Etymology #5: Place names and their origins

By | March 24, 2023
Did you know that Astana holds the Guinness World Record for being the capital city with the most name changes in modern times?
Did you know that Astana holds the Guinness World Record for being the capital city with the most name changes in modern times? Image: Нурлан

Place names are more than just labels on a map. They are often rooted in history and can reveal insights into the culture, language, and geography of a region. In this article, we will explore the origins of place names and their linguistic significance.

The origins of place names can be traced back to a variety of sources. Many are named after people, such as cities named after founders or important historical figures. For example, the city of Washington, D.C. was named after George Washington, the first president of the United States. Other place names are derived from geographical features such as mountains, rivers, and lakes. The name “Mississippi” comes from the Anishinaabe word “misi-ziibi,” meaning “great river.”

Some place names have their roots in the language of the indigenous peoples who originally inhabited an area. For example, the name “Manhattan” comes from the Lenape language, which was spoken by the Native American tribe that lived in the area. It means “island of many hills.” The name “Bogotá” comes from the Chibcha word “bacatá,” which means “planted fields.” The Chibcha were an indigenous people who inhabited the region before the arrival of the Spanish, and their language has had a significant influence on Colombian Spanish.

The linguistic significance of place names lies in the information they can provide about the language and culture of a region. For example, the prevalence of Spanish place names in the American Southwest like Santa Fe, New Mexico (“Santa Fe” means “holy faith” in Spanish) or Los Angeles reflects the influence of Spanish colonization in the area. Similarly, the presence of French place names in Louisiana like Baton Rouge, which means “red stick” in French, and it is said to refer to a pole or marker that was used by Native Americans to designate a boundary between their tribes, is a reminder of the state’s history as a French colony.

Place names can also reveal the evolution of language over time. Many place names in England, Birmingham, Canterbury, and Manchester for example, have Anglo-Saxon roots and reflect the influence of Germanic languages on the development of English. Similarly, the prevalence of Celtic place names in Scotland and Ireland reflects the influence of Celtic languages on the region, like the city of Inverness (“Inver” comes from the Scottish Gaelic “inbhir,” meaning “mouth of a river”) or the mountain Ben Nevis (“Ben” comes from the Scottish Gaelic word “beinn”, meaning “mountain”)

In some cases, place names have been changed over time due to political or social factors. For example, Leningrad, Russia was renamed back to its original name, St. Petersburg, in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Saigon, Vietnam was renamed to Ho Chi Minh City after the Vietnam War, in honor of the Communist leader who led the country to independence.

The capital city of Kazakhstan, currently known as Nur-Sultan, has undergone several name changes throughout its history. The city was originally founded in 1830 as a small settlement on the banks of the Ishim River and was named Akmola (meaning white grave), since 1832 Akmolinsk. In 1961, it was renamed Tselinograd, which means “Virgin Lands City” in reference to the vast agricultural developments that were taking place in the region at the time. After Kazakhstan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the city’s name was changed once again to Akmola. However, in 1997, the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, announced that the capital would be moved from Almaty to Akmola and that the city would be renamed in his honor. In 1998, the city was officially renamed Astana, which means “capital” in Kazakh.

In March 2019, the city was renamed again to Nur-Sultan, in honor of Nursultan Nazarbayev who had recently resigned as president after serving for almost 30 years. The decision to rename the city was made by the new president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, as a tribute to Nazarbayev’s contributions to the development of Kazakhstan. The name Nur-Sultan means “light of the sultan” in Kazakh. In September 2022, the city changed its name back to Astana. The history of the city’s name changes reflects the shifting political and cultural forces in Kazakhstan, as well as the importance of honoring influential leaders and figures in the country’s history. This highlights the way that place names can be used to reflect the values and beliefs of a society.

The origins of place names are diverse and fascinating. By examining the linguistic significance of place names, we can gain a better understanding of the history, culture, and language of a region. Whether you are a traveler, a linguist, or simply curious about the world around you, exploring the origins of place names can be a rewarding and enriching experience.

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