London=Unfordable River Town; Wales=Land of Strangers

When I first read One Hundred Years of Solitude, I was struck by a sentence at the very beginning: “the world was so recent that many things lacked names.” How could that be? I wondered. Didn’t things always have names?

Many of the world’s origin stories include the naming of objects, such as the Bible’s Genesis, in which Adam names all the animals presented to him. And many stories were passed from generation to generation simply to remember these names. When the Vikings decided to make the unpopulated Iceland their new home, they quickly had to create legends that characterized the landscape–the Hill of Blood, the Coast of Betrayal. By following the linguistic map of the Norse sagas, a Viking could find his way around the entire island.

Can we move to Pit Dweller's Town? Or what about Curlyhead?

I started thinking about toponymy, the study of the origins of place names, after posting a map on Wednesday of the meanings of Native American names that have become standard in the United States–Chicago, Manhattan, and my very own Minnesota. While I have associations with each of these places, the associations are, of course, not based at all on the literal meanings. It’s interesting for me–an American with no correspondence between my ancestors and my birthplace–to think of those places in the world where names are still meaningful to the people who live in them.

A pair of Germans decided to create an Atlas of True Names, for which they tracked down meanings that had been previously lost to posterity. The English version is certainly interesting to look over, even comical in many places, but how do we agree upon a “true” name? Yes, the idea of the project was to find the translations of place names from their original languages. But conquerors change the names of their acquired lands, people decide to rename their own lands for political or religious purposes, stories and the names held therein are forgotten. I remember a stubborn friend asking why we couldn’t call countries by the names they call themselves–why must we English speakers say Germany instead of Deutschland, Spain instead of España? I agreed that he had a point, but would it be fair to use the Castilian España instead of the Basque Espainia or Catalan Espanya? And Spain has relatively few languages–for those countries with hundreds of languages, or a division between native language and colonizers’ language, how would we know which name to honor as “true”? Names may start out as descriptive, but they quickly become political.

A few interesting toponymic lists, all courtesy of Wikipedia: the origins of all country namesplace names in English with counterintuitive pronunciations (like the American towns with the name of Berlin that changed their pronunciations during WWI to BUR-lin so as to differentiate themselves from the Germans), and tautological place names in which the native language already describes a geographical landmark that is then repeated in another language. For instance, Tahoe means “lake” in Washo, so Lake Tahoe means Lake Lake.

I studied abroad in Navel of the Moon. Nice country, that.