended over present-day Benin, Nigeria and Togo. This explains why the University of Lomé is also called the University of Benin; on the other hand, in the Nigerian federation, there is a state called Benin.

These examples show how name change in the particular context of decolonization is linked to important political, historical and cultural issues. Concerning Southern Rhodesia and Upper Volta are references to African heritage, but of a different nature. Zimbabwe refers to a pre-colonial political entity, specifically a political capital. It is therefore a country that took the name of a political capital that had jurisdiction over a significant part of southern Africa.

Upper Volta is an original composition. Burkina Faso means "the country of honest men". This corresponds to the image that Burkina Faso wanted to give after a coup against a compromised regime. Burkina Faso wanted to be a country that fought against compromise and corruption. On the other hand, the word "Burkina Faso" is a combination of the two national languages of Burkina Faso, namely Mooré and Dioula. The name of the citizens of Burkina Faso is Burkinabe, this suffix comes from the third language of Burkina Faso which is Fulfulde the language of the Fulani. It is a creation that aims to celebrate the new motto of the country and to celebrate the African heritage that makes up this national entity.

At the intranational level[edit | edit source]

In South Africa, the issue of toponymy has been a political issue for some time. South Africa is made up of many communities that have extremely different histories and who each have had or have good reasons to appropriate a certain number of localities or to try to impose their own referents in the landscape via toponymy. The communities of European origin benefited from the colonial and apartheid period to impose their references, this did not prevent a conflict between the two communities of European origin with on the one hand the British and on the other hand the British. Each one had its own references and each tried to impose names that refer to its heritage. During the apartheid period, the Afrikaner vision had the upper hand, tolerated British denominations of origin, but tried to impose its own. Since the end of apartheid, there has been a willingness on the part of communities of African origin and central power to eliminate a number of references that refer to the apartheid period and on the other hand to rebalance cultural references in the toponymic heritage, the idea is to highlight the history of African communities.

Toponymie newcastle.png

In Kwazulu-Natal a town named New Castle exists, it is a mining town created by the British, but which lies on the borders of the former Zululand with a population overwhelmingly Zulu. However, the name refers to the colonial origin of the locality. By its name, it is part of a worldwide network of cities with the same name. A number of cities that bear the name New Castle in English and other languages have come together to create an international network on name sharing that has the same meaning. What is interesting is to see how this South African city finds itself in this network of globalized localities and which has nothing to do with its local anchorage which is zulu. It is an element that makes it possible to cultivate a worldwide network and to leave the national inking system. We have a place that refers to realities shared throughout the world. However the origin of the name of this city is only a reference to its eponym in the United Kingdom.

Southafrica black homeland.png

If we change scale, we can look at the names of regional and provincial entities. Under Great Apartheid, South Africa was divided regionally into two types of entities: white provinces in the racial apartheid system and Bantustans reserved for people of African origin.  The Bantustans were all given names linked to the populations they were supposed to represent and for which a nationality had been attributed according to their ethnic origins.

There is a regional toponymy at the provincial level under Great Apartheid that is extremely composite. The new breakdown leads to a set of denominations which for some are relatively neutral. All the memoirs remain, but the colonial references that call for a certain consensualism have been eliminated.

The long-term toponymic question in South Africa focuses on two essential themes: multilingualism and the symbolic and memorable marking of the territory. Language and memory issues overlap when they are mobilized jointly by a community. We postulate here that with toponymic choices, beyond the issues of pre-eminence and recognition of cultures and histories, what is at stake is also the question of the hierarchy and autonomy of places from the local to the international scale. Hierarchy of places which is not foreign either to intercommunity relations in their various toponymic aspects.

A reading grid of contexts and issues[edit | edit source]

A reading grid can be developed to attempt to read toponymic and geopolitical issues.

Contexts[edit | edit source]

A number of geopolitical contexts can be identified:

  • context of revolution: this is when there is a radical change of political context as in the case of the fall of the Soviet empire with the abandonment of the denomination Leningrad and the return to the denomination St. Petersburg. This refers to the fall or decline of an empire.
  • context of colonization and conquest: it is a favourable context for new attributions of names to geographical entities
  • context of creation of new territories: this context is also called the new regional context which refers to the creation of new territorial entities with the creation of new cities, new municipalities on the basis of amalgamation of municipalities, the creation of districts to promote decentralization.
  • context of merchandising of places: a certain number of places, but also spaces which can be the object of a promotion in particular via sponsoring.

The objectives[edit | edit source]

These objectives can be of five types:

  1. Purification: get rid of denominations that do not correspond to the contemporary context we want to get rid of. It is the deletion of names like Leningrad and the return to St. Petersburg, we eliminate some references ;
  2. Restauration: restoration of a political and identity order, rehabilitation of old reference systems ;
  3. Foundation of a new repository of a new memory or a new ideology: The establishment of a new identity political order and a new memory means, for example, getting rid of the reference to the old regime and founding the new ideology based on the reference of the first Soviet leader, Lenin;
  4. Building a landscape that includes toponymy: name everyday places in order to create a landscape corresponding to references that can be political, cultural or commercial;
  5. Promotion: ensure that a place has a name that enables it to position itself on a market and particularly on the international market. Territorial marketing generally pushes towards the promotion of a specific resource or functionality ready to be developed in the dynamics of globalization.

We have contexts and objectives that can be associated. If we cross these objectives with these contexts, we have the grid of situations:

Toponymie objectifs1.png

However, the diversity of toponymic situations and their frequent hybridity refer to general logics, which can be explored through contributions to this thematic dossier. From the outset, typical cases can be identified, which refer to historical situations, geopolitical projects and toponymic productions. Revolution and eradication, restitution and restoration, revelation and construction could thus be the three main modalities of the toponymic process.

Toponymie objectifs2.png
  • Revolution and eradication : However, the diversity of toponymic situations and their frequent hybridity refer to general logics, which can be explored through contributions to this thematic dossier. From the outset, typical cases can be ideal revolutionary processes accompanied by the establishment of a new territorial order, which eradicates the previous one. To implement the revolutionary project, this new order erects a radically new framework. This logic of rupture, control and action produces a neotoponymy that avoids any reference to previous powers, but values belonging to a national group. The corresponding territorial recomposition can reappropriate the modalities or even the goals of the previous central power (national construction in particular), but avoids reproducing spatial configurations of local and regional authorities.ntified, which refer to historical situations, geopolitical projects and toponymic productions. Revolution and eradication, restitution and restoration, revelation and construction could thus be the three main modalities of the toponymic process

The case of revolutionary France embodies the ideal type of this toponymic process. The abolition of the Ancien Régime provinces and the creation of departments provided an ideal framework for central government action (Ozouf-Marignier, 1989). The choice of a "neutral" departmental toponymy borrowed from orography and hydrography or from the position in the national whole constitutes one of the modalities of the break. Each department only makes sense in the national territory.

  • Restitution and restoration: Long-term political developments in countries of former settlement reveal a new modality in the toponymic process. In democratic regimes confronted with multiculturalism and plurilingualism, identity claims, including those of indigenous peoples and regional minorities, propose alternative toponymies, indigenous allonymies, which can be formalized. The recognition of multilingualism is part of this process. In the postcolonial context, the dominant group restores part of the rights of the dominated groups, which allows for a restoration - usually partial - of pre-colonial toponymy. However, the principle of restitution is not new since Dumont d'Urville worked as early as the first half of the 20th century to restore an indigenous name to the Pacific islands, which had received "provisional names imposed by the first to visit these islands". This was at least as much about erasing the traces of an English navigator's passage as it was about respecting the local culture of the inhabited islands (Blais, 2001).

Canada is the most completed, but also the most complex, case in that the establishment of Inuit self-governing regions takes place in a national context of multilingualism and multiculturalism (Rayburn 1994; Collignon 1996). Balances between communities require particular attention to language and naming issues. The chronological succession of settlements and their internal diversity has led to a complex stratification: first peoples (Amerindians and Inuit), colonizers (French and English), current international migrations from the countries of the South, Asian diasporas, make up a territorial marquetry. From urban districts to autonomous regions, toponymy marks these territories in an environment where English or French references dominate and where any redistribution threatens the political balance between dominant communities.

  • Revelation and construction: the affirmation of local, regional and metropolitan development territories takes place within the framework of decentralisation and devolution against the background of globalisation (Antheaume, Giraut, 2005). New territorial entities appear where the municipal level is lacking, or accompany intermunicipality, regionalisation, including transnationalisation in Europe, and the establishment of metropolitan governments. Here again, the urban field in its new extensions and configurations is particularly concerned by the phenomenon (Rivière d'Arc, 2001). Various actors, armed with their representations, invest themselves in the complex territorial choices that these creations imply. Possible controversies emerge around the template, the limits, the centre and the name of the new entities. The toponymic issue then lies in whether or not a dominant geographical and/or identity reference point is asserted.

Annexes[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]