Noisy placenames

This week saw a conference on placenames held in Ballarat Trends in Toponymy: Indigenous identity and theoretical developments in placename research, (organised by Ian Clark and Laura Kostanski). I got to the first two days of talks, which sparkled with maps and pictures of the places whose names were under discussion. Here are some ideas that struck me.

Resources. I’d like to think that electronic placename databases are a new trend – one appeared in our showbags – Ian Clark and Tony Heydon’s CD of the Database of Aboriginal Placenames of Victoria (2002). (weep for me – it’s Windows). Several papers (Bill Watt, Jack Buckskin and Rob Amery) disccused aspects of the online Kaurna Placenames database. This was developed through a partnership between the Kaurna Heritage Board and the Cities of Onkaparinga, Marion, Holdfast Bay and District Council of Yankalilla, and involved also the Geographic Names Unit of the Land Services group of South Australia. (It’s different from their online South Australian State gazetteer) The software cost them $17,000 to develop. It links together words, pictures and pronunciations, and they’re willing to negotiate to provide the shell to other groups at a much reduced rate.
A good thing about such databases is that one can get a handle on real trends in naming strategies, reducing the bias caused by fascination with particular examples.
The ‘indigenous identity’ theme was picked up in several papers; in particular in the notion of silenced toponymies (Jani Vuolteenaho and Kaisa Rautio Helander). Naming is a political act, as evidenced by some countries’ preference to talk about names in ‘regional languages’, rather than ‘indigenous’ placenames. Other political acts come from multiple names – when a feature has several names given by different groups, as Ian Clark and Luise Hercus showed. Invaders often choose to assign their own placenames to existing places, which Helander called ‘renaming’, and to newly created places (usually of habitation). Getting back the earlier names, as is happening in some places in Australia, is ‘restoring’ rather than ‘renaming’. Renaming and restoring are both highly charged political acts – Helander discussed Norwegian reluctance to restore Sámi placenames, – including blasting holes in signs with dual names.
The layering of placenames bestowed by successive waves of invaders was demonstrated in Adrian Koopman’s paper on semantic categories involved in Zulu, Dutch/Afrikaans and English placenames in the KwaZulu-Natal area of South Africa. The silenced toponymies were those of the San, which Koopman did not discuss. The Zulu placenames mostly denoted mountains and rivers, and ranged from the descriptive to what he deemed ‘metaphorical’ (e.g. ‘the angry one’) but could have other interpetations. The Dutch/Afrikaans names he discussed were mostly for farms and villages and, so he suggested, often consisted of a geographic feature and a property: Blinkwater shining water, Zuurfontein, sour spring, or expressions of feeling: Lang verwacht long awaited. He contrasted these with the English and Scots names for farms and villages which often were redirected toponyms, Harrowvale, Dundee, Balgownie.
So what to make of this — do the Dutch names show that they engage with the landscape, by contrast with the British whose placenames show they long to return to Britain? That’s Koopman’s story. Or do the British placenames show that they want to honour the place they now live in by naming it for a much loved place? Or do the different strategies reflect the layering of settlement, from the big expansion of the Zulus, to the haphazard settlement by determined Boers, to the later occupation by a British government. The story you tell is also a political act….
Placenames as scars on the landscape was another topic that came up in discussion of Jonathan Richards’ paper. Skull creek, Skeleton Creek, Murdering Gully. Should these names be kept as a reminder of some appalling things done in the invasion of Australia?
One aspect of restoration of placenames is the restoration of their meanings – a difficult thing to do when there are no full speakers of the language left. Ian Clark, Ted Ryan, and Rob Amery and Jack Buckskin all had papers doing this. As a linguist, I felt like a dragging weight on the balloons of etymological speculation straining to fly up far too high for me. It isn’t easy, and Amery and Buckskin had some good constraints. It is really important to see how speakers of strong languages construct and interpret placenames. That gives us ideas as to what the patterns of placenames might be like in languages that are no longer spoken. Then we can start looking for recurrent forms in placenames , and looking for interpretations of them and meanings for the recurrent forms.
Lastly, a type of placename which intrigues me are the relative placenames. There are the East Grinstead, Upper Slaughter, Back Creek type, in which one place is named by reference to its location with respect to another place (and these are not common in Australian Indigenous toponymic practice as so far discovered). And there are the viewpoint names. Before official naming takes over, the road between Uga and Buga may be called, say, the Uga Road, by people in Buga, and the Buga Road by people in Uga. At the conference, Lynn Peplinski was saying that some places in Nunavut in Canada have viewpoint names – the bay as seen coming to it from the inland, and the bay as seen coming up the coast to it.
And that’s where I had to leave it, missing the last days. BUT… the conference proceedings are intended for publication. And there should be a new book on Indigenous Australian placenames coming out, maybe next year, edited by Luise Hercus and Harold Koch. And (commercial break..) you can still get our 2002 collection of papers The land is a map: Placenames of indigenous origin in Australia. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics and Pandanus Press.

3 thoughts on “Noisy placenames”

  1. “…including blasting holes in signs with dual names.” they’d be right at home over here then!

  2. Somewhere between Renaming and Restoring you might put Reinventing. Naming certainly is a political act, and as such there is always the potential for subversion.
    The leader of a revivalist group on the island of Bohol in the Philippines ‘restored’ (through his writings) the ‘authentic’ names for many of the settlements on the island, as well as the name of the island itself when in fact the restored names are clearly inventions, or reinventions. Some of these names even have explanatory stories associated with them. You could view this strategy as an attempt to reassert control over the terms of representation – a kind of postcolonial backhander.
    On the other hand subversion is sometimes detected where no subversion exists. I think Luise Hercus had some examples of names assumed to be piss-takes but which were more likely to be fragments of song cycles or even the result of transcriber error. (I could be wrong. My copy of The Land is a Map has gone back to Broome library)
    In the meantime here is an amusing passage in EM Curr’s The Australian Race. It’s from page 33.
    “Excrement, bowels. – Of the affinities which so constantly exist between these words I have spoken in the preceding chapter. Occasionally the Blacks have jokingly given these words to the Whites as names of places; hence we have scattered through the colonies such names as Goornong, Coonang, Koonowndra, and probably Gunning and Gunnida.”
    Apparently they’re all shitholes.

  3. I was hoping you were talking about place-names with ideophony and onomatapoeia in them. It is something I’ve been looking at in Navajo of late. But these are all good topics as well.

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