Friday, May 13, 2016

Working For Mallorca's Place Names

In Jonathan Meades' short story "Filthy English", the semi-autobiographical protagonist is cast as being a lexicographer by profession: that's someone who, broadly speaking, compiles dictionaries. Meades doesn't explore how his character earns a living - that isn't the point of the story - but a living he does make. But being a lexicographer, one would assume, offers only comparatively limited prospects of earning huge salaries or indeed of being presented with a vast array of job opportunities. How many dictionaries can there be?

Meades' lexicographer might also have been described as an etymologist - a student of the origin of words. Both professions exist within a range of studies, each of them with several degrees of obsessiveness and all related to words. Others include the philologist - the student of languages -  and the toponymist, he or she who studies place names. None might seem to offer great career prospects, yet, and I have remarked on this in the past, Mallorca appears to be awash with all of them. There are, for example, politicians who present themselves as philologists - the leader of Ciudadanos in the Balearics, Xavier Pericay, is one of them. For Pericay, this earnest background has a political significance. A Catalan speaker, he is nonetheless from the supposedly right-wing school of political thought which argues that there is room in society for more than one language: Castellano, for instance.

Obsessive or not, there is a fascination. How did a word come to be as it is? What's the background to such and such a place name? In the case of the latter - toponymy - the Balearic government has sought to provide some gainful employment (possibly) to a commission of toponymy. The department for linguistic policy has reactivated this commission, it having been moribund for four years.

And what, you may ask, will this commission do, all twenty members of it? Its brief, according to the department, will be to establish a working plan with the aim of completing the official toponymy of the islands, replete with geo-referenced nomenclatures, and so of contributing to the knowledge, correction and recovery of place names. In Menorca, Ibiza and Formentera, all this is apparently at an advanced stage but it is not in Mallorca.

Why, though, are they bothering? What is the purpose of this obsessing with place names? Does it have any practical outcome or is it merely an academic exercise? Well, in terms of practicality, there may well be applications. And for this one should consider the four years of moribundity. To what do these four years refer? The last government.

When the Bauzá regime came into power, one of its more idiotic ideas was to harmonise place names. This meant using one interpretation of these names, a Castilian interpretation. Hence, and at its most extreme, this might have led to road signs, say for example for Pollença with a cedilla, being changed to Pollensa. This could have been a practical outcome that would of course have been wholly impractical. How much would it have cost for starters?

Mercifully, they saw sense and the whole proposal was quietly dropped. But what was also dropped was any official consideration of place names. And why? The presupposition is that the absolutely correct use of names has an overwhelmingly Catalan element, a fact that the Bauzá language policy would have been less than keen on. Better, therefore, just to ignore the whole issue.

A clue to why we now have a toponymy commission once more lies with the department that has reintroduced it. Linguistic policy resides within the weirdly concocted (by Més) ministry for participation, transparency and culture. Place names, toponymy need to be politically correct according to a Mallorcan and Balearic nationalist narrative.

So this may all seem - and is - a political development, but in language terms there really isn't or shouldn't be anything wrong with it. Catalan influence is clearly fundamental and it would be ridiculous to suggest otherwise, but Mallorcan and Balearic place names are a great deal richer than one language alone: the various strands that combined to form Catalan, Arabic, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Iberian, Mallorquín and other island derivatives, French, English in the case of Menorca, and indeed Castellano, they all play a part.

This study of place names is, therefore, an exercise in detailing the various cultural influences on the islands. As such, it is a worthwhile undertaking. And it is one that is set against a broader background, that of Spain. To give an idea of how widely the investigation of place names in the country as a whole is, one only needs to be aware of the conferences that are held by the specialised commission for geographic names: the last one was in Valladolid in April 2015.

Names are a Spanish obsession not just a Mallorcan one. And after all, as there are so many toponymists, etymologists and whatever knocking around, you have to give them something to do.

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