This recent About.com post on the renaissance of historic Indian city names got me thinking about the importance of place names.
With no background information displayed on political maps, place names are our only clues to the stories behind cities and countries. We can guess that a place like Los Angeles was settled by Spanish speakers, but does that really convey the whole story? The name “Los Angeles” erases any evidence of a past Native American population that might have lived there. This is proof that the common maxim “the victors are the writers of history” can actually be realized through maps. Another great example is the term “Middle East,” which arose in conjunction with Near and Far East to illustrate relative locations to England. As the world’s cartographic powerhouse through the Ages of Exploration and Imperialism, England called the shots when it came to the naming of places.
While countries like India have
decided to abandon English place names created during Imperialistic
rule, the legacy of Anglo-Saxon naming lives on with the ‘official’ use
of English-translated maps for diplomacy and negotiation by today’s superpowers. What’s even more interesting is the game of semantics that’s played when a territory is disputed. A
clever way that governments, the media, and cartographers avoid taking
political stances on disputed territories (either intentionally or
unintentionally) is by adopting a politically-ambiguous name for a
place– think of the West Bank, Kashmir, or the Gaza Strip whose names are regionally, not politically inspired.
It’s no wonder that India wants to reclaim the original names of its cities like Mumbai or Kolkatta — by doing so, the country reinforces its independence and presence on the world stage (and effectively erases imperialism from their cartographic history). We’re reminded that place names are loaded with politics, history and culture, yet the aerial view we get from a political map is only surface-level at best for understanding a place- the real story is up to the viewer to interpret. Starting with the idea to investigate a place name will likely lead you to an entire history of wars, global interactions and cultures… suddenly you’re a full-blown geographer. Who knew!?
Can you think of any more examples of cities or countries whose names have changed recently? Can you think of any that should change? Let us know!
Bethany for My Wonderful World