What is a Toponym?

Battle creek is an example of an incident name, in which the location is named after a specific incident.
Battle creek is an example of an incident name, in which the location is named after a specific incident.

Toponym is the study of names of places, specifically their meanings, typology, use, and origins. The term toponym is derived from the Greek word topos meaning "region" and onoma meaning "to name." The study of regional names is called toponymy which is a branch of onomastics. Toponym also refers to a geographical entity or any general name for any place. Other related terms to toponym are hydronym, which refers to a body of water, and oronym, which refers to a hill or a mountain, while anyone who studies toponym is known as toponymist.

Features of a Toponym

The names of different regions are derived from the culture of the people living there or another area. These names have a unique feature of being conservative since they remain relevant years after different people invade the region. Toponyms in different nations like Canada, Mexico, and the United States have native terms in their names, such as Saskatchewan and Ottawa in Canada, and Acapulco and Oaxaca in Mexico. Other places are named after the nature of the politics in the region, such as the Byzantine Empire in Rome. The toponym Byzantine Empire, also known as Eastern Roman-Empire, is derived from the term Byzantium which means a highly complex area, and it might have been named Byzantine because of the complicated nature of the politics and administration in the region.

Types of Toponym

Descriptive toponyms are descriptions of the place whether it is the terrain or the plants farmed in the region by the first settlers in the land. The name the 'Rocky Mountains' describes the topography of the place. Chicago originated from a French interpretation of the term “Shikaakwa” which means smelly onion. Associative toponyms relate to a unique landmark in the region, for example, Mill River refers to a mill that was in the streams in the area and also Springfield in Massachusetts. Incident names are places named after an incident that took place in that region like Bloody Ridge and Battle Creek. Possessive names are places named after the geographical terrain of the area like Castro Valley. Some places are named after a well-known person who did something memorable for the area. Some commemorative names of places include Illinois which is named after Illini Indians, and Seattle named after Chief Seattle. Other towns are given commendatory or praising names like Pleasant Valley. Mistaken names refer to historical errors in translation and naming of places, such as the West Indies which is neither in Indies nor on the Western side of Indies. Some place names are manufactured or made up names like Tesnus, which is sunset when spelled backward, and also Reklaw which reads Walker when read backward. Other regions are named after the home of the initial settlers who came into the town. Some of the shift terms like New Mexico named by the Mexicans settlers.

History of the Word "Toponym"

The term toponymy is thought to have appeared in the English language in 1876, and from that time it has come to be used in place of “place-name” especially among the geographers or in professional discourse. The first toponymists are thought to have been poets and storytellers, who gave the name of places in their tales. At times the toponym served as the foundation of their etiological legends. The process of folk etymology always took over when the name of a place had a false meaning when the name was obtained based on its structure or sound. For instance, the toponym of Hellespont is said to have been named after Helle who drowned while crossing the place with her brother Phrixus on their golden ram. However, the name was derived from the Pelasgian language, which is an old language and according to George Stewart the Hellespont means 'narrow Pontus.' Researchers discovered that the place-name provides an insight to the historical-geography of a region. Not only does the Region-name describe the ethnic settlement patterns of a place, but it also aids in identifying the immigration periods.

How are Place Names Established?

Toponymists create the geographical names of places in discussion and cooperation with experts on place names from the United Nations. They apply toponymy science when establishing a geographic name of an area. The geographers rely on local histories, maps, and interviews of the residence when creating a place-name. The meaning, origin, language, and pronunciation of specific name among other crucial facts are always recorded during this process. In 2002, the conference of standardization of place names from United Nation Group of Experts on Geographical Names (UNGEGN) recognized that although the practice of naming places after living individuals still exists, it can be problematic. Therefore they recommend that the national authorities in charge of changing names set the rules as to how long they should wait after a person dies before using commemorative names.

Toponymic Processes

Toponymic processes are the unique process which can cause authorities to change the name and meaning of a place-name. Some of the processes that can create a change in toponym include conflation, abbreviation, and convergence, among other processes. Abbreviation breaks the name down into a simple to pronounce form, while conflation is a process whereby two elements of a toponym are confused. Convergence process occurs when the toponym flows towards a well-known phoneme in the geographical name.

Parent language replacement is the most dramatic toponymic process. If the country adopts a new language which is commonly used by the locals, the meaning of place name might also change. In serious scenarios, the name can also be changed. The name might also be recycled and even altered. The parent language may also evolve, but this will not alter the region name alone. Parent language evolution can permit the other Toponymic processes to take place.

Usually, elaborating on the name occurs when two distinctive regions have the same name. In the United Kingdom, two related and neighboring area with similar names became little/great or under/upon, like in the case of Newcastle-under-Lyme and their neighbor Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The local features distinguish these two towns.

Backformation process is a toponymic process whereby the place-name is obtained from a nearby feature or place instead of itself. In numerous cases, a stream or river with a forgotten name can be renamed after the region on the river bank or vice versa. Through this process, the beautiful river in Rochdale became river Roch. In Cambridge, the name of the Bridge in Granta changed from Grantabrice to Cantebrugge and finally to Cambridge, and the name of the river changed to “Cam.”


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