What is the O’nonna? Explaining the Theory

What is the O’nonna? Explaining the Theory

With my PhD officially in hand, one of the biggest projects left to do is to make sure that the dissertation itself is accessible. While it can be found here, what I really means is that in this space I will take some time to “translate” it into non-technical terms. Because it is a rather lengthy document (around 250 pages), blog posts won’t necessarily match up with each chapter; rather I will take the main ideas and concepts and break them down on each blog post, and tag where these concepts can be found.

Let’s start with the Abstract which is pretty much a summary of the dissertation.

Life exists and happens in “place” and “places” which include concepts like landscapes, environments, and general surroundings. “Place” shapes human activity and has since before we could be considered “human”. It’s a big part of our lives and affects us possibly more than we think about in everyday life. This includes how we see “place”, how we talk about it, how we name it, and why we name it. Looking at how and why different groups of people name (or don’t name) places can help us to understand different aspects of life like what kind of food or resources there are in an area (like Apple Hill or Cold Springs), navigational information (for example, the name Quebec means something like “where the river narrows” (Couture, 2019) in either Innu or Algonquin), and history and events that have occurred in a place, such as Battle Creek or Council Bluffs (Stewart, 1975). Place names can also tell us who lived in a place, or used that place (Winchester was originally documented by Ptolemy as Venta Belgarum or “marketplace of the Belgae” (Johnson, 2019); Smiths Falls is named for the owner of the first mill that made use of the falls), how different groups of people moved across a landscape, and the things that they found important (for example, there over 300 place names containing the word “deer” in Canada, while there are only six containing the word “raccoon” (Canadian Geographical Names Database, 2020); the province of Quebec has a high percentage of “saint”-based place names.)

Sometimes, the aspects of a place that we think would have a name end up not having any name in another language or culture. For example, some groups of people don’t name mountain ranges or even individual mountains. An emerging field that some call “ethnophysiography”, many people are now beginning to recognize that the way different people see a landscape is not universal; divisions and perceptions of landscape are shaped by linguistic and cultural practices as well as the landscape and environment itself. Where one person sees a “creek”, another sees a “river”; one person may call a landform a “mountain” and another a “large mound”.  This is a major issue when we talk about place naming because many place names are based on a description of the place (Long Lake and le PlateauMont-Royal are two examples) and therefore, some place names encode these differing views of landscape.

This dissertation presents the idea that place names are an intersection of three different systems:  landscape, language and culture. In the dissertation, I outline a new way to study place names using different aspects of linguistics, geography and anthropology and by working with the people to whom the names belong.


In the next few blog posts, I’ll talk about this new way of studying place names using two ideas: a “philosophical framework” (which is to say, the set of assumptions that I am using, or the “lens” through which I look at the place names) and the “methodology” (or, the set of all the methods I use to do the study—essentially a “how to” guide). After I explain how those work, I’ll talk about what happened when I actually applied these to a set of place names.

As always, if you have questions, you can feel free to post a response or to contact me directly.


Canadian Geographical Names Database (2020). http://www4.rncan.gc.ca/search-place-names/search?lang=en

Couture, C. (2019). “Quebec”. In The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/quebec

Ingram, Rebekah R. (2020). Naming Place in Kanyen’kéha: A Study Using the O’nonna Three-Sided Model. PhD dissertation, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario. Accessed at https://curve.carleton.ca/167299e9-53e6-48d7-a28d-8af2f87719ec

Stewart, G. (1975). Names on the globe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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