The Names Conference (and thereafter)

I’m very happy to report that our Canadian Society for the Study of Names conference was a terrific time!  From the accounts I heard, people were pleased to take part. And the quality and range of papers was impressive.

Our first day, Saturday June 1st, focussed on toponyms (place names), and then on Sunday, the 2nd, we shifted our focus to anthroponyms (people’s names) including nicknames and literary charcters’ names. The conference’s guest speakers, Reuben Rose-Redwood and Lawrence Berg gave terrific talks that connected with our members’ interests. Organized around some of my tweets from the presentations– these are a few highlights of what was happening at the podium.

Fascinating presentation by Helen Kerfoot on UN efforts since 1960 to standardize place names. “China adds 20,000 urban place names annually… UNGEGN efforts ongoing” -Kerfoot 

Since 1987, Helen Kerfoot (an Emeritus Scientist with Natural Resources Canada) has been involved with The United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names (UNGEGN).  Dependent on politics, resources, heritage recognition, urban development, and technologies including social media, the Group’s challenges have shifted over time. In her presentation, Kerfoot responds in part to these questions: Do the goals of standardization remain as before?  (Partially.) Will the work of UNGEGN ever be finished? (Maybe not.)

“‘Sympathetic pronunciations’ of place names demonstrate your politics” -Lawrence Berg

Dr. Lawrence Berg (UBC) spoke about place names in New Zealand/Aotearoa. Some people call locations by their Māori names, while others use English terms, and in between these are uses of Māori place names with and without traditional Māori pronunciation. Berg’s phrase, “sympathetic pronunciations” is his description of efforts at using traditional pronunciation of Māori place names. “Sympathetic pronunciations” is beneficial to me as I think and write about peoples’ names, and the effort we do or don’t make to correctly pronounce them. (Because, if someone is important, we pronounce their name as they do, right?) The term also caused me to think about an aspect of living in Montreal– that sometimes place names need to be spoken a few times, especially between anglophones and francophones, to be sure we’re talking about the same location.  According to Berg, when an effort is made to pronounce place names in accordance with founding cultures, it is a demonstration of political alignment that recognizes and supports the rights of founding cultures to live in a place peaceably, equally.

Following Dr. Berg’s presentation, it was great to have Dr. Philip Matthews in the audience, as his work on place names in New Zealand and more broadly, exonyms, is insightful and continuing.

(Exonyms are the place name or group names used outside of the culture where a place/group exists: e.g. English-speakers say “Korea,” but Koreans say Hanguk or Choson.  Likewise, Koreans only call themselves “Korean” when they are outside of Korea, or in Korea but speaking English. Both “Korea” and “Korean” are exonyms. Endonyms, by contrast, are the words people use to refer to ourselves in our own culture/language.)

“People who emigrate from India and shift their names to an upper class are ‘moonlighting’ in that class” -Sheila Embleton

Dr. Sheila Embleton (York University) gave a fascinating overview of names and name use tensions in India, focussing on regional, religious and caste differences. Besides providing a survey of names in use in India, she mentioned their uses in other regions. For example, to describe immigration-related name shifts, Dr. Embleton shared the phrase “moonlighting” which in India is used to describe what some people are doing when they change their names to reflect a higher caste as they emigrate.

Rudenka presents on few uses of “freedom” “independence” and “liberty” in Belarus place names vs. numerous examples in USA  “You can say sugar many times, but what is in your mouth does not become sweeter” -Alena Rudenka translates a Belarusian saying

I really loved Dr. Alena Rudenka’s talk!  Dr. Rudenka is a Fulbright scholar from Belarus who is currently working at Eastern Washington University with Dr. Grant Smith.  As context, she undertook this wonderful etymological tracing of the word freedom in English, Russian and Belrusian to link freedom to friendship and how the original meaning of friendship and society is about our ability to move freely.  Next, she noted the number of times the words freedom, liberty and independence are used to name places in the USA (many, many times for each!) vs. their frequency in Belarus (limited) and pointed to cultural differences between how language is used.  In Belarusian, what is most important is held sacred and not spoken, versus the US, perhaps North America more broadly, where we may attempt to make things happen with words– here, we hope that naming something a certain way makes it so.  Are we, in North America, more free because many of our places are named freedom?  That’s where this phrase of Dr. Rudenka’s rings particularly true: “You can say sugar many times, but what is in your mouth does not become sweeter.”

Rose-Redwood on selling name rights to public places: the name of Winnipeg’s City Hall is not for sale, but its parking lot’s is. Rose-Redwood adds that the naming rights for Winnipeg’s police helicopter are for sale.

parking lotIn my last post I was really looking forward to Dr. Reuben Rose-Redwood’s (UVic) presentation, and he did not disappoint!  Initially, Dr. Rose-Redwood spoke in general terms about municipalities selling rights to city property: this strategy is increasing in some cities, as less funding is being received from federal and provincial bodies.  He then focussed on a research site, the “Sponsor Winnipeg” program, which includes an itemized list of objects, buildings, and services to which your name can attached.

helicopter

Included are the parking lot at City Hall, library bags for people borrowing books, and even the police helicopter. Scrolling through the list of potential sponsorship opportunities is somewhat sad– it appears that the city needs a financial boost. But findings from Rose-Redwood’s project suggest that this is not the best way to gain an influx of capital: the city doesn’t actually generate that much revenue from this program (as most naming right sales are a one-time purchase) and the city’s executive members seem to have mixed feelings about the program.

For me, a significant problem with selling toponymic rights is that it blurs honorific naming (based on merit) with naming rights that were purchased.  It may be clear to us right now what has been named as an honour versus what has been sold, but in the future, when the name bearers are long buried, these distinctions will be less obvious. Plus, it’s another example of capitalism’s creep: the loss of commonly held goods to a wealthy few, even if only in name.  (But I already said most of this in my previous post.)

On a related noted, one of many great things about being in Victoria was learning about the recent name reclamation of a local landmark. The mountain formally called Douglas was reclaimed as “PKOLS” by the local Coast Salish people. Read more about it here. (Thanks to Sherwin Arnott for the heads up about this one.)

All in all, these throught-provoking presentations have me feeling optimistic about the future of names studies in Canada. But some conference-organizing concerns did arise. First, three names scholars from Nigeria were unable to take part in the conference because the Canadian High Commission refused their visas in the week prior to the conference.  As well, our society functions in a bilingual capacity, but it seems to me that much of the onus to work in a second language falls on the francophones.  (A good reason for me to work on my French!)

Over and out from this tweeter of names,

Diane Dechief  Diane Dechief ‏@nomencultured

p.s. In a future post, I’ll write about my own conference presentation. And the great debate/discussion a few of us Sunday presenters got into.  It was pretty heady stuff!

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