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Review of  Lengua, espacio y sociedad [Language, Space, and Society]

Reviewer: Víctor Valdivia
Book Title: Lengua, espacio y sociedad [Language, Space, and Society]
Book Author: María Dolores Gordón Peral
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Leonese
Issue Number: 25.2361

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This book consists of 14 papers born, in the editor’s words, during “Jornadas sobre toponimia y norma” (‘Conference on toponymy and norm’), an academic meeting organized by Gordón Peral and other scholars in the fall of 2010, and held at the University of Seville. In addition to being a venue to exchange experiences, opinions, and knowledge about the fields of toponymy and onomastics, the meeting was planned as the first step of a project aiming to provide consistent linguistic criteria to address issues of toponymy across Spain; criteria that, these scholars hope, will result in an official norm.

As typical in edited books, this one starts with an introduction by Gordón, the coordinator of the aforementioned meeting and editor of the present volume. She argues that names for geographic spaces – from towns to cities, and rivers to mountains -- are, or should be, important for any society, not just because of the historical and cultural events associated with those places, but also because of the linguistic heritage they represent, particularly for societies formed by different linguistic communities. Unfortunately, she argues, most countries pay little attention to the importance of toponyms, which is evident by the lack of well-designed norms to regulate and standardize them. Even though in Spain, the situation is not as critical as in other countries with similar linguistic diversity, the editor claims that the development of efforts across different communities within the country has been uneven; thus, while projects for reviewing, fixing and standardizing both major and minor toponymy started long ago in multilingual communities of Spain, a process of such nature has barely been approached in monolingual regions of the country. Although the presentation does a good job of raising awareness of the importance of this complex field of study, it would be desirable that the presentation briefly described the papers included in the book so the reader can approach each paper with a better idea of how challenges from one region correlate to those from other regions, and how strategies implemented in one case agree or disagree from those applied in other regions. In particular, a description of this type would have been very useful for a better understanding of the papers by Boullón Agrelo and by Miralles, written in Galician and Catalan, respectively, languages that, unfortunately, might be spoken by few scholars outside Spain.

Four types of studies can be observed: the state of the discipline, without focusing on a particular case, the project PRONORMA (“Proyecto de recopilación, análisis y normalización de la toponimia de las áreas meridionales de España” ‘Project for the collection, analysis and normalization of Southern Spain’s toponymy’), ongoing and implemented projects, and project proposals.

Within the first set of papers, Stefan Ruhstaller and Gordón present “Procesos de transmisión de los nombres de lugar y su relevancia para la normalización toponímica” (‘Processes of transmission of place’s names, and their relevance for toponymic normalization’), a study in which the authors approach the processes both by oral and written means, where names from minor toponymy transcend the boundaries of their original community. Also, because said toponyms often come from languages other than Spanish, the authors explore the linguistic implications and challenges of each method of transmission. Thus, names transmitted by oral communication often experience phonetic and morphological changes, either because they enter the path of regular evolution of the language (e.g., the diphthongization of short Latin tonic vowels), or because historical events required immediate adaptation of foreign names (e.g., adaptation of Arabic toponyms after the Reconquest of Spain). Worth mentioning is the role of pseudo-cultured judgments on the adaptation of traditional names, as is the case of the loss of definite articles with major toponyms (e.g., La Puebla de Cazalla > Puebla de Cazalla) because of the false idea that articles are vulgar before locations’ names. For written transmission, the authors identify as the main issue the vacillation experienced by speakers regarding whether to follow Spanish orthography or, rather, to reproduce names based on their pronunciation. For the authors, such hesitancy is often caused by the lack of clear and consistent criteria, not to mention a lack of concern on behalf of official institutions. For instance, it is not rare for street names’ signs to be misspelled, causing speakers to doubt how to pronounce those names. Such doubts may result in linguistic variation and even change.

In an individual paper (“Principios para la normalización de la topominia de base castellana” ‘Principles for the normalization of Castilian based toponymy’), Ruhstaller explains the causes for the uneven development of normalization processes in Spain and presents a series of principles that any project attempting normalization and standardization should follow. First, the author states that linguists must undertake the nuclear phases of the process because, if linguistic goals and mechanisms are not set at the beginning, any project is fated to fail. Second, the process must be respectful toward local languages and traditional dialects. Third, the process must consider existing written traditions. Fourth, when choosing the normalized form, the name’s etymological origin must be considered. Fifth, normalized written forms should guarantee a univocal oral reproduction, i.e., there must be only one way to pronounce the name. Sixth, written forms must allow a simple oral pronunciation; no knowledge beyond simple literacy should be required. Seventh, normalized forms should be acceptable for all users, no matter where they come from or what social class they belong to. Eighth, even if there are dialectal differences, the transcription’s criteria must be the same across the region where the normalization applies. Ninth, the process should favor interpretation from morphological, lexical, and semantic points of view. As the reader will see these principles appear, either as a reality or a need, in all of the papers in the book.

In the second set of papers, Gordón presents the project PRONORMA, from its justification, to its methodology, to its goals, to some of its challenges. Also, she illustrates the proposal through the analysis of concrete names. In an implicit way, the paper approaches and illustrates many of the principles previously presented. In particular, it allows the reader to understand how such principles interact to avoid interfering with one another. For instance, she states that the starting point for standardization must be the name used in spoken speech, although this does not mean providing an over-detailed phonetic transcription of the oldest traditional form, especially if such transcription would result in a form difficult for speakers across Spain to pronounce or write. The author is confident the project will set the basis for official policies, not only for the standardization of toponyms of general use but also for a systematic collection, analysis, and regulation of less frequently used names.

Javier Terrado (“La normalización de la toponimia hispánica y el léxico románico” 'Normalization of Hispanic toponymy and Romanic vocabulary’) also addresses PRONORMA in his paper, which focuses on the concept of normalization. He proposes and defends that said concept must be understood not as a mere administrative task seeking the creation of fixed written forms for official purposes, but as a process to create conditions for names, in this case toponyms, to be used in the most natural way possible. Because of this, he argues that the product of normalization must be for all citizens, not just for those who, for professional duties, require a standard form to write the names of places. Finally, he proposes that the process must approach all of the linguistic components of toponyms, not just the written representation.

Within the third type of paper, Xosé Ll. García Arias examines the process of toponymic Castillianization implemented in Asturias (“Corrección toponímica en el Principado de Asturias/Principáu d’Asrturies” ‘Toponymic correction in the Principality of Asturias’). In particular, he focuses on the actions of the city government of Teberga related to toponymic correction as an example of poorly designed and executed official projects. To the author, any proposal for normativization must consider both linguistic and social criteria in order to be successful and, more importantly, respectful of the language of the community. In the case of Teberga, neither criterion was followed, which caused the following problems: discrepancy between administrative and popular Asturian names; inconsistency in the application of linguistic processes; and encouragement, consciously or unconsciously, of Castilian substitution by choosing cultured Asturian names, which often appear to be Castilian, instead of popular Asturian names. The author concludes that any attempt to change the toponymy system of an independent community must have clear legal and administrative regulations based on criteria proposed by academic institutions.

In “Normativización, oficialización y normalización de la toponimia en Euskal Herria” (‘Normativization, officialization and normalization of toponymy in Euskal Herria’) Mikel Gorrotxategi offers a diachronic and synchronic account of toponyms in the Basque Country. The author discusses the replacement of original names by “invented” Castilian names, the existence of double names (historical and modern) for some places, and the influence of Castilian on the written form of some names. Regarding the differences between the situation of Basque toponyms and those from other minority languages, he states that the main one comes from the condition of Euskera as a language island, which causes many Spanish speakers to not recognize the origin of several loans from Basque (e.g., “Bolivar” from “bolu” ‘mill’ + “ibar” ‘meadow’). At the end of the paper, he briefly approaches legislative projects for normativization in two communities, Navarra and Euskadi. In both cases, the “Real Academia de la lengua Vasca” (‘Royal Academy of Basque Language’) has been the authority in charge of matters of toponymy, and its criteria have been used in the normativization of minor toponymy in both regions. Nevertheless, conflicts have emerged in each one due to disagreements between the agents involve in the process. In the case of Navarra, names are often written in different ways (e.g., “Echauri” and “Etxauri”) and, in some areas, major toponyms appear only in Spanish, while minor toponyms appear in both Basque and Spanish. In Euskadi, the fact that some names are decided by the county, while others are selected by city councils, causes discrepancies regarding written forms. Furthermore, the choice of what names to use and how they should be written was entrusted to geographers rather than to philologists, which defeats the purpose of having linguistic criteria.

In “La normalización toponímica de Cataluña” (‘Catalonia’s toponymic normalization’), Joan Anton describes the on-going process undertaken by the “Comissió de Toponímia de Catalunya” (‘Commission of Catalonia’s toponymy’) to increase the “Nomenclàtor Oficial” (‘Official Nomenclature’), with the goal of completing the normalization and officialization of names collected by the Cartographic Institute of Catalonia. The author offers a general, yet deep, overview of the project by focusing on linguistic criteria used to address seven specific issues: first, the written form of toponyms (e.g., living form of the toponym, historical documentation, etymology and oral tradition); second, the use of definite articles in some Catalan toponyms; third, the use of descriptive nouns in geographic names; fourth, agglutination; fifth, the use of hyphens; sixth, the use of country houses’ names; and seventh, the names of businesses.

Emili Casanova presents “Pautas para la normalización toponímica en la Comunidad Valenciana” (‘Guidelines for the toponymic normalization in the Valencian Community’), in which he emphasizes the respect the project has towards the two languages, Valencian and Castilian, spoken in the community. The author also stresses the importance of designing and implementing tools for collecting data in a methodical and controlled way, and expresses the urgency of collecting and studying dying toponyms from the Spanish-speaking region of the community.

Ana I. Boullón describes a project for standardization of Galician toponyms (“Variación e estandarizatión na toponimia galega” ‘Variation and standardization of Galician toponymy’) and Joan Miralles approches the normativization of toponymy in the Balearic Islands (“La normativizatió toponímica a les Illes Balears” ‘Toponymic normativization in the Balearic Islands’). Being a speaker of a Romance language, I was able to get a general understanding of both papers. Nevertheless, I do not speak Galician nor Catalan; thus, as a matter of respect to speakers of these languages, and in particular, both authors, I will not comment on these two papers.

In the last set of studies, Jesús Vázquez (“En torno a la normalización toponímica en Aragón” ‘About toponymic normalization in Aragon’) describes the change that many Catalan and Aragonese toponyms have experienced through the years. The author finds that said phenomenon is caused not only because of contact between such languages and Castilian, but also because a significant segment of the population erroneously considers those names to be vulgar or characteristic of the lower class. After describing specific linguistic phenomena resulting from the changes, the author calls for a project to normalize the use of native toponyms. In his proposal, the author also emphasizes the importance of considering sociolinguistic and grammatical features (e.g., phonology and phonetics, respect to local linguistic varieties, clear orthographic criteria, etc.) in the design and implementation of a project of such nature.

Ma. Teresa García del Moral (“Propuesta de normalización de algunos topónimos de la provincia de Granada” ‘Proposal for the normalization of some toponyms of the Province of Granada’) conducts linguistic-based research on fifteen topographic names from Lecrín, Granada, and offers the results to any official authorities interested in using the study as the basis for a project on normalization of toponymy. From the analysis of names such as “Alfaguara” and “Chifarreras”, the author proposes two ways of categorization: one based on whether the toponym agrees with the form used in official documents (e.g., land records) and another one based on the toponym’s etymology.

In “Propuesta de normalización de algunos topónimos de la provincia de Huelva” (‘Proposal for the normalization of some toponyms of the Province of Huelva’), Francisco Molina examines the use of toponyms in maps and land records of this region of the autonomous community of Andalusia. Even though Huelva is a monolingual region, at least from a synchronic perspective, the author finds variation in the names used in the documents. Because of this situation, the author argues that normalization needs to be applied not only in cases where different languages coexist, but also when dialectal differences influence the linguistic representation of toponyms. From the analysis of specific cases of variation (e.g., “Ballesteros / Vallestares” or “Espita / Las Pitas”), the author asserts that documentary evidence should be the main criterion in the process of normalization.

In the last paper of the book (“Toponimia canaria: propuestas para su normalización” ‘Canarian toponymy: proposals for its normalization’), Carmen Díaz and Gonzalo Ortega present a proposal for the normalization of toponyms in The Canary Islands. The authors distinguish two main groups of toponyms: one including names of Roman origin (mainly Hispanic but also a few Portuguese forms) and another including names from languages spoken in there before Spanish colonization. Coexisting with these names, the authors also identify a minor third group formed by non-Roman modern toponyms, usually from Flemish last names. As in other multilingual regions, the coexistence of toponyms of different origins results in phenomena such as phonetic deformation, orthographic inaccuracy and morphosyntactic changes. To address these issues and the social implications they entail, Díaz and Ortega propose a normalization process whose main purpose must be to create conditions that allow the community to use those forms in a proper and natural way. The authors argue that, for being successful, the project must consider the needs of all members of the community and should normalize all components of the linguistic sign.


The variety of papers included in this book provides readers with a wide and well supported perspective on the significance of toponyms for any society, of the diversity of the linguistic phenomena involved in the study of toponymy and, most importantly, of all of the implications entailed by the lack of official norms addressing the use of toponyms. In addition, by comparing ongoing projects and proposals from different communities, readers gain a full understanding of the conditions and principles any project must follow in order to achieve solutions that satisfy and respect all members of communities in which the process of normalization is to be applied.

Among all the contributions, I found particularly compelling Gorrotxategi’s paper on the toponymy of the Basque Country. By approaching, explaining and discussing a variety of diachronic and synchronic issues, he allows the reader to understand the formal and sociological factors from which modern toponymy arose, the social implications of using said toponyms, and, most importantly, the role of extralinguistic factors in the design and implementation of any proposal attempting to deal with such a complex situation.

One minor criticism of the volume is that general and specific goals of the book could have been achieved more effectively if the papers had been grouped into sections according to the specific issue addressed or if they had been presented in an order that allowed readers to go from a general approach to specific projects.

Considering the projects presented and discussed in each paper, the volume is of special interest to scholars on toponymy and sociolinguists studying the effects of language and dialect contact. Nevertheless, because a variety of linguistic phenomena are related to each one of the normalization projects (e.g., phonetic, morphosyntax, linguistic attitudes, etc.), the volume is of interest for linguists in general.
Víctor Valdivia is a PhD student at the Department of Linguistics at the University of New Mexico. His doctoral dissertation is on structural patterns in spoken New Mexican Spanish. His research interests include Functional Syntax, Semantics, language contact, and language variation.