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Why Toponymy?

For the benefit of those who are uncertain of the value of toponymy, and also those who would like to explain that value to others, there is given on this page a number of quotations from experts in the subject, describing its usefulness and importance.


Wer sich die Mühe nimmt, sobald er einen Ort erreicht, von dem dortigen Ältesten oder seinem Ratgeber Genaueres über die Frage: "Warum nennt diesen Ort so?" zu erfahren, wird auf die interessantesten Belehrungen rechnen können.
Whoever takes the trouble, as soon as he has reached a place, of learning something more exact about the question “Why does one call this place that?” from the elder there or from his advisor will be able to reckon on the most interesting teachings.
Carl Spiess, “Bedeutung einiger Stadte- und Dorfnamen in Deutsch-Togo”
(The Meaning of Some City and Village Names in German Togo),
Globus (Brunswick), Band LXXXIX, Nr.9 (8. Maerz 1906), p.139
Translation kindly supplied by S.E Greene


A knowledge of place-names (towns, mountains, rivers, lakes, springs and other geographical sites), … can be of great help to history because place-names seldom change. Even their phonetic evolution hardly ever leads to radical modifications and seldom affects the old pronunciation and spelling. It is for this reason that the study of place-names can reveal facts relating to the past and so yield information concerning the history, religion and civilization of the first occupants of the places concerned.
Mohammed El Fasi, “Toponymy and ethnonymy as scientific aids to history”
in “African ethnonyms and toponyms”, UNESCO, 1978, p.18


People from different professional backgrounds may be allured to some kind of study of geographical names. To linguists specializing either in the historical or genealogical aspects of specific languages, or in the taxonomy of languages in general, toponyms contain a treasure of ancient language elements which allows them to underbuild their theories or test their hypotheses. Likewise, historians may use toponym research to reveal ancient movements of peoples, or get a hint of cultural exchange patterns in forgotten ages. Moreover, recurrent name elements are known to store information on the history of settlement and land reclamation, the economic activities of the original settlers, and political developments.
Tjeerd Tichelaar, “Toponymy and Language”
Lecture Notes, Enschede, Frankfurt am Main, Berlin 2002


With toponymy, it is possible to analyze the relations between and among people, history, geography and culture. As a discovery tool, cartography along with the closer investigation of place names facilitate a broader spectrum of information which has important impact on education and pedagogical practice. In this way, toponymy and its interpretation may be a significant means … for students and teachers to multiply their ability to form meaningful and interdisciplinary activities. Teaching students how to research names and allowing them to develop these critical skills in a spirit full of curiosity gives them the ability to improve their knowledge of history, culture and people gradually. Knowledge of area, time and social order, provided through toponymic approaches instill three fundamental concepts for the development of every individual.
A.M.Garra, C.E.Juliarena & C.A.Rey, “The Value of Toponymy in Teaching”
Conference on Discovering Basic Concepts, Montreal, 1999

A major trend in African Studies today consists in using traces of African culture embedded in African names and naming practices to recover or reconstruct African heritage. African names are oral records that can be meticulously processed and analyzed by African and Africana scholars. The emphasis is placed on two categories of names: ethnonyms and toponyms. Ethnonyms are names of people and ethnic groups whereas toponyms are names of places. These two categories of names constitute two important subfields of African onomastics. In addition, they are related in three interesting ways. First, some ethnic groups derive their names from place names and vice versa. Secondly, unlike other types of names such as anthroponyms or personal names, which can easily change or disappear according to the biography of the bearer, toponyms and ethnonyms have a durable life span. Toponyms in particular constitute fixed landmarks whose durability makes them important data for historical research. Thirdly, and more importantly, ethnonyms and toponyms constitute an intricate and semiotic structure, a kind of palimpsest that crystallizes a layer of meanings of community experience. These meanings can be conceived of as approaches or facets of the collective experience of a group. There are at least five facets: the geographical, the historical, the linguistic, the symbolic, and the socio-political facets.
Atoma Batoma, "African Ethnonyms and Toponyms: An Annotated Bibliography"
Electronic Journal of Africana Bibliography, Vol.10, 2006