14 December 2008

Toponymy and historical linguistics

This weekend I attended a conference on onomastics, i.e. the study of the history and use of proper names, including place names (toponyms) and people’s names (anthroponyms). It was held in Xàtiva, a town near Valencia (you can find the full programme of the conference here, written in Catalan). In general, I found the talks quite interesting, especially the ones given by Josep Moran (University of Barcelona), Emili Casanova (University of Valencia) and Agustí Ventura (former professor of Latin and an expert in local history and toponymy). There were also some insightful contributions by other participants, whose research focused on specific areas or villages, e.g. Enric Mut’s account of the toponymy of Guadassuar and Francisco Llácer’s new ideas about the toponymy of the Algemesí area, both in the Valencia province. The world of toponyms is full of little jewels that can be of great interest for the linguist. In recent times I have become increasingly interested in this field of study and, in fact, I’m currently doing some research on toponymy in collaboration with Xaverio Ballester (University of Valencia).

Toponyms and anthroponyms have never played a much relevant role in historical linguistics or in theoretical linguistics. As we have already seen in this blog (for example in the previous post, see here), historical linguists are mainly interested in establishing genealogical relationships between languages by means of laws and principles. Place-names and people’s names do not fit very well into this theoretical framework: they offer a much more real and complex picture of language, and that's not something that many linguists are comfortable with. The history of a toponym tells us about the different languages or dialects that have shaped it through the ages, regardless of genealogies or language families. Human languages are the result of people’s interaction, which happens in all directions. Concepts such as ‘language unity’ or ‘purity’, or ‘deviation from the norm or from the common ancestor’ are modern developments or purely abstract ideas, and are not very useful if we want to study the history (or prehistory) of languages. There are other approaches, other tools to look into language history or to analyse toponyms and anthroponyms in a scientific way, and I'm actually quite interested in them.

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