Place-names, Politics and Conflict

In a series of four posts over the coming weeks Ciarán Dunbar will explore why the single most important event in Irish place-names study and a significant event in Irish history, the 1st Ordnance Survey is almost universally misunderstood – But how do such simple everyday things such as place-names become involved in  politics, in controversy and even in conflict?

 What is a place-name?  

What is a place-name? That question seems a very simple one at first glance but a place-name is more than a mere label used to distinguish one place from another in an administrative function, they also serve an important cultural purpose and are a part of the identity of an individual and a community.

People often identify themselves with reference to a place-name, or with a ethnic group name which is connected to a place-name[1], for example ‘Irish’ as derived from ‘Ireland’.

The link between identity and place-names is quite clear. Identification with the language in which the place-name was originally composed can re-enforce this identification.

Place-names give a great insight into the histories of a place, they can provide insight into migration, linguistics, economic activity and politics.

In the language they were originally coined in they always have meaning; perhaps describing the natural feature to which they are connected, they may make reference to the flora or fauna of a place, they many identify the ‘original’ inhabitants, a family or ethnic group who may be or may have been living there, they may commemorate a specific historical event.

It is this resonance which introduces place-names, particularly in language contact / conflict scenarios, into cultural and political conflicts.

In Ireland, Derry / Londonderry is the most well known example of a disputed place-name, it is the subject of bitter division regardless of its etymology or meaning[2], or even language of origin, with Nationalists in Ireland calling the city Derry and Unionists calling it Londonderry.

Toponomastics in general and in Ireland in particular has sought to study place-names neutrally and to concentrate on efforts to find their original form and meaning. This neutrality is difficult to achieve however.

For example, the vast majority of Ireland’s place-names originate in the Irish language, the study of the etymology of place-names in Ireland therefore is simply not feasible without a knowledge of the Irish language and its history, vocabulary and syntax.

Irish is a minority language in Ireland, therefore the neutrality of anyone with sufficient knowledge to carry out the task can be and is questioned.

Indeed, even funding of the etymological study of place-names in opposition to the funding of other language based endeavours can be viewed in a political context.

However, as many political controversies are based on historical and linguistic misunderstandings and pure toponomastics can often be of great utility in settling these debates.

Occitan / French street plaque in Toulouse

The universal issue of signage

 Issues surrounding bilingual / multilingual signage and road-signage in particular take place-names into the political arena more often than any other issue.

Therefore no discussion of place-names, language policy and politics can avoid the issue.

In the modern age the language of the road-sign is at least as important as the language of cartography, every sighted person sees a road sign practically every day whereas few people use maps on a daily basis.

It is this visibility which makes the bilingual and multilingual sign a political issue, ‘road signs can be seen as kinds of markers in what can be conceptualised as political landscapes’ Andersen (2004: 123).

The bilingual or multilingual road-sign can be a constant reminder to a majority that the share their territory with a minority and their culture and the monolingual road-sign can be a constant reminder to a minority and / or minoritised cultural group of the existence of a larger dominant culture.

For example, in July 2009, it was reported that planners from Israel’s transport ministry propose to replace the country’s trilingual road signage with monolingual signage with Hebrew forms only, albeit written also in English and Arabic scripts.

All three languages are written in a different alphabet and scripts. This plan was presented by planners as an attempt to alleviate confusion amongst drivers. However, the Israeli transport minister, Yisrael Katz, gave an indication of an additional motive:

Some Palestinian maps still refer to the Israeli cities by their pre-1948 names … I will not allow that on our signs. This government, and certainly this minister, will no allow anyone to turn Jewish Jerusalem to Palestinian al-Quds[3].

The link between place-names, signage and ideology is quite transparent in this example and the concept of road-signage being markers on a political landscape is clear.

Language activists often focus on the issue of road-signage as do their opponents, the latter sometimes being more vocal on the issue than those who support the concept, ‘the reactions provoked in certain place-name debates often seem to centre on signage … It may be possible to infer through the nature of these debates that there also exists a political function of place-names (Puzey 1997, 16).

Road-signage is often seen as important in efforts to ‘re-legitimise’ minority languages and to increase their visibility (Puzey 1997, 119). Bilingual and multi-lingual signage, regardless of utility, are undeniably of huge symbolical significance, as Puzey observes; ‘multilingual road signs are often employed symbolically to represent the entire concept of plurilingual societies’ (Puzey 1997, 8).

According to the Israeli geographers Cohen and Kliot, place-names are ‘intrinsic components of political landscape’ (Cohen and Kliot 1992, 653), but it must also be understood that place-names can not only be seen as representations of the current political landscape and of current linguistic boundaries but also as markers of ancestral territories and former linguistic boundaries, as minority language activist Dr Davyth Hicks articulates :

One last point especially to bear in mind considering Gaelic is how place-names, and therefore signage, not only represent existing linguistic territory but also past, ancestral territory. It is evident from the amount of interest shown in names that people intrinsically feel that the names on the landscape are identifiable with community and nation. To take away any of these names and replace them with other names in a different language takes something away from the community; it can feel like invasion, as if territory is literally being added to the neighbouring language group. It means that names become jealously guarded. They may not reflect the actual linguistic divide at all. In Wales the start of Welsh place-names very much marked the language border well into the 1900s. On the Cornish border, where the language actually faded hundreds of years ago, Cornish names abruptly start and along with the Tamar provide a clear and distinct political border. Names give this sense of place, of living in history. (Hicks 2002)

What Hicks means by ‘they may not reflect the actual linguistic divide at all’ is that it is often the case that a language survives in place-names long after the vernacular use language in which they were composed has ceased in an area.

This is the case for example in most of areas in which Scottish Gaelic was formerly spoken, having covered all of Scotland for the thirteenth century only.

For Hicks, monolingual English language or anglicised signage in Gaelic speaking and formerly Gaelic-speaking areas acts as ‘denial that Gaelic ever existed and so acts to de-legitimise Gaelic usage amongst users and non-users alike’ (Hicks 2002).

However, what Hicks fails to point out is that the fact that an area’s place-names derive from a particular language, does not necessary entail that the residents of that area identify with that language in anyway.

It is often this lack of identification with a language formerly spoken in an area, or spoken only by a minority, which leads to disputes concerning place-names when attempts are made to introduce the language into the political landscape through bilingual signage.

In the next post, I will examine the origins of the much misunderstood 1st Ordnance Survey of Ireland.

Andersen, S., ‘Saami Place Names and Place-Making in a Minority-Majority Context’, in Dieđut 3/2004: Landscape, Law and Customary Rights, ed. by Michael Jones and Audhild Schanche, Guovdageaidnu-Kautokeino: Sámi Instituhtta, (2004) pp. 122-134.

Cohen S. B. and Kliot N., “Place names in Israel’s ideological struggle over the administered territories”, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, (1992) n. 82, pp. 653- 680.

Hicks, D., Scotland’s linguistic landscape: the lack of policy and planning with Scotland’s place-names and signage, paper given 24 April 2002, World Congress on Language Policies, Barcelona.

Puzey, G. Planning the Linguistic Landscape :A Comparative Survey of the Use of Minority Languages in the Road Signage of Norway, Scotland and Italy (The University of Edinburgh, 2007)




[1] An obvious exception to this rule is where people identify with a cultural / ethnic group which is independent of geography, an example would be where individuals identify themselves as a Gael / Gàidheal.

[2] The word ‘Derry’ is an anglicisation of the Irish, Doire ‘oak-wood’.

[3] “Row over ‘standard’ Hebrew signs”,

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