The Restoration of Minority Toponyms.

In my former post I cited some relevant paragraphs contained in the United Nations’ ”Manual for the standardization of geographical names”, in order to give an understanding of how toponymy is generally considered by the international scientific community. However, there are more specific views about the situation in South Tyrol, which can be found in the Training Course on Toponymy forming part of the ”documents and literature” of the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names (UNGEGN) and which I’d like to publish here:

In the northern part of Italy, up in the Alps, is the region of South Tyrol. It is a strategic region as it controls the mountain passes onto Vienna and Germany. It belonged to the Austrian Empire, but when Austria lost the First World War Italy annexed it. It had been a German-speaking area for over a thousand years, but the Italians next imposed their language on the area. In the middle of the capital Bozen or Bolzano they erected a triumphal arch with the Latin text on it: “We have brought culture to the barbarians”. And from one day to another they changed the place names. As a matter of fact they changed all names, they even changed family names and names on tombstones in cemeteries. They did so because they did know the power of names. In figure 1 [not shown here, ed.] you will see names like Sterzing, Wiesen, Deutschhaus (or Lichtenberg, Schlanders and Laas). These names have connotations of German dishes like Bratwurst, or Schinken or roasted chestnut. The figure is taken from an Italian map made of this Austrian area before the First World War.

In figure 2 [not shown here, ed.] you will see exactly the same area, but instead of Sterzing, Wiesen and Deutschhaus (Lichtenberg, Schlanders and Laas) the map bears the names Vipiteno, Prato and La Commenda (or Montechiaro, Silandro and Lasa) for the same localities. And these names bring memories of Italian dishes like pasta and prosciutto con melone. But, more important, these names on the map make the area look like an Italian area. That is the power of names. Naming things conveys power to the one who bestows the names! A comparison of figures 1 and 2 will show that it is indeed the same area. Imagine that from one day to another your hometown and the street on which you live would be re-baptized and receive a name in a foreign language! In 1945 South Tyrol was again assigned to Italy by the Allied forces, on the condition that it would respect the German culture and language of the area. Well, place names are part of the language and of culture, but up till now no German place names have entered any official Italian maps of South Tyrol. There is only one commercial publisher, the Italian Touring Club, which publishes atlases and maps with bilingual names for the area. It does so either because it wants to reflect the local situation that has bilingual road signs now, or because it also publishes the maps for a German-speaking clientele.

The use of names on maps is nearly as important as the use of boundaries. Naming things conveys power to the one who bestows the name. Reversely, if one is in control over something one can name it: one’s children or one’s house. Italian names show they have been bestowed by Italians, they show Italian sovereign rights. So if names are in Italian, it is an Italian region. Vice versa, if it is part of Italy, it should have Italian names. That is the reasoning, at least. It is the reasoning of nationalism, a very important force, last century, in Western Europe. As topographic mapping is considered to be some sort of sovereign right, just like taking censuses, and as topographic mapping is usually performed by the state’s civil servants, there is a tendency for minority language toponyms to be represented on the map in some transformed way, adapted to the state languages or to the raison d’etat, that is to reasons of state.

From the cultural viewpoint it should be a nation’s prerogative to preserve the cultural heritage of its population, its minority language population included. Toponyms are parts of this cultural heritage and should therefore be preserved in their minority language versions. The national authorities should also act as a go-between and allow foreign cultural communities to take cognisance of its minority language communities, toponyms included. By paying taxes the members of minority language communities share in the costs of national topographic surveys and the production of topographic maps. They should have the right therefore to see their home area represented on these maps as they know it, and not disguised in an unfamiliar onomastical cloak.

Based on this European experience a package of measures has been established that should ensure the restoration of minority toponyms: it consists of the following steps

a) Delimitation of minority language area boundaries
b) Introduction of bilingual transitional periods on the map: so after a majority names edition a bilingual edition is published which precedes a monolingual minority language edition
c) Official restoration of minority language name versions
d) Exclusive minority language rendering
e) Accompanied by the rendering of marginal information also in minority language

In Europe we have developed the feeling that recognition of their language and culture is an important contribution to the strengthening of the identity of minority language communities. The official use of their toponyms in the minority language is part of that recognition. The rendering of toponyms on maps might seem an insignificant aspect of this official recognition, but it should be stressed that these names often are the first and only representation by which the minority language community can manifest itself to outsiders. The acknowledgement of minority language toponyms on the map can be considered as an official recognition and acceptance of the minority language community.

A national state is nowadays considered responsible for the cultural heritage of all minority language communities, and minority language names also belong to this cultural heritage.

in Ferjan Ormeling, Jörn Sievers and Hans Stabe (eds.), Training Course on Toponymy, Enschede, Frankfurt and Berlin 2002.

See also: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

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