Monday, February 01, 2016

What's In Palma And Alcudia's Place Names?

They love a good toponym in Mallorca. Just as they therefore love toponymy, the study of place names, as well as onomastics - how names came to be the names they are - and indeed philology, the roots of language. All societies have their students of such matters, but in Mallorca, it can seem as though there are more philologists, toponymists and onomasts than you can shake the stick part of a ximbomba at, which begs its own question: where or how the hell do you come up with a word like ximbomba?

To say that there is an obsession with all this discovery of the origins of names is not an overstatement. To cite an example, on the local radio station in Pollensa there is a programme each Friday morning devoted to the toponymy of the municipality. At a time when, allowing for the hour's difference, Nick Grimshaw will be indulging himself in his Friday, weekend starts here Nickstape on BBC Radio 1, there are three blokes in a studio in the north of Mallorca dissecting the meaning of the name of a piece of land at the foot of the Tramuntana. The contrast is somewhat stark.

Calling this an obsession infers criticism when none is intended. It is more a case of there being genuine interest; one that extends beyond enthusiasts in a particular town and into wider society and also tourist society. How things became as they are goes to the heart of all the culture and heritage tourism that the regional government (among others) spends so much time espousing. Behind every place name is a story. Every place has its place in the story of Mallorca. The problem can be, however, finding that story or coming to an agreement. Toponymists will argue long into the night about the competing demands of the Romans, the Arabs, the Catalans and any others they can stumble across who were responsible for things having become as they are.

This obsession/interest has come to the fore with the argument over the name of Palma. The suffix "de Mallorca", it is said, is an artificiality either created with foreigners in mind or indeed created by these very foreigners. Hints of a degree of parochialism or even xenophobia in dismissing the claims for "de Mallorca" are not well disguised. It may be that this was never actually the name, but for administrative purposes it has existed in the past and had relatively little to do with foreigners. Mallorca, not so very long ago, was synonymous with Palma. Palma de Mallorca was commonly used. They even devised car registration numbers in line with this usage: the PM prefix.

In passing its decree that Palma it should be, the town hall has cited the ancient claims of Palma and Palma alone. It has always been Palma, it says, and has been since Roman times. Which isn't of course true. For example, there was a fair old length of time when it had a quite different name: Madina Mayurqa. Never let it be said that political correctness of a pro-Muslim style should get in the way of advocating the naming claims of a far older invasion force. The logic, or lack of it, is laid bare when one considers that the other major settlement from Roman times - Alcudia - has long since ceased to be known by the name that the Romans gave it, i.e. Pollentia. Alcudia is derived from Arabic. Perhaps the town hall should call a toponymy commission and request a reversion to Roman times. On second thoughts ... .

What is in fact additionally peculiar about Palma town hall's claims is that for centuries after the Catalan invasion it was known as Ciutat de Mallorca. The political make-up and ideologies of the current town hall administration must surely be aware that it was that nasty old Bourbon, Felipe V, who was responsible for restoring the name Palma in 1715 when his army came rampaging and dismantled all things (or as many things as possible) Catalan. Curious and curiouser.

Historical claims on place names and their reasons are rarely straightforward. To return to Alcudia, the simple explanation is that the Arabic name was unaltered other than through language adaptation. There was, if one accepts this, a seamless transition from Arab to Catalan days, but this fails to take account of what happened in 1248, almost twenty years after the Catalan invasion. A papal bull issued by Pope Innocent IV established a whole host of place names in Mallorca. These parishes were under the protection of different saints, and one of these was a place called Sant Jaume de Guinyent, i.e. Alcudia.

The common claim is that it was King Jaume II who changed the name of Alcudia to Sant Jaume de Guinyent in 1298, but the church had in fact beaten him to it by fifty years. This new usage was intended to remove the Arabic name. It didn't last because the locals insisted on referring to Alcudia. But the political motives for the change were flawed in that Guinyent was also Arabic (derived from "djinan" or garden).

Behind every place name there is a story as well as other claimants to the name. Obsession? No. Fascinating. All the history of Mallorca can be found in a name.

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