The Linguistics of Place Names | JSTOR Daily

Why is this important, to have a place name with a sense of history and meaning? Thomas F. Thornton believes “as linguistic artifacts […], place names tell us something not only about the structure and content of the physical environment itself but also […] toponyms, both by themselves and in the context of narratives, songs, and everyday speech, provide valuable insights into the ways humans experience the world.” Even when we don’t know the language, we can derive certain ideas from the landscape we see around us and the old place names still in use. Consider tri-state names of native American origin, such as Minisink, Neversink, Navesink, Musquapsink, or a group like Netcong, Hopatcong, Musconetcong, Pohatcong, Lopatcong, etc. If you know the region, you’ll absorb the idea that suffixes -sink and -cong might have something to do with place or land (there’s still some dispute about what they refer to), and that these are unique to that part of the country.

When people are disconnected from their places, we lose a lot more than just a name. We lose an understanding of what that community finds important. To modern minds, a large concept such as a mountain or a country might seem fairly obvious to mark with a name, but Thomas Waterman, a prominent anthropologist working on Native American place names in the 1920s, pointed out that “a special name will often be given to a rock no larger than a kitchen table while, on the other hand, what we consider the large and important features of a region’s geography have no names at all.” The Yuroks in California provided Waterman with twelve places names on the slopes of a mountain for example, but no name for the mountain itself. Canadians, likewise, delight in the popular story that explorer Jacques Cartier apparently waved his hand around vaguely, asking what the country was called, and the Iroquois people helpfully obliged by telling him “kanata” (a village), which became the modern day Canada.

Source: How to Navigate by Nostalgia: The Linguistics of Place Names | JSTOR Daily


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