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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