Shakespeare, through his thirteen year-old character Juliet, may have been the first to ask: “What’s in a name?”
This question, however, is now the raison d’être of the entire academic discipline of critical place-name studies. Toponyms, also known as place names, have been at the heart of decades-long conflicts, deeply divided societies, and both hegemonic and counter-hegemonic societal movements. Kosovo, Kosova, Kosovo and Metohija; Myanmar and Burma; Gvozd and Vrginmost; Aotearoa and New Zealand; Ferizaj and Uroševac; Stalingrad and Volgograd.

Greeks in Melbourne, Australia protesting the use of ‘Macedonia’ by FYROM. (Photo from Wikipedia)

What are in names such as these? How could a toponym possibly be at the heart of a costly dispute spanning decades between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM)/Macedonia, which even reached the echelons of the International Court of Justice?
Language, like most things, is political and so too are toponyms. The choice to use one name over another makes a decisively political statement. In cases where place names are a feature of contested territory or regime authority, as in many of the above examples, neutrality becomes the rare commodity of the distinctly creative or is, more simply, impossible. In regards to the Kosovo/Kosova debate, attempts to textually reflect the contested nature of the territory in a neutral manner have yielded such hybrid forms as Kosovo/a or Kosov@.
Although few toponyms are as infamous as some of those mentioned above, which include rival names deemed official by decree of competing authorities, the phenomenon of place-names as contested rather than irrelevant is actually the norm and not the exception. The following will explore how toponyms are political, from whence their power comes, and who can wield it.
The seemingly innocuous goal of toponyms is to provide spatial orientation for individuals. This is called denotation and it is this labeling that enables people to give directions or converse about a specific location. The denotation function of toponyms is thus primarily practical. Yet, toponyms can also be used to evoke a symbolic association as well. This is referred to as connotation. Frequently the denotation and connotation functions of toponyms overlap and blur. The very act of naming conveys power over the thing, in this instance a landscape, which is named. The power of nomination is an integral part of the power of possession. More important than the toponyms themselves then, are those with the power to create toponyms, to designate that such a place will henceforth be referred to by such a name. There are three broad categories of societal agents that may wield this power.

Victoria Street, George Town, Penang, Malaysia. (Photo from Wikipedia)

Firstly, there are foreign colonial, imperial, or occupational forces. Colonial regimes often imported names from their respective imperial power. For instance, Singapore had streets that emphasized its colonial connection to Britain with street names such as: Victoria Street, Bristol Road, and Sussex Garden. Additionally, certain locations were given racialized toponyms, which reflected the “colonial tendency to order society by separating the colonized into distinct, recognizable containers (for example, China Street in Chinatown; Baghdad Street in the Muslim quarter and Hindoo Road in Little India).”
A more recent, arguably neo-colonial, toponymic phenomenon in this first category is the Americanized names given to streets in Iraq since the invasion in 2003. Major Dean Thurmond of the US Army’s Combined Joint Task Force Seven has argued that in “the world of the occupier, name familiarity breeds security”, hence the habit of American soldiers to substitute Iraqi toponyms for nostalgia-evoking American ones such as Main Street, Cigar Street, or South Street.
The second group of place name designators is made up of local hegemonic political regimes. It is easiest to observe this group at work in countries that have recently undergone radical political or ideological regime changes, such as post-colonial, post-Communist, or recently created states. This is because the creation of toponyms has become part and parcel of the nation-building process and of legitimating new social ideologies.
The “renaming of streets in post-colonial societies has been interpreted as an ideological tool to divest the landscape of its colonial associations and achieve political legitimation”, as such “street names are ‘among the first to undergo refurbishing to commemorate new regimes’”. Place names, as pedestrian, banal, and quotidian as they inherently are, have the enormous yet subtle power of normalizing existing social power hierarchies and ideologies. It is for this reason that regimes, especially those that are insecure because they are new, embarking on the difficult process of nation-building in a non-homogeneous community, or face a crisis of legitimacy, will pursue toponymic overhauls even to the point of hilarity or to the detriment of the navigational and common sense nature of toponyms.
Two examples illustrate this well. The first is the well-known urban irritant of splitting a single continuous thoroughfare into multiple parts in order to “accommodate multiple commemorative names, each of which is assigned to a particular consecutive segment of a thoroughfare between neighboring intersections.” While this may maximize the number of commemorations a given geographical area can possess, which is politically useful, it is likely to be confusing to motorists who assume that one name should refer to the entirety of the continuous thoroughfare. More ridiculous, was post-colonial Singapore’s initial dedication to creating a sense of common space and culture through the use of exclusively Malay words in street-naming. “The available Malay vocabulary relating to Malayan fauna, flora and material culture was soon exhausted and painstakingly scraping of the bottom of the lexicographical barrel produced names which the Deputy Prime Minister described as ‘comic and unintelligible’”.

Road sign in Kosovo where graffiti obscures Serbian and Turkish toponyms, leaving only Albanian. (Photo from Wikipedia)

Finally, marginalized and minority populations can play a paradoxically significant role in determining local toponyms. This is because hegemony is never complete; it must consistently contend with counter-hegemonic challenges and the decision-making process that produces toponyms is precisely one area where social and cultural power struggles arise. After all, “landscapes are not just the products of social power but also tools or resources for achieving it.
In Iraq, Shi’a communities have embarked on a process of renaming public spaces in a toponymic exorcism of Saddam’s legacy. The pronunciation of place names in a manner sympathetic to the Maori of Aotearoa/New Zealand, practiced by both indigenous and non-indigenous citizens is a way of recognizing the cultural rights of local indigenous people. Political graffiti that modifies toponyms has targeted street signs from Chicago and Northern Ireland to Kosovo and Basque.
These stunts, seen as “cases of people claiming and reinscribing the landscape through place-naming practices of various kinds are evocative and contribute to bringing visibility, albeit often temporarily, to their cause.” In the case of road sign vandalism in Kosovo where Serbian toponyms are effaced, it has been described as a form of protest against the strict minority protections enshrined in law for ethnic Serbian citizens, which are perceived as unfair in that they stand in stark contrast to the lack of minority protections, especially linguistic, that were afforded to ethnic Albanians in Serbia or the former Yugoslavia.
The contested nature of toponyms is perhaps most clearly illustrated in cases where historically marginalized populations assert their presence through defiant use of certain toponyms, engaging in what some authors have referred to as “toponymic warfare”.
Part 2 of this post will be available next Monday…

Sarah Littisha Jansen is in her first year of the PhD program in International Conflict Management and Resolution at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. She completed her B.A. Honours at Glendon College of York University in International Studies and Études françaises and did undergraduate research in Kosovo/a on Serbian-Albanian bilingualism and its implications for building sustainable peace
Featured Photo by Natalie Maynor

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