Friday, November 30, 2012


I allow myself to copy-paste my article of 2010 (, where I introduced for the first time the term of GEONOMASTICS - GEOgraphic oNOMASTICS:



This article aims to discuss, firstly, the substantiation of a new discipline within the applied onomastics with a short excursion into the historical domain, its relationship to other sub-disciplines, then its difference from toponymy, and finally to give an example of contemporary works at the intersection of geography, linguistics, onomastics, cartography, map semantics and others.

Cette communication vise à discuter, d'abord, la justification d'une nouvelle sous-discipline au sein de l’onomastique appliquée avec une brève incursion dans le domaine historique, sa relation avec d'autres sous-disciplines,  puis sa différence par rapport à la toponymie,  et enfin à donner un exemple d'œuvres contemporaines à l'intersection de la géographie, la linguistique, l‘onomastique, la cartographie, la cartosémiotique et autres.

Dieser Artikel zielt darauf ab, erstens, die Begründung einer neuen Disziplin innerhalb der angewandten Onomastik mit einem kurzen Ausflug in die historische Domäne zu diskutieren, ihr Verhältnis zu anderen Teildisziplinen klarzustellen, dann die Unterschiede zur Toponymie zu offenbaren, und schließlich die Beispiele der aktuellen geonomastischen Werke zu geben, die am Schnittpunkt der Geographie, Linguistik, Onomastik, Kartographie, etc. liegen.


Let us discuss the discipline known as ‘onomastics’. By definition its field of study is concerned with proper names: anthroponyms, toponyms, hydronyms, astronyms, etc. Proprial units are so multifaceted that onomastics may cover a wide range of scientific activities. Philological point of view deals with linguistics of proper nouns, their grammar, meaning, morphology, and even etymology. On the other hand, “observing the geographical and chronological distribution of certain names and then putting this knowledge to use (for instance by saying that because of his name, someone probably comes from a certain city or area, and then basing demographic observations on this) will take us to another level of onomastics which we may call “applied” onomasticsi…” (Bodel, 2001:77). In this article, we will show how namely geography can include the application of onomastics for social research and public policy but has a parallel history in academic research seeking to understand the processes by which naming mechanisms of people evolve geographically and are formed spatially on the map.

The geographical dimension of name has been an almost wholly unexplored dimension in onomastics. This is a surprising state of affairs since modern onomastics can claim roots in a number of spatially-aware antecedents: the cartographic tradition of dialectology, linguistic anthropology, the cultural geography, and so on. The name has been untheorised, unexamined, and its role in shaping and being shaped by culture untested. Furthermore, human geography, the discipline to which onomasticians might reasonably look in order to rectify this under-exploration, itself underwent, in the last quarter of the 20th century, a deal of self-searching, questioning its objectives and its very existence as a separate field of science. Therefore, geonomastics, or geographic onomastics, can be considered as one of the onomastic meta-disciplines, even though the term is absolutely new.

What’s in a name?

However, it is curiously to note that, about fifty years ago, John K. Wright (1891–1969), an American geographer, notable for his cartography, geosophy, and study of the history of geographical thought, in his review “The Language of Geographyii” of A Glossary of Geographical Terms, polemizing with L. Dudley Stamp, points:

“The particular ‘science’ in question might be called geonomastics and it could be pursued as a branch of either semantics, or of Onomastics, which Mr, Aurousseau says is ‘the scientific study of the human habit of naming things’ […], or of geosophy, which I once defined as ‘the study of the nature and expression of geographical ideas’ […] and is itself a branch of epistemology” (Wright, 1962:73; emphasized by us).

It can also seem extraordinary, but, about more than one hundred years ago, Francesco L. Pullé (1850-1934), orientalist from the University of Bologna, had used the adjective ‘geonomastic’ in his article Geography in Italy in 1901iii:

“The proportions of the various geonomastic lists can be conjectured from a work by Signor Crivellari in conjunction with Professor Ulrico. […] The work in question was about the Alpine Department of Bormio, including the three communes of Bormio, Valfurva, and Valdidentro, contained in” (Pullé, 1902; emphasized by us).

So, a logical definition must view geoonomastics as study of onomastics in relation to geography and as systematization of the facts about how proper names are used on a given territory/map. To this may be added the following derivative words:
ge(o)onomastic (adjective) – relating to the study of the geography and repartition of names;
ge(o)onomast, ge(o)onomastician, or even ge(o)onomatologist (noun) – a person who studies proper names in relation to geography;
ge(o)onomasticon (noun) – a collection of names and terms or a list of proper nouns naming places or persons within one or more areas;
ge(o)onomastically (adverb) – in a ge(o)onomastic way;

It is essential to signalize that the noun geonym doesn’t fit in that word-formative system. Since the last resolution concerning the Working Group on Terminology, adopted by the Eighth Conference (VIII/3, 2002) the terms ‘geonym’, ‘geoname’ and their definitions were discussed by the Working Group at its meeting on the occasion of the 22nd session of the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names and approved for inclusion in the Glossary in 2004. Geonym is defined as geographical name or name of a geographical feature, while geoname is informal alternative for geographical name. As we will see below, the elementary unit of geonomastics is represented by proprial unit, a name of general onomastic feature and not only a geographical one.

Relationship to onomastics, geography and other disciplines

The controversial case in the spectrum of specializations in onomastics is what is generally called an “applied discipline”. While some epistemologists regard it as a type of sub-discipline, others do not construe it on that level, arguing that the activities within an applied discipline include more than just subsets of the component-specific sets of activities which constitute a discipline (Posner, 2003:2357). Applied onomastics investigates the properties of names in the context of non-onomastic activities. When a person involved in geography describes the properties of names used on a map, when a literary critic describes contextual properties of names used in poems, when a historian working in medieval studies describes historical properties of names used in the Middle Ages, then they may offer their onomastic descriptions as instruments to achieve a certain non-onomastic goal such as influencing that analysis of map, judging the aesthetic quality of that poem, or clarifying the ideas and the usage of the names in the past. While describing the properties of a name is an onomastic activity, analysing a map is not. It is motivated by particular interests from outside onomastics.

So, applied onomastics is a field of activities which is broader than onomastics. As such, it can neither be regarded as a sub-discipline of onomastics nor, indeed, as a new scientific discipline. But in what relationship is geoonomastics with onomastics? Answering this question is complicated by two unclarities at once: correlation onomastics – linguistics, and geonomastics – geography. On the one hand, the term of geonomastics could be determined by trying solution of that set of equations, but, on the other hand, it is likely the system of inequalities and they don’t correspond to the mathematical one.

Although the realm of onomastics may be thought of as going beyond the borders of linguistics, onomastics is a linguistic discipline at heart. The place of linguistics in onomastics as well as of onomastics in linguistics, the relationship between onomastics and linguistics, and their interdependence are major themes of all onomastic works. As linguistics has undergone momentous change in recent decades, its effect on onomastics is readily observable. In addition, the contemporary onomastics is focusing on the description of proper names in various grammatical models, the description of names at different linguistic interfaces, the search for onymic markers, and neuro- and psycholinguistic findings concerning names.

However, returning to our ‘sought quantity’, we should point out that in onomastics, for example, geography is used to help structure its domain, as manifested in maps called “atlases of family names”. In this context, geography is auxiliary field of onomastics. It may be called “auxiliary discipline” of onomastics. Geography is one of the domain-related auxiliary disciplines of onomastics and studying the domain of onomastics may therefore be regarded as part of applied geography. We may conclude that if someone studies not the domain but another component of that discipline, i.e., its means of presentation, methods, or perspectives, then this set of activities is called a meta-study. If it is recurrent, it is a meta-field. Consequently, with respect to interdisciplinary approach, geoonomastics can be considered as meta-discipline.

Geonomastics versus toponomastics

Why do we need a ‘new’ geonomastics if we can use an ‘old good’ toponomastics?

However, we would like to remind that toponomastics or toponymy is the scientific study of place names (toponyms), their origins, meanings, use and typology. The word 'Toponymy' is derived from the Greek words tópos (τόπος) ('place') and ónoma (ὄνομα) ('name'). Toponymy is itself a branch of onomastics, the study of names of all kinds. So, ‘placename’ is literally calqued from Greek toponym. Etymologically, as a prefix, geo- is taken from the Greek word γη or γαια meaning "earth", usually in the sense of “ground” or “land”. Geo- is thus a prefix for many words dealing in some way with the earth, including among others: geopolitics, geosophy, geocaching, geocoding, geolocation, geotagging, etc. By extension of meaning, nowadays we may say geography of the Moon without referring to the Earth/earth.

Nevertheless, in our view, the portmanteau word ‘geonomastics’ has been inspired by another similar construction, that of geolinguistics. If we take it as point of departure, we can avoid all equivocality and any significant overlaps between toponomastics and geonomastics. Whereas, the toponymy is solely dealing with placenames, we assume that geonomastics may handle all types of names in relation to geography. As we have already mentioned, it can be about atlases of surnames, maps of forenames, diagram of certain proprial units, scheme of repartition of onyms on a given territory, distributional figures of various forms of one name, of shared onymic roots in hydronyms, or of an ethnic names among other nations, percentage maps of one personal name in different areas, and so on. Customarily, the toponomastics does not include these kinds of studies. They regard geolinguistics rather than toponomastics.

In this case, onomastic geography, or geonomastics, is the branch of onomastics and human geography that studies the geographic distribution of proprial units or its constituent elements. There are two principal fields of study within the geography of name: the "geography of names", which deals with the distribution through history and space of names, and "onomastic geography", which deals with regional onomastic variations within languages. Various other terms and sub-disciplines have been suggested, including: a division within the examination of onomastic geography separating the studies of change over time and space; 'geolinguistics of names', a study within the geography of language concerned with 'the analysis of the distribution patterns and spatial structures of names in contact', but none have gained much currency.

Under this angle of view, the geonomastics has a lot to do with areal onomastics, contact onomastics, dialect onomastics, dialectology, dialectography, cartography, population genetics, human geography, geodemographics, ethnography, historical geography, and anthropology. Many studies have researched the effect of 'name contact', as the languages or dialects of peoples have interacted. This territorial expansion of language groups has usually resulted in the overlaying of names upon existing speech areas, rather than the replacement of one name by another. An example could be sought in the Norman Conquest of England, where Old French names became the name of the aristocracy, and Middle English names remained the names of the majority of the populationiv.

Onomastic geography, as a field, is dominated by onomasts rather than geographers. We would describe the difference as resulting from a focus on names, and only then with their geographical or social variation, as opposed to investigation of the processes making for change in the extent of name areas. Geonomastics has been geographical only in the sense that it has been concerned with the spatial distribution of onomastic phenomena. In recent times greater emphasis has been laid upon explanation rather than description of the patterns of naming change. The move has paralleled similar concerns in geography and onomastic studies. These studies have paid attention to the social use of names and to naming variations in dialect within cultures in regard to social class or occupation. And we are sure that the future of name studies and the study of class-marked or diachronic distinctions are likely to be of considerable interest to everyone.

Cartography, cartosemiotics and geonomastics

The results of an onomastic research can be demonstrated by means of the cartography and map semiotics. In our case, it means drawing an onomastic map. By the latter we understand a thematic map showing the geographic distribution of the names or isoglosses of an onomastic continuum of the same proprial unit. A collection of such maps is a geonomastic atlas. Now let us give a look at some ensuing theoretical points.

It is important to remark that it is related to thematic cartography which involves maps of specific geographic themes, oriented toward specific audiences. This map illustrates a particular onomastic subject and contrasted the general map, in which the variety of geographical phenomena regularly appears together. The contrast between the both of them lies in the fact onomastic maps use the base data as boundaries, coastlines and places, only as point of reference for the name phenomenon being mapped (Norman Thrower, 2007:95). Onymic maps also emphasize spatial variation of one or a limited number of onomastic distributions. These distributions may be physical phenomena such as place of residence or statistical characteristics such as name frequency and name density issues. In our context the description of that difference from Barbara Petchenikv “in place, about space” could be rephrased as “in name, about space”. While general maps show where something is in space, onomastic maps tell a name story about that place. As the volume of geographic data has exploded over the last century, onomastic cartography has become increasingly useful and necessary to interpret spatial, cultural and social datavi. We are firmly of opinion that geonomastic maps can portray social, physical, cultural, political, economic, agricultural, sociological, or any other aspects of a nation, region, state, city, or even a whole continent.

Additionally, we believe that the cartosemiotics, also called cartographic semiotics, being the semiotic study of cartographic models (or cartographic representation forms), such as maps, globes, relief models, animations, and many others, can be very helpful for our geonomastic meta-discipline. These models and onomastic maps have in common that they represent the space of the earth by means of a model space. The aims of cartosemiotic research are intellectual enlightenment as well as practical application. The subject matter of cartosemiotics is covered under five themes: (1) map symbolism, also called map language, that is, the type of sign systems that are manifested in individual map faces; (2) marginal notes; (3) peripheral signification phenomena; (4) the processes in which humans handle signs, or sign processes for short; (5) the contexts in which signs and sign processes are embedded (Wolodtschenko, 2006; Schlichtmann, 2008). Taking into consideration these cartosemiotic points, cartosigmatic and cartosemantic investigations (Wolodtschenko, 2007), we could enrich and contribute a lot to geonomastics for it simplifies the map-drawing and map-reading tasks.

Onomastic maps serve three primary purposes:

First, they provide onomastic information about particular locations;
Second, they provide general information about spatial and naming patterns;
Third, they can be used to compare naming patterns on two or more maps.

Common examples are maps of statistical data such as name frequency or name popularity. When designing an onomastic map, cartographers must balance a number of factors in order to effectively represent the name data. Besides spatial accuracy, and aesthetics, quirks of human visual perception and the presentation format must be taken into accountvii.

In addition, the audience is of equal importance. Who will “read” the onomastic map and for what purpose helps define how it should be designed. A geographer might prefer having onomastic information mapped within clearly delineated county boundaries. An onomatologist could certainly benefit from county boundaries being on a map, but linguistic and cultural nature seldom falls into such smooth, man-made delineations. In which case, a dasymetric onomastic map charts the desired information underneath a transparent county boundary map for easy location referencing.

An onomastic map is univariate if the name data are all of the same kind. Name frequency, forename distribution, and population density are three examples of univariate data. Bivariate name mapping shows the geographical distribution of two distinct sets of data, one of which is the onomastic one. For example, a map showing both population density and surname frequency may be used to explore a possible correlation between the two phenomena. More than two sets of data leads to multivariate mapping. For example, a single map might show administrative division and one-name popularity in addition to population density and name distribution.

Cartographers use many methods to create onomastic mapsviii, but five techniques are especially noted:
Choropleth name mapping shows statistical-onomastic data aggregated over predefined regions, such as states or counties, by shading or colouring these regions. For example, countries with higher rates of a certain surname might appear darker on a choropleth map and reversibly. This technique assumes a relatively even distribution of the measured onomastic phenomenon within each region;
The proportional symbol technique uses symbols of different sizes to represent onomastic data associated with different locations or areas within the map. For example, a disc may be shown at the location of each city in a map, with the area of the disc being proportional to the frequency of one concrete name in the city;
Isarithmic maps depict smooth continuous onomastic phenomena such as precipitation where, for example, a line connects points on a map that have the same form of a given name;
A dot may be used to locate each occurrence of an onomastic phenomenon; it is a map where each dot represents one name or one set of names. Where appropriate, a dot may indicate any number of names, for example, one dot for every 100 persons bearing the same name;
A dasymetric onomastic map is similar to a choropleth map, but one in which the regions are not predefined but chosen so that the distribution of the measured onomastic phenomenon within each region is relatively uniform (Slocum et al., 2005).

Nowadays, we are at liberty to create onomastic maps with the help of an online free application to build and share thematic maps (e.g., MapsGeek or by means of free software for creating online as well as offline interactive maps (e.g., StatPlanet

Examples of the geonomastic techniques

Although space has been under-theorised in onomastic studies, a number of researchers, from the traditional onomatologists through to those interested in the cartography of contact, have, of course, been actively engaged in research on the geography of name distribution. A common production of onomastic investigators of different cultures is the shaded and dotted map showing where one onomastic feature ends and another begins or overlaps. Various compilations of these maps for Europe have been issued over the years, including William J. Smith’s Atlas of Family Names in Ireland (1988), Gabriel Lasker’s Atlas of British Surnames (1990), Ann Marynissen’s De atlas van familienamen in het Nederlandse taalgebied (1995), Ian Gregory’s The Great Britain Historical GIS Project: From maps to changing human geography (2002), Steve Archer’s 19th Century British Surname Atlas (2003), Damaris Nübling and Konrad Kunze’s Deutscher Familiennamenatlas (2005-2012), Stefanie Barker, Stefankai Spoerlein, Tobias Vetter, Wolfgang Viereck’s An atlas of English Surnames (2007), Gerrit Bloothooft’s Nederlandse Familienamenbank (2009) and Nederlandse Voornamenbank (2010), Peter Gilles’s Luxemburgischer Familiennamenatlas (2009-2012), Rudolf Steffens’s Digitales Flurnamenlexikon (underway).

By way of conclusion

As we could see, the geonomastics is a meta-discipline which can be useful for multiple geographic projects. The analysis of proprial units represents a very promising alternative method to be employed as a proxy for culture, language, and cartography. Personal names are in principle good indicators of ethnicity, at least in relation to the immediately previous generations, that gave the forename to their descendents and probably exercised some preference in the surname. Names can be viewed as a kind of self-assignment of ethnicity that is likely to have strong links to the language, culture and geography of a person’s ancestry. Names can be used in particular to identify the main ethnic minority populations in some areas with a relatively good degree of accuracy.

Naming is produced within a cultural ideology that almost demands a representation of certain ideas/messages pertaining to such major themes as identity, politics, geographic space and society as well as macro themes relating to ethnicity, gender, sexuality, history and the culture. However, it is necessary to recognise that considerable quantity of interesting and valuable considerations of functioning of proper nouns in concrete societies have not yet led to formation of the harmonious and consecutive theory of geonomastics. Today there is not yet complete description of onomastic systems of forenames’ spatial distribution.

Various onomastic studies actually tend to the development of an interactive environment for researchers, built upon efficient indexing, geo-referencing and cartographic visualization. Even when fully linked, with 100% reliability, the database will be of little use if it cannot be searched efficiently. Visualization tools can be helpful, even in the production phase, to access the large amount of data. All researchers can also benefit from software to exploit the spatio-temporal information in the data (see thematic links below). By explicitly geo-referencing data records, learning and knowledge representations can be made to encompass temporally and geographically onomastic components. Nowadays, exploration and data mining must be done in a graphical interface allowing easy manipulation based upon spatio-temporal criteria. This will make it possible for example to display on the screen regions with high/low frequencies or the spread of certain variations in names during a specific period on a given territories. Application of these criteria to large cartographic databases will have an innovative character. Especially the mining of onomastic spatio-temporal patterns, the development of application specific ontologies and the extension of markup languages to spatio-temporal ones form an active modern research area.


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