Toponymy: What do the United Nations say?

Few days ago, we were confronted with the incredibly reactionary call made by mainly — but not exclusively — italian linguists and professors, aimed at maintaining the complete toponymic “patrimony” artificially translated and imposed to South Tyrolean places during fascism. In return, we are now publishing some pertinent excerpts from the “Manual for the standardization of geographical names” edited by the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names (UNGEGN). This can be useful to understand, directly or allusively, what place names are and how they should be treated, according to this international scientific board.

The types of information needed when names problems and proposals are being considered are:

(a)  Current local oral usage, its amount and extent;
(b)  Current and historical usage on maps and in official documents;
(c)  Circumstances of naming;
(d)  Name duplication within the area;
(e)  Offensive or derogatory word(s) in a name;
(f)  Name length and acceptability;
(g)  Regional government and advisory committee recommendations;
(h)  Social, cultural and political concerns;
(i)  Clear application of the name to a feature/area.

A newly organized authority needs to consider two basic questions when establishing official standard names.

The first concerns the basis on which names are selected for standardization. It is possible, for example, to choose names arbitrarily without reference to existing usage. However, this procedure is not recommended because it would introduce conflict and confusion into the naming process by creating two naming systems in a country: one based on local usage and the other on government usage. Instead, it is recommended that precedence be given to those names in established local/public use. It is good policy to integrate administrative and academic judgements with the preferences of local people. Exceptions will occur when particular names cannot be adopted because of conflict with other principles or policies, or when public/local usage is variable or ephemeral.

The second question relates to the meaning and purpose of names standardization. Univocity, the principle whereby one standard name is assigned to each geographical entity (place, feature or area) at any point in time, represents the ideal toponymic standardization. Every effort should be made to adhere to that principle so as to avoid ambiguity. It can sometimes be difficult to achieve this one name/one feature ideal, especially in multilingual areas where name usage is divided along language lines. In those cases, the names authority could:

(a)  Choose only one name, based on specific criteria, as the official form;
(b)  Recognize and make available for use in other languages, one or more names (that is to say allonyms […]), not equal to the official form in rank, but chosen for use in specified contexts; or
(c)  Choose two or more forms as official on an equal basis (multiple names would thus most likely be shown on maps where scale permitted) […].

A national authority may adopt more than one official name for a geographical entity. It is suggested, however, that one of the names be recommended for international usage.

The best procedure seems to lie between standardizing names one at a time and standardizing large numbers of names at one time. For example, established nationally known names found on official maps can be standardized as a group, and local names and the names of minor features can be collected, reported, researched and standardized individually.

The latter paragraph shows there obviously is a notion of “local names and … names of minor features”, something to which is often referred to as “micro toponymy” in South Tyrol.

A good researcher will attempt to gain a full understanding of the nature of each name being considered by reviewing the:

(a) Toponymic history of the geographical entity involved;
(b) Languages involved and their written forms;
(c) Sources of all variant names and spellings;
(d) Special ethnic, cultural and political interests;
(e) Local usage and local preferences;
(f) Degree and reliability of name usage;
(g) Options with regard to standardization.

Translation can be employed as a method of names conversion only if the source toponym, wholly or in part, has semantic or lexical meaning, in other words, only if it can be found in an ordinary dictionary.

When is translation resorted to in names conversion? Chiefly when the toponym includes a “translateable” generic term. Naturally, toponyms are often translated when one deals with topographic features outside one’s own linguistic region.

Underlining made by BBD.