A Brief Background in Semiotics and Some Philosophy of Place Naming

A Brief Background in Semiotics and Some Philosophy of Place Naming

Place naming is a form of semiosis, which is the process of conveying meaning through symbols. We use language to represent our thoughts and to share those thoughts with other people; language, the collection of sounds and phrases that we put together to convey that meaning, is therefore a kind of symbol.  A place name uses language to create a symbol which expresses spatial information. This information can be expressed in different types of language: oral language (speaking and listening), signed languages (Devereaux, 2017), writing, etc. Because language itself a system of symbols that express thought, the intertwining of the systems of place and language presents a challenge of entanglement.

Ferdinand De Saussure outlined the idea of the “linguistic sign”, where a concept, such as the abstract idea encoded in the English word “cow” is united with the form of that word in the English language as stored in the mental sound structure, vocabulary and grammar of an English speaker. The idea can then be rendered into physical speech, where it will differ in form from the mental entity because of things like speech production, conjugation, and other forms of “real world” usage. This mental form, the idea of “cow” is connected within the mind to a referent, a meaning, and what Frege (1892/1952) calls a sense.

A referent is the real-life version of “cow”, in other words, an actual living, breathing cow, perhaps chewing its cud in a field in Ontario. The meaning of the linguistic form of “cow” could be said to be its dictionary definition, i.e., “a fully-grown female animal of a domesticated breed of ox, kept to produce milk or beef” (Oxford University Press, 2019). Finally, the sense of a linguistic form could be said to be a

person’s own individual associations with a particular linguistic form. Perhaps a person was at one point chased by cows and therefore word “cow” now brings to mind the incident; “cow” will have a negative connotation for that person, whereas a different person, perhaps one who visited the cows in a neighbour’s field as a child, will have different psychological associations with the form.

The same can be said for place names: place names take a linguistic form (spoken out loud, or heard, written down somewhere, or just the name as stored and thought about in a person’s head) and that form has a meaning (the literal meaning of the name, like “Grand Rapids” meaning something like “fantastic/huge rough or white water”), a referent (the “real-life” location that that name refers to, i.e., 42.9634° N, 85.6681° W) and a sense (whatever additional information and/or associations an individual attributes to that name). Each of these lin

Grand Rapids Michigan

guistic forms generally follows the sound patterns and grammar of the language of the place namer(s), although names that do not follow these patterns have reason for not doing so. Place naming is not arbitrary; we impart names to distinguish Place A from Place B and many times a place name specifies how Place A is distinguished from Place B.

Radding & Western (2010) write, “Names are bestowed in order to have a specific meaning that we wish to associate with the referent. The form is willed, not arbitrary; the name is transparent through societal associations” (p. 395). Over time, as a place name is passed from person to person and from generation to generation, the original meaning and sense of a name may become secondary to other senses of the place: “The functional role that place names play in our everyday lives makes them both more relevant than a monument, but paradoxically more prone to being forgotten as repositories for historical memory because inevitably the original cultural significance recedes into the background in favor of the lived experience of the place” (Metro-Roland, 2014, p. 79). The lived experience, the continued and reinvented sense of the place takes precedence over the literal meaning of the name.

Oxford University

Because of the precedence for “lived experience” over “literal meaning”, an original place name meaning may become obscure; for example, Oxford is literally “oxen ford” (University of Nottingham, 2019), but very few people (if any) still make use of oxen for transportation or, for that matter, have any reason to ford the River Thames. Instead, this place is often associated with the University of Oxford, the “oldest university in the English-speaking world” (University of Oxford, 2019). Thus, the name has become separated from its literal meaning (“oxen ford”) which has been replaced with a sense of place, i.e., “the place where the oldest university in the English-speaking world is located”.  The sign, the place name, has become a representation of a geographic location. Other place names, such as Winchester in Hampshire County in the United Kingdom demonstrate that it is not necessary to understand the meaning of a place name, or even the language of naming, in order to utilize a place name.

Winchester was originally documented by Ptolemy as Venta Belgarum or “marketplace of the Belgae” (Johnson, 2019). The Saxons called the town Venta Caester (ibid) with the element caester probably borrowed into the Brythonic languages from Latin castra, or ’camp’ (Stewart, 1975, p. 225); in English, it came to mean “a city; an old fortification; a Roman site” (University of Nottingham, 2019). This name eventually evolved into “Wintancaester” and finally, to its modern-day name, Winchester (Johnson, 2019). The sign Venta Caester has been transmitted over a thousand years through language, whether mutually intelligible or not, from Latin, Anglo-Saxon (or simply Saxon), Middle English and Early Modern English to the modern day. The original name, although now conforming more closely to non-Latin sound and grammar, still preserves the meaning, even if the language has changed around it.

The fact that a name has a sense along with a meaning is the reason that many place names, or elements of place names, are borrowed from other languages and why we find names such as Syracuse, Rome and Ithaca in the middle of New York state or Paris in southwestern Ontario, far from their origins. It is also why so many Indigenous names continue to be utilized in North America when their original meanings, or even their naming language, may no longer be recognized.

The BEach at Narragansett RI
The Beach at Narragansett RI


Devereaux, A. (2017, January 30). “Atlantic Canadian places now easier to name in sign language”. CBC Nova Scotia. Accessed at https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/120-atlantic-canadian-places-now-easier-to-name-in-sign-language-1.3958591

Frege, G. (1892/1952). “In sense and reference”. In P. Beach and M. Black (Eds.),

Translations from the philosophical writings of Gottlob Frege, pp. 36-56. Oxford:

Blackwell. Accessed at http://www.scu.edu.tw/philos/98class/Peng/05.pdf

Johnson, B. (2019). “Winchester, ancient capital of England”. Accessed at Historic UK: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryMagazine/DestinationsUK/Winchester-Ancient-Capital-of-England/

Metro-Roland, M. (2014). “Habits of interpretation: The semiotics of place names”. Sea, sea names and peace in East Asia: Proceedings of the 20th International Seminar on Sea Names, Gyeongju, Korea, 26-29 October 2014 pp. 79-91. Seoul: The Society for East Sea.

Oxford University Press (2019). “Cow”. Accessed at https://www.lexico.com/en

Radding, L. & Western, J. (2010). “What’s in a name? Linguistics, geography, and toponyms”. The Geographical Review, 100(3), 394-412.

University of Nottingham. (2019). “Key to English place names”. Accessed at Key to English Place Names: http://kepn.nottingham.ac.uk/#

University of Oxford. (2019). “History”. Accessed at University of Oxford: https://www.ox.ac.uk/about/organisation/history?wssl=1#

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