Linguistics Colonial Place Names
Thomas Stolz, Ingo H. Warnke, Jascha de Bloom
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0263


Colonial place names (= CPNs) constitute a specific category of toponyms, namely the class of place names which are attested in documents of the era of colonialism (c. 1415–c. 1999) as labels employed (a) by (mostly European) colonizers for reference to geo-objects in the territory of the (mostly extra-European) colonized or (b), most frequently in the shape of street-names commemorating events, person, or places related to the colonialist enterprise, as expression of colonial ambitions of (mostly European) colonizers in their home-countries. CPNs are a very promising field of research for students of (not only colonial) history, political science, postcolonialism, law, geography, cartography, literary studies, onomastics, etc. CPNs are crucially involved in the discursive creation of power relations and are relevant to identity issues not the least in the context of decolonization and postcolonial reactions to CPNs. This considerable academic potential notwithstanding, CPNs have only recently been acknowledged as a research objects in their own right. The idea that it is worthwhile studying CPNs comprehensively and systematically has developed within the domain of linguistics, more specifically within the newly established research program of colonial linguistics. Proponents of this innovative branch of language studies have highlighted that across the different (mostly European) colonialisms CPNs display a remarkably homogeneous behavior in the sense that their structural and semantic properties tend to be similar independent of the language of colonizers so that it is possible to postulate a canonical type of CPN. This similarity is a proven fact in the domain of exonyms and hybrids, i.e., in the case of CPNs which consist either completely or partly of elements which are taken directly from the language of the colonizers. As to endonyms (= CPNs which exclusively involve elements which—at least superficially—stem from languages of the colonized), future research will reveal whether it is possible to formulate generalizations also over this segment of the colonial toponomasticons. The study of CPNs calls for interdisciplinary cooperation. Since this cooperation is as yet still in its infancy the bibliography focuses on those scholarly contributions which are equipped with a discernible linguistic component. This means that this article avoids mentioning the extant uncommented gazetteers and other list-like inventories of CPNs as published by colonial or other governmental authorities whose purpose is not of an academic nature.

Classic Works

In the domain under scrutiny, the classic text par excellence is Calvet 2002. Several chapters of this book raise key issues of the research program for the first time, mostly in connection to the impact of French colonialism on the toponomastics of colonized territories overseas. Calvet’s seminal study inspired Metzeltin 1977, which focuses on early Portuguese colonialism in West Africa. It is the first attempt at describing a colonial toponomasticon from a purely linguistic perspective. The author demonstrates the impossibility of formulating insightful generalizations about the structural and semantic properties of Portuguese-based colonial toponyms. Möller 1986, a PhD thesis, is the first book-length in-depth linguistic study of a colonial toponomasticon, namely that of Deutsch-Südwestafrika (today’s Namibia). The author does not refer to her predecessors but independently develops a sound methodology of her own. As in the case of Metzeltin 1977, Möller shows that the structural, functional, and semantic aspects of the German-based colonial toponyms yield a system which can be described on the basis of formal rules. Moreover, Möller provides a sizable catalog of over one thousand colonial toponyms with useful historical background information. In the two successive articles Ormeling 2003 and Ormeling 2004 the Dutch cartographer Ferjan Ormeling again starts from zero, outlining his own approach to colonial toponomastics. Without reference to prior dedicated work in this domain, Ormeling argues in favor of a large-scale comparative study of the European-based colonial toponomasticons. In his relatively brief studies of the phenomena, the author shows that there are many parallels on different levels of description which interconnect several, if not all, European-based colonial toponomasticons. In addition, Ormeling emphasizes the dynamics of toponomasticons under the conditions of European colonialism. For a general introduction to the younger research branch of critical toponomastics, Vuolteenaho and Berg 2016 is highly recommended. With reference to Calvet 2002, Metzeltin 1977, and Möller 1986, Stolz and Warnke 2015 introduces Comparative Colonial Toponomastics (CoCoTop) as a new research program within the wider framework of colonial linguistics. The insights to be gained from this project are envisaged by way of a qualitative and quantitative case study of the German colonial toponomasticon showing a predominance of binary structures which are only marginally present also in the toponomasticon of the metropolis. The high degree of structural and semantic uniformity found in the German colonial toponomasticon is hypothesized to be equally characteristic also of the toponomasticons of other European colonizers.

  • Calvet, Louis-Jean. 2002. Linguistique et colonialisme. Paris: Éditions Payot.

    This classic text (originally published in 1974) can be considered a kind of foundation manifesto of colonial and postcolonial linguistics. On the basis of Marxist point of view, the author describes a variety of scenarios in which the effects of colonialism on language are showcased. CPNs are addressed in different sections of the book; they are mentioned especially in connection with Calvet’s concept of le droit de nommer, i.e., the colonizers’ assumption of being entitled to giving names to entities in the colonies.

  • Metzeltin, Miguel. 1977. La toponomia de los primeros descubrimientos: Contrubución a una teoría de la toponimización. In Actas del V Congreso Internacional de Estudios Lingüísticos del Mediterráneo. Edited by Manuel Alvar, 622–634. Madrid: Departamento de Geogr. Lingüistica.

    This is the very first study which approaches colonial toponyms from a strictly linguistic perspective. Metzeltin evaluates the original reports on the early discoveries of the Portuguese explorers on the West African coast in the late 15th century. The author shows that it is possible to analyze the early Portuguese colonial toponyms according to structural and semantic criteria. He argues that colonial toponyms should be studied in their own right within the wider framework of onomastics.

  • Möller, Lucie Alida. 1986. ’n Toponimies-linguistiese ondersoek na Duitse plekname in Suidwes-Afrika. Durban, South Africa: University of Natal.

    This PhD thesis (written in Afrikaans) is the hitherto only comprehensive linguistic study of the colonial toponomasticon of a former German colony, namely German South West Africa. The dissertation comprises a commented list of some twelve hundred toponyms of German origin. In the main body of the text the data are meticulously analyzed and discussed with reference to their phonological, morphological, and semantic properties. Historical background information is provided for the bulk of the material.

  • Ormeling, Ferjan. 2003. Place name change models and European expansion. In Proceedings of the Symposium on the History of Cartography of Africa held at the National Library of South Africa, Cape Town, South Africa, August 4–5, 2003. Edited by Elri Liebenberg, 49–50. London: ICA Commission of the History of Cartography.

    This is the condensed version of Ormeling 2004. It sketches the basic ideas of a large-scale research project that aims at identifying and systematizing the major aspects of the European impact on the toponomasticons of colonial territories. This short paper assumes that certain phenomena are recurrent in colonial place-naming. The relatively scarce empirical evidence for this assumption stems from all kinds of European colonies.

  • Ormeling, Ferjan. 2004. Een model voor de verandering van plaatsnamen in het kader van de Europese expansie. Caert-Thresoor. Tijdschrift voor de Geschiedenis van de Kartografie in Nederland 23.1: 5–13.

    The author proposes a model of place name changes in connection with European colonization in overseas and subsequent processes of decolonization. Various case studies covering the history of colonialism from its beginnings to the postcolonial era are discussed in order to derive a set of eleven rules which capture many facets of the phenomenology of colonial place-naming. Data from several European colonial projects on all extra-European continents are presented and compared.

  • Stolz, Thomas, and Ingo H. Warnke. 2015. Aspekte der kolonialen und postkolonialen Toponymie unter besonderer Berücksichtigung des deutschen Kolonialismus. In Koloniallinguistik: Sprache in kolonialen Kontexten. Edited by Daniel Schmidt-Brücken, Susanne Schuster, Thomas Stolz, Ingo H. Warnke, and Marina Wienberg, 107–175. Colonial and Postcolonial Linguistics: CPL 8. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110424799-007

    The research program of comparative colonial toponomastics takes shape with exactly this study. On the basis of the quantitative assessment of exonymic and hybrid toponyms in the German colonial empire, the authors demonstrate that the colonial toponomasticon is characterized by recurrent formal and semantic patterns of newly coined toponyms. It is shown that there is a pronounced preference for binary constructions which involve a classifier constituent of European origin. It is assumed that these findings are paralleled in other colonial toponomasticons.

  • Vuolteenaho, Jani, and Lawrence D. Berg. 2016. Towards critical toponymies. In Critical toponymies: The contested politics of place naming. Edited by Lawrence D. Berg and Jani Vuolteenaho, 1–18. Re-Materialising Cultural Geography. London and New York: Routledge.

    In the introductory article to their edited volume, Vuolteenaho and Berg give an overview of traditional approaches in the study of place names that derive from different research fields, such as cartography, philosophy, and linguistics. Focusing the entwinement of place-naming and power relations, the authors moreover oppose a popular misconception of place names as being free of any meaning besides their referential function. Instead, the bestowment of any toponym is described as socially embedded.

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