Matthias Egeler and Carola Lentz: Things that Place Names Do. Comparative Perspectives from West Africa and Iceland


Drawing on corpora from West Africa and Iceland, the article presents a fieldwork-based comparative exploration of “things that place names do”. Treating toponyms as performative elements of culture, we have observed striking parallels as well as differences in the uses of place names in both regions. Place names communicate spatial orientation; play an important role in the commemoration of people and events; mark claims of possession; support the construction of identity; sacralize landscapes; and voice moral reprimands. They can provide entertainment, by, for instance, inscribing ridicule into the land. They subvert as well as affirm hierarchies and power structures, and even play a role in interethnic conflict. Equally, they can become nuclei of storytelling, providing starting points for the invention of narratives. Showing the range of functions that place names can assume in two very different geographical contexts, the article presents a heuristic illustration of the potential of fieldwork-based approaches for toponomastic research.

[Iceland, West Africa, place names as performative elements, fieldwork-based approaches to toponymy, rural regions.]