Honors Capstone Project
Date of Submission
Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics
Arts and Science
Capstone Prize Winner
Won Capstone Funding
Linguistics | Other Linguistics
This is a study of place, meaning, society, and language, all of which interact through names. Although names are an essential part of human language, they remain on the periphery of linguistic studies. This study situates names in linguistics through an analysis of the meaning in a toponym, or place name.
According to lexical theory words are arbitrary. Yet we bestow names based on how they sound or what they have already come to represent; names are not arbitrary. Furthermore, a name becomes opaque when we can no longer see through its form to understand its meaning. Then it picks up new meanings based on the community it presently references. This paper builds on these two main theoretical differences between words and names.
Scholars have studied toponyms from the angles of many different academic disciplines. Philosophical literature asks to what a name actually refers. Anthropological literature questions how toponyms function as integral parts of specific cultures. Political literature looks at how governments have changed toponyms to further their own political aims: to build community or break down enemies. Through this inquiry into toponymic literature, we see that scholars address toponyms through a variety of disciplines with a common link: a name’s significance is connected to a society.
I support this discussion with an example of a specific toponym that exemplifies many of the themes that surface in the toponymic literature. Far from an arbitrary pairing of form and meaning, at the outset “New Orleans” denoted an image of European grandeur that the founders wanted to connect with their city. Over time the name took on a myriad of other meanings relating to the people and the culture of the place: Mardi Gras, jazz, Cajun culture, and theMississippi River. In the wake of hurricane Katrina the meaning of “New Orleans” changed yet again. “New Orleans” demonstrates concretely that far from being arbitrary, names reflect the experience of the people who use them.
I argue that because the significance of names is in the society that uses them, linguistics can incorporate names through the sub-discipline of sociolinguistics, how language functions in society. Although linguistics has historically avoided the study of names because they add nothing to the genera of structural linguistics, names have meaning in relation to society that other words lack. While this meaning does not contribute to an understanding of the structure of language, it does contribute to an understanding of language, so there needs to be a place in linguistics for names. Names are language and society amalgamated. Their meaning comes from how they connect these two areas. Names therefore constitute a rarely studied type of sociolinguistics, where we see how society gives words meaning beyond their function as referents, and where language gives society an image of itself.
This study looks at an aspect of language that has been sidelined by linguistics, and through the use of other disciplines, finds a way to study it as language.
Radding, Lisa, "What’s in a Name? How Toponyms Connect Language and Society through Place" (2008). Syracuse University Honors Program Capstone Projects. 541.
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