New book illuminates our past through study of place names

23 Jul 2023

The study of place names, known as toponymy, and its related discipline, toponomastics, have long been important focus areas within historical linguistics, onomastics, and etymology.

These fields deal with the origins, structure, and significance of place names and their crucial role in our understanding of history, geography, and cultural evolution. However, until recently, there was a noticeable lack of comprehensive resources that fully explored these disciplines.

 Dr Francesco Perono Cacciafoco, Associate Professor from the Department of Applied Linguistics at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU), in collaboration with Dr Francesco Paolo Cavallaro from Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore, has launched a groundbreaking new academic handbook, “Place Names: Approaches and Perspectives in Toponymy and Toponomastics”.

Published by the Cambridge University Press, this book is the first to comprehensively explore the historical and linguistic study of place names in a single volume.

Addressing academic gaps

During his tenure at NTU, Dr Perono Cacciafoco grew frustrated with the lack of a comprehensive textbook for his toponymy and toponomastics course, and recognised the potential to fill this gap and contribute to the field with his extensive expertise.

“The handbook is a work in etymology and historical linguistics which analyses place names also in the perspective of social sciences,” he says.

The book delves into fascinating questions such as the origins, structure, and significance of place names, and their importance in our lives.

The history and development of toponyms are explored, with a particular focus on the conceptual and methodological issues relevant to the study of place names globally.

Uncovering linguistic fossils

Dr Perono Cacciafoco says material culture and place names can tell us a lot about peoples who did not record their history because they did not yet have access to writing.

“Place names can be seen as ‘linguistic fossils’, because they often stay the same regardless of the movements of people and settlement dynamics. This allows us to discover the remote histories and events of peoples who inhabited a territory thousands and thousands of years ago,” he explains.

In addition to being a historical linguist and toponymist, Dr Perono Cacciafoco is also a field linguist who documents and safeguards the indigenous languages of southeastern Indonesia and southwestern China. With his rich experience, he has clarified the importance of place names in understanding the history and stories of these populations.

“The book shows how it is possible to apply criteria and methodologies from historical linguistics to the documentation of undocumented and endangered languages, with a specific attention to place names of indigenous peoples, which are very significant ‘lexical items’ and can tell us a lot about the history and stories of these endangered populations,” he says.

 The book outlines an etymological method for the historical-linguistic reconstruction of place names across several language families, including Indo-European, Semitic, Austronesian, Papuan, and Sino-Tibetan.

Its approach carries implications for reconstructing events and movements of populations in prehistoric times.

“Place Names: Approaches and Perspectives in Toponymy and Toponomastics” also presents a thorough description of the relationship of toponymy with related disciplines, such as historical linguistics, etymology, cartography, historical and human geography, and landscape archaeology. It is a valuable resource for all readers interested in history and in scientific methodologies aimed at reconstructing our past through the study of names.

About the Author:

Dr Francesco Perono Cacciafoco is an Associate Professor in linguistics at XJTLU. He received his PhD from the University of Pisa, Italy. Before joining XJTLU, he worked as a Senior Lecturer at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore, for 10 years. His main research interests are historical linguistics, etymology, toponymy and toponomastics, language documentation and field linguistics, and language change.



By Luyao Wang

Edited by Patricia Pieterse

23 Jul 2023


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