Thinking about Place and Place Naming

Thinking about Place and Place Naming

“To be at all— to exist in any way —is to be somewhere, and to be somewhere is to be in some kind of place. Place is as requisite as the air we breathe, the ground on which we stand, the bodies we have” (Casey, 2013). We are born into place and our lives are filled with it. From the time that we take our first breath, everyday life consists of place: our movements throughout the day (or night) are subsumed by what happens where. A child may go to school to study, and this school may be in their home, or thousands of miles from their home. A sudden feeling of sickness may mean a visit to a hospital. Someone washes the dishes in the kitchen sink on a Thursday evening. We leave one place to go to another to gather resources, to exchange ideas, to visit family. The everyday tasks of life may cause people to take place for granted, but movements to, or usage of a place may create or resolve conflicts. We stay in a place because of some connection to it or because we have no other choice. We leave a place because of some connection to it or because we have no other choice. Human interactions with place are the stuff of life.

Aspects of place such as landscape and environment have shaped human activity since activity could be considered “human”. One example is Irish hillforts of the iron age, which “were deliberately positioned in the most prominent parts of their respective regions, reflecting an innate knowledge of the local landscape and implying prominence was a key characteristic that influenced the location of a site” (p. 73). Another example is the kind of foods that are available and the techniques used for its collection. A reporter for the New York Times, Craig S. Smith, documented one extreme case of food gathering in his March 18, 2017 “The Daily 360” video which followed Inuit hunters Tiisi Qisiiq and Adami Alaku. The two men harvested blue mussels from ice caves which are accessible for only two weeks out of the year for only around two hours a day—because the rest of the time these caves are under water.

A Harvest Underneath the Ice

Landscape even shapes language, as proven by whistled languages like Guanche and Sylbo, Mazatec, Kusdili, Béarnese, and dozens of others. Meyer (2015) writes extensively about these whistled languages and notes “the importance of mountainous areas but also…a key association between whistled speech and dense tropical forest environments” (p. 31).

Land influences life through human interactions with it, an experience that has given rise to the human act of distinguishing one place from another place in the overall larger concept of what we may call “space,” “the environment,” or “the landscape”. Our need to share information about a specific location (a place) within that space, to share the knowledge of our environment, has led to different methods of doing so. These include practices such as creating models of space with pebbles and sand, driftwood, corn kernels, hand shape, on birchbark, hide, paper, and most recently, digitally. The Indigenous peoples of Australia utilize songs to encode and document the travel routes of the continent together with Indigenous concepts of identity, relationships, law, and Creation (Jakelin Troy, p.c.). Pualani Louis (2011) describes Indigenous Hawai’ian cartographies as “interactive presentations of place as ‘experienced space’. They situate mapping in the landscape and encode spatial knowledge into bodily memory via repetitive recitations and other habitual performances” in a “multisensory approach” (p. 168). These activities and actions are all social moderators of place. Language is also a moderator of place: how we divide up the landscape into individual concepts depends upon mutual social agreement; what we do socially in a place (whether it is based on gathering food or materials, identity, history, religion, etc.) can be the basis for distinguishing one place from another, and place-related information is distributed socially through “interactive presentations” like body movements, chants and the other “habitual performances” mentioned by Pualani Lewis above. Another of social moderator of space is place naming, a way of transmitting important information–often Indigenous Knowledge—which can then be passed from generation to generation. The social nature of humans bleeds into any study in which we are involved (which is to say most studies). A study of place through the medium of language is no different.

This kind of study needs a set of philosophies which define how we will view a situation and a way to study that situation. The set of philosophies is sometimes called a “philosophical framework”. The different tools and processes that we use to study the problem are our “methods”. A system of methods in a given field of study is a “methodology”.

In my dissertation, I used many different “methods”, but I also created a new “methodology” to study place. The reason I did this is because I noticed many of what academics call “gaps in the knowledge”—holes in reasoning, or some facts or observations that hadn’t been accounted for in other studies of place naming. A lot of these had to do with the social nature that I talked about above; one of the problems I tried to solve was accounting for human interaction with landscape and with each other, which occurs not only during the process of place naming, but also in the transmission of those names, and in how the namers and other place name users understand those names.

In the next post, I’ll explain the philosophy of and some of the linguistics behind place names.

Casey, E. S. (2013). The fate of place: A philosophical history. Berkley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press. Accessed at https://ebookcentral-proquest-
Louis, R. P. (2011). “Hawaiian storied place names”. In D. M. Mark, A. G. Turk, N. Burenhult, & D. Stea (Eds.), Landscape in Language: Transdisciplinary perspectives pp. 169-18. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
Meyer, J. (2015). Whistled languages. Berlin: Springer.
O’Driscoll, J. (2017). “Landscape prominence: Examining the topographical position of Irish hillforts using a cumulative viewshed approach”. Journal of Archaeological Science, 16, 73-89. Accessed at
Smith, C. S. (17 March 2017). “A Harvest Underneath the Ice”. The Daily 360. The New York
Times. A Harvest Underneath the Ice
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