Place Names

The Weather West Blog Community and the Possible End of the Great California Drought

One of my favorite blogs is Weather West: California Weather and Climate Perspectives, run by meteorologist Daniel Swain. Posting once or twice a month, Swain focuses on current and upcoming weather events and conditions. He delves into meteorological complexities but writes in an accessible manner that can be easily understood by non-specialists. More important for the concerns of GeoCurrents, Swain’s posts are always illustrated with informative and often striking maps. For those who appreciate the aesthetic properties of cartography, it can be difficult to beat meteorological mapping. I often find the patterns and colors almost mesmerizing.

Equally impressive is Swain’s devoted readership. Each of his posts receives thousands of comments. Many are deeply informed, and they are also often illustrated with useful maps and dramatic photographs. For weather enthusiasts such as myself, the cloudscapes that are periodically posted on Weather West are reason enough to follow the blog.

What I most appreciate about the Weather West community, however, is its idiosyncratic perspective on precipitation. Here we find a group of devoted people who love rain and fully understand just how essential it is. Given California’s seemingly interminable drought – 10 of the past 12 years have been dry, the last two exceedingly so – one might expect this attitude to be common in the state, but in my experience it remains rare. Even National Weather Service (NWS) forecasters in California sometimes write about the “threat of rain” during times of dire drought. A few years back I was so frustrated by such mindless wording that I wrote a letter to the NWS urging them to replace “threat” with “promise” under drought conditions. I was surprised to receive a reply, but it turned out to be defensive and entirely non-apologetic. But some people understand. The best birthday present I ever received was a CD put together by my wife filled with rain-positive song in many genres and from several countries. One of the most memorable was Luke Bryan’s raunchy country tune called “Rain Is a Good Thing.” As Bryan emphasizes, farmers certainly understand. As his song opens:

My daddy spent his life lookin’ up at the sky

He’d cuss kick the dust, sayin’ son its way to dry

It clouds up in the city, the weather man complains

But where I come from, rain is a good thing

When rain does come to California, the Weather West community exults. They post their own precipitation numbers with pride, and bitterly complain when their own locations are stinted, ending up in the dreaded “donut hole.”  Some tend toward pessimism and sometimes find themselves gently chided by those more hopeful about coming storms. Overall, they seek to teach and inform each other, and thus form a model blog-focused community. (“Model” is used as something of a pun here, as Weather West readers often urge each other to beware of “model riding,” or giving too much credence to particular meteorological model outputs. This is especially the case when the output in question refer to “fantasyland,” or the time beyond the period of relatively reliable forecasting.)

Currently, the Weather West community it very excited but also worried. California’s long-term drought has just broken, at least temporarily. December precipitation was pronounced over almost the entire state, and January looks to be wetter still. Swain’s most recent post, of January the 2nd, is titled “Major Norcal Storm Wed.; Potential High-Impact Storm/Flood Pattern to Continue for 10 Plus Day. Wet Antecedent Conditions Set Stage for Future Flood Risk.” Even the blog’s most rain-besotted commentators are now concerned that they may get too much of a good thing. Some are even sheepishly admitting that they are now hoping for a mid-winter ridge that would produce a spell of dry weather.

California’s abrupt transition from dry to wet this winter was not expected. Until quite recently, mid- and long-range models predicted yet another rainy season of little rain. As almost all the state’s precipitation falls between November and March, this is a crucial matter. Driving these dry forecasts was the fact that the Pacific Ocean is still in La Niña* conditions, which have persisted for the past two years. In La Niña winters, far Northern California often gets ample precipitation, but the rest of the state is generally dry. In these years, the jet stream is typically displaced to the north and must ride over a large high-pressure ridge somewhere in the eastern Pacific. If the ridge is displaced too far to the east, California is hard hit by drought. If the high-pressure zone is instead pushed westward, cold storms can ride over the ridge and produce moderate rain and decent amounts of mountain snow. Under the contrasting El Niño** regime, a different winter pattern typically prevails, with the jet stream ripping directly across the Pacific. El Niño years usually bring abundant precipitation, especially to Central and Southern California. What makes the current situation so unusual and perhaps even inexplicable is that California is now experiencing an El Niño pattern in a La Niña year, with one relatively warm storm after another lined up across the Pacific. Meteorologists are trying to figure out what is going on, and undoubtedly much more will be written on the subject.

If the current forecasts through January pan out, California could end up with full reservoirs and a very healthy snowpack in the higher elevations. But that does not mean that drought conditions will not necessarily return before the wet season ends. Last year, heavy precipitation in December was followed by a parched period stretching from January through March, generally the wettest time of the year. By the end of the summer, the state’s crucial reservoirs were frighteningly depleted.

But even if this February and March are dry, fears of a disastrously water-short summer of 2023 are currently being washed away. Indication for the 2023-2024 wet season also look promising, as La Niña is dissipating and El Niño looks like it might return. But El Niño sometimes fails to produce the predicted downpours, as was the case in the winter of 2015-2016. As U.C. San Diego Scripps Institute of Oceanography reported:

Most long-range forecast models predicted a potentially drought-ending deluge in California from the climate pattern known as El Niño in winter 2015-16, but the actual precipitation was far less than expected. … “Comparing this El Niño to previous strong El Niños, we found big differences in the atmospheric response across the globe, including California,” said Nick Siler, lead author of the study that was published in the Journal of Climate, and a postdoctoral scholar in the research group of co-author Shang-Ping Xie at Scripps. “We found that these differences weren’t all random, but rather were caused by tropical sea-surface temperature anomalies unrelated to El Niño.” … The results of the study suggest that El Niño events might not have as strong an influence on California precipitation as previously thought. They also suggest that recent warming might have had a hand in making El Niño drier. The Indian Ocean is known to be warming faster than other ocean basins

Climate change seems to be intensifying California droughts, just as it might be undermining El Niño rains. But it might also be making wet periods wetter, particularly those produced by so-called atmospheric rivers. As a result, the chances of a devastating “arc storm” are increasing. As we shall see in tomorrow’s post, Daniel Swain is one of the leading experts on this topic.

*Wikipedia Definition: “During a La Niña period, the sea surface temperature across the eastern equatorial part of the central Pacific Ocean will be lower than normal by 3–5 °C (5.4–9 °F).

**Wikipedia definition: “[El Niño] is the warm phase of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and is associated with a band of warm ocean water that develops in the central and east-central equatorial Pacific.


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Mapping the Terms Used for First-Order Administrative Divisions

Term Used for First-Order Administrative Divisions MapIn examining the various countries of the world, I am often unsure what to call their main administrative divisions. Recently, I found myself writing about Peruvian departments but then wondered whether they might be called provinces instead. As it turns out, Peru is split into regions. Other countries are divided into districts, counties, governorates, divisions, and so on. Around twenty such terms are listed on Statoids, the most authoritative website on the matter. As a result, it is easy to get confused.

As can be seen on the map posted here, and as was discussed in yesterday’s post, these terms are scattered over the globe in a largely haphazard manner, compounding the confusion. The main reason for the lack of clear patterns is the fact that little differentiates the various entities denoted by these terms. To be sure, sovereign states that call their primary divisions “states” are generally organized in a federal manner, devolving considerable authority on these constituent units. Most countries with states are correspondingly large in territorial extent (but not all: exiguous Palau is divided into sixteen states). Otherwise, I see little holding together the various categories. I have considered examining the etymologies and usages of the terms in question, but it hardly seems worthwhile. If any readers have different ideas on this matter, I would be interested to hear them.

One of the main problems is that of translation, as can be seen in the case of Poland. The Polish term for Poland’s own divisions is województwa, directly translated into English as voivodeship. Although this term appears in the OED and Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, it is not viewed as being “in common English usage.” As a result, “province” is more commonly used, as can be seen in the map posted above. But as the Wikipedia article on “voivodship” tells us, “depending on context, historic voivodeships may also be referred to as ‘duchies’, ‘palatinates’ … ‘administrative districts or ‘regions’”.

Ethiopia is another interesting case. In Amharic, its first-level divisions include nine kililoch and two astedader akababiwoch. The term “kililoch” (kilil in the singular) is usually translated either as “state” or as “regional state,” but other English terms would work just as well. The Astedader akababiwoch, on the other hand, are “chartered cities” (Dire Dawa and Addis Ababa, in the Ethiopian case). Globally, it is fairly common for important cities to escape the regular hierarchy of administrative divisions, generating an intrinsic problem for classification.

In the GeoCurrents map posted here, Ethiopia falls into the “state” category. It does so because the map closely follows the Statoids website. (I highly recommend the site, particularly its “factoid” section.)  Statoids’ tables list the primary divisions of almost every country on Earth, and most of the secondary ones as well. They also cover dependencies. As a result, it is easy to slot countries into clear categories based on the terms used for their primary divisions.

I am not ready to follow the website in habitually referring to these divisions as “statoids,” but the term is certainly less cumbersome than “first order administrative division.” As the author of the Statoids, Gwillim Law, argues:

The land area of the world is divided into countries. Most of the countries are, in turn, divided into smaller units. These units may be called states, provinces, regions, governorates, and so on. A phrase that describes them all is “major administrative divisions of countries”. I will use the term “statoid” for short. Since the word has no other accepted meaning, it can be used as a search term on search engines to target this site. The ‘a’ of statoid is long.

This page is a guide to Internet sites about the statoids of each country. It can be used independently, but it is meant to be an update to the book “Administrative Subdivisions of Countries”, by Gwillim Law (McFarland & Company, Jefferson, North Carolina). The international standard ISO 3166 is the source for the list of countries. As a result, some dependencies, and a few integral parts of larger countries, are listed as if they were separate countries.

In making the GeoCurrents map, I deviated from Law’s scheme only by ignoring dependencies. Had I included Greenland, Montenegro would not be the only country divided into “communes.” But I do have a few minor quibbles with his classification system. In particular, it seems to me that the internal divisions of a number of countries are too ambiguous to be so neatly ordered. In the remainder of this post, I will examine two of the more troublesome states: Italy and the United Kingdom. On the map posted above, the former is placed in the “province” category while the latter is in that of the “county,” but I remain dubious in both cases.

On the Statoid webpage, Italy is said to be divided into “provinces” at the primary level and “communes” at the secondary level. Italy is indeed divided into 110 provinces, which are in turn subdivided into numerous comuni (singular comune). But “commune” is usually translated as “municipality” rather than “commune,” a term that has a very different connotation in colloquial English. More important, Italian provinces are grouped together at a higher level into regions, which are usually considered to be the country’s highest-order administrative level, and are so regarded by the European Union through its NUTS system (Nomenclature of Territorial Units for Statistics). When I recently mapped Italian elections, I did so on the basis of regions not provinces, largely because the country’s provinces are too numerous. Italian provinces, moreover, are going to change dramatically in 2014; as a result, the Wikipedia maintains two lists of them, noting that many are “being reorganized.”

British Administrative Divisions Map DetailMuch greater complexities are encountered in regard to the United Kingdom. One could argue that the primary division of this state is the “country,” as England, Scotland, and Wales are “constituent countries” of the UK. (Northern Ireland’s status in this regard is not so clear; the Wikipedia claims that it is “variously described as a country, province or region of the UK, amongst other terms.”). Below this level, diversity prevails. As a different Wikipedia article puts it:

The administrative geography of the United Kingdom is complex, multi-layered and non-uniform… Consequently, there is “no common stratum of administrative unit encompassing the United Kingdom”. … Historically, the subnational divisions of the UK have been the county and the ecclesiastical parish, whilst following the emergence of a unified parliament of the United Kingdom, the ward and constituency have been pan-UK political subdivisions. More contemporary divisions include Lieutenancy areas and the statistical territories defined with the modern NUTS:UK and ISO 3166-2:GB systems. … The highest level subdivisions of England are the nine regions. … Below the district level, civil parishes exist, though not uniformly. Parish or town councils exist for villages and small towns; they only rarely exist for communities within urban areas. They are prevented from existing within Greater London. … Commonly, though not administratively, England’s geography is divided into ceremonial counties, which in most areas closely mirror the traditional counties. Each ceremonial county has a Lord Lieutenant, who is the monarch’s representative.”

British Administrative Divisions ChartAs a result of such administrative intricacy, the map of the UK’s internal divisions is a marvel of cartographic complexity. I have therefore posted a detail of an excellent Wikipedia map on the issue, as well as a chart from the same webpage showing the relationships among these various divisions.


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The On-Going Japan Sea/East Sea Naming Controversy

The South Korean government was severely disappointed by the April 2012 meeting of the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO), as the global body responsible for standardizing the world’s maritime place-names declined to change the name of the sea sandwiched between Korea and Japan. The IHO will continue to refer to this stretch of the ocean as the “Sea of Japan,” a name regarded by most Koreans as an unjust colonialist construct. The South Korean government does not officially object to the term “Sea of Japan” per se, but it does request that sea in question also be labeled the “East Sea,” the direct English translation of the Korean Dong-hae. (North Korea favors the more nationalistically “East Sea of Korea.”) Koreans are also irritated by the fact that the government of the United States, following its Board on Geographical Names, continues to use “Sea of Japan.” The U.S. military follows suit, resulting in what Stars and Stripes recently called a “rare public disagreement between South Korea and the U.S. military.”

The IHO will not be able to reconsider the Korean request until it meets again in 2017. In the meantime, the South Korean government has been lobbying media outlets—including lowly geography blogs—to use the dual formulation “Sea of Japan/East Sea.” A number of prominent publications now employ both terms, including the National Geographic Society, Rand McNally, The Economist, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, and Le Monde. As the booklet entitled The East Sea in Maps, published by South Korea’s Northeast Asia History Foundation, specifies, more than sixty European-language atlases now use both terms. The booklet also outlines the main arguments for the proposed change:

Until the 19th century, various names had been used to designate the sea area in question while “Sea of Japan” had not been widely used even in Japan. Moreover, many maps at that time did not indicate any name for this sea area. With the rise of Japan as a regional power in Asia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the sea area in question came to be referred to more often as “Sea of Japan.” However, Korea was not able to present its view on the naming of the sea area in question in international fora since it was at that time under Japanese colonial rule.

The Korean position makes historical sense, and the request to use both names seems reasonable enough. As a result, I have decided to use both terms in my own writing. But I am also off-put by the vehemence expressed by some Koreans over this issue. A gorgeous $20,000 globe in Stanford’s main library, for example, has been defaced by a Korean partisan who scratched out “Sea of Japan” and penned in “East Sea.”

Frustrated that international and foreign governmental institutions have not made the requested change, some Koreans have advocated more pointed terms, such as “Sea of Korea,” suggested by South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan. In 2006, the president Roh Moo-hyun of South Korea proposed to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe that both names be dropped in favor of more accommodating alternatives, such as “Sea of Peace” or “Sea of Friendship,” but he was rebuffed. In the meantime, partisans of both “East Sea” and “Sea of Japan” continue to scrutinize old maps, nautical charts, and geography texts, looking for precedents supposedly established by the early use their favored terms.

It is perhaps not surprising that the Korean efforts to effect a name-change have often been frustrated. Most countries, as well as most international organizations, are reluctant to change the names of any large geographical features. Switching long-established terms is a cumbersome exercise, and most people like to employ familiar words. More specific objections have also been raised. Some argue that the term “East Sea” is potentially ambiguous, as a number of water-bodies are so designated in a variety of local languages. Concerns have also been expressed about setting a precedent that could result in the increased politicization of geographical names.

Such politicization does seem to be occurring. The Philippines now officially rejects the term “South China Sea,” and instead insists on “West Philippine Sea.” More contentious is the dispute over the name of the water-body located between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula, which is generally called the “Persian Gulf” in international circles, but which most Arabs refer to as the “Arabian Gulf.” As a previous GeoCurrents post noted, the resulting dispute is often heated. Judging from reader’s comments on this and other blogs, it can be difficult for disinterested observers to avoid giving offense in such circumstance: if “Persian Gulf” offends most Arabs, “Arabian Gulf” offends most Iranians, while the compromise “Persian/Arabian Gulf” alternative would likely irritate both groups. As a result, some writers simply call this body of water “the Gulf,” sacrificing geographical precision in favor of innocuous discourse.

However such nomenclatural disputes play out, the quest to find a solution through historical research in cartographic archives seems quixotic. The names of most water-bodies have changed on numerous occasions in the Western geographical tradition alone, as the creation of standardized, internationally recognized names for major geographical features is a relatively recent development. Even the names of the oceans were historically unstable, as were the lines of division separating one ocean and another. In the 1700s, for example, many European cartographers applied the term “Ethiopian Ocean” to the entire expanse of water that wrapped around southern Africa, extending from what we now call the South Atlantic Ocean to the western Indian Ocean. So too the differentiation between seas and oceans was not fixed until the nineteenth century. In the early modern period, even British cartographers commonly labeled the water-body to the east of Britain as the “German Ocean.” Intriguingly, in switching to the modern term “North Sea,” they retained a continental orientation, as from a British perspective the most appropriate label would be—again—“East Sea.” By the same token, the use of the term “Irish Sea” for the waters between Britain and Ireland has never generated much controversy in the United Kingdom.

The British are unperturbed by the term “Irish Sea” for the same reason that few residents of the United States are angered by the term “Gulf of Mexico”: the hostility between the countries in question is largely a thing of the past, while the names of the particular water-bodies are linked to the names of the less powerful states of each pair, and thus cannot be construed as conveying the legacy of imperialism. If the Irish Sea were called the “British Sea” by the IHO, would the Irish object? Perhaps. Admittedly, a much-derided proposal was recently made in the Mississippi state legislature to rename the Gulf of Mexico the “Gulf of America,” but it turns out that the measure was a tongue-in-cheek effort “to mock other bills that would crack down on illegal immigration.”

Besides the examples given above, roughly a dozen major bodies of water share their official, IHO-sanctioned names with those of sovereign states: Argentine Sea, Gulf of Guinea, Gulf of Finland, Gulf of Venezuela, Libyan Sea, Norwegian Sea, Mozambique Channel, East China Sea, Gulf of Thailand, Philippine Sea, and Indian Ocean.* To my knowledge, none of these names is particularly controversial. If memory serves correctly, a few Indonesians have expressed dissatisfaction with the term “Indian Ocean,” arguing instead that this body of water be called the “Indonesian Ocean,” but I have not been able to find confirmation. If such an objection has indeed been made, it is rather ironic, as the name “Indonesia” itself literally means—in Greek—the “Islands of India.”

*Other sea-names close to matching this criterion, such as Timor Sea, but do not quite fulfill it.


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Scotland’s Past and Future Mapped

British Isles 400 CE Map from Talessman's Atlas

British Isles 400 CE Map from Talessman's AtlasThe best on-line source of maps of pre-modern world history is Thomas Lessman’s Talessman’s Atlas of World History, hands-down. Lessman’s maps are well designed, aesthetically pleasing, and comprehensive. I have posted a magnified detail of his map of the world in the year 800 CE, depicting the British Isles. I do this in part to show the level of specificity found in his maps—although if one wants to see real complexity, Lessman’s depiction of the same area in the year 450 CE would have been a better choice, as it maps twenty-one separate polities. I also selected this area to illustrate a forthcoming GeoNote on place-names in Scotland, focused on what such names can tell us about the ethnic groups of the past and their languages.

The map here depicts the British Isles and environs shortly before the formation of the Kingdom of Scotland, or Alba, which is usually dated to 843 CE. Note that in the year 800 the area now known as Scotland was occupied by four distinct groups. In the west, the kingdom (or chiefdom) of Dal Riata was the territory of the Scots, relatively recent immigrants from northern Ireland who spoke a Goidelic Celtic language closely related to modern Irish (Gaeilge) and the ancestral tongue of Scottish Gaelic. Strathclyde in the southwest was occupied by “Britons” (the northern Welsh), who spoke a Brythonic Celtic language, closely related to Breton, Cornish, and Welsh. (For a fascinating account of this kingdom, see the chapter on Alt Clud in Norman Davies recent book, Vanished Kingdoms). The Picts of the north and east may also have spoken a Brythonic Celtic language, but the Pictish tongue remains controversial; some scholars are not sure that it was Celtic, and a few have even suggested that it was not Indo-European. In the southeast, the Kingdom of Northumbria, which was based in what is now northern England, was dominated by the Angles, a Germanic people speaking a variety of Old English. Not shown on the map were the Viking (Norse) incursions, which were beginning at roughly this time. The Vikings were to raid widely across the region and settle extensively in the north and west; the very formation of Scotland, which ultimately united Scots, Picts, Britons, and Angles, was to a significant extent a response to the Viking threat.

The historical divisions of the northern half of Britain are again in play as the people of Scotland contemplate independence. As has been noted in a GeoCurrents post, the desire for independence is geographically structured, and it has been suggested that certain parts of Scotland might try to opt out of the potential future country. This issue has produced some imaginative cartography. Reproduced here is Martin Belam’s fantasy depiction of a divided Scotland in the year 2058, twelve years after an imagined Scottish Civil War, which in turn followed the envisaged separation of Scotland from the United Kingdom in the 2020s.

Belam’s article is actually something of a parable about names of countries, and as such pertains to the dispute between Greece and Macedonia over the name of the latter country (Greece rejects “Macedonia,” a term that it claims as its own, and instead insists that its northern neighbor be called the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” or FYROM). The comments on Belam’s article are also revealing in regard to lingering tensions and historical arguments between the Scottish and the English peoples.

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Is Geography Reducible to Country Names and Locations?

Africa Quiz from the Christian Science Monitor

Africa Quiz from the Christian Science MonitorThe Christian Science Monitor asks its readers, “Think you know Africa? Take our geography quiz.” In the quiz, 16 of 20 questions merely ask for the name of a country indicated on a map. One question asks the name of a mountain range, and two ask for the names of cities shown in photographs. The final question is a bit more complicated, asking for the identification of the only African country that is not a member of the African Union (Morocco).

Although I am happy to see a major publication quizzing its reader’s grasp of the political map of Africa, I am frustrated by the underlying assumption that geographical knowledge can be reduced to place-name identification. I find it telling testimony to the sorry state of geographical education that mastering such elementary information would be considered evidence of adequate geographical comprehension.

That said, the quiz does provide some interesting information. Had I been asked, for example, “what country in the world has the highest lowest elevation,” I would probably have been stymied, yet the Monitor provides the correct answer: “Completely surrounded by South Africa, Lesotho is, by some measures, the highest country in the world. Its lowest point is at an elevation of 4,593 feet, higher than that of any other country.”

Tomorrow’s GeoNote will give a brief sample of how I test my own students’ knowledge of Africa in multiple-choice exams.




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The South China Sea or the West Philippine Sea?

As the struggle for the Spratly Islands heats up, basic place names are coming into play. In the Philippines, news outlets and various official agencies now insist on calling the body of water in which the islands are located the “West Philippine Sea” rather than the “South China Sea,” as the latter term might seemingly grant China priority in this contested area. In China, however, the more neutral term “South Sea” (Nánhǎi) is generally used, while Vietnam favors “East Sea” (Biển Đông).

The “South China Sea” thus joins the Sea of Japan—which the Koreans call the East Sea—and the Persian Gulf—which the Arabs call the Arabian Gulf—in the list of political contested maritime place names. Atlas publishers, beware.


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African Country Names in Indigenous Languages

Africa in the Endonym MapAfter the recent GeoCurrents post on country names, Asya Pereltsvaig brought my attention to an interesting website called Endonym Map. The site features a single world map that shows the names of countries and dependent territories in their own official or national languages, as expressed in the script used for those languages. (A detail of the Endonym Map, showing most of Africa, is reproduced here.) A table below the map provides the official name of each state in English, as well as the English names of the languages in which country names are expressed. Although the site is elegantly constructed, the map and the table do not always correspond. The table, for example, lists the language used for Djibouti as Arabic, but on the map the label attached to the country is in Somali (Jamhuuriyadda Jabuuti). This mix-up is not surprising; Arabic is Djibouti’s official language (along with French), whereas Somali is its “recognized national language” (along with Afar). By the criterion used by the Endonym Map, Somali would be the correct choice; the site specifies that “in cases where a country has more than one national or official language, the language that is most widely spoken is shown.” As it happens, Somali is much more widely spoken in Djibouti than Arabic. But specifics aside, the point is that political-linguistic complexity makes the identification of endonyms surprisingly tricky.

Wikipedia Map of Africa's Official languagesMultiple official languages are common in Africa, as the Wikipedia map posted here shows. South Africa has elevated no less than eleven languages to official status. When “national” languages are added to the mix, the situation becomes even more complex, partly because the concept of a national language is ambiguous. Narrowly defined, the term refers to the language spoken by the majority of the people within a nation. But since most sub-Saharan African countries have no majority language, such a definition is of little use in this part of the world. Broader definitions, such as that suggested by the Wikipedia, are unhelpful for the opposite reason; it is difficult to imagine what language would not qualify as having “some connection—de facto or de jure—with a people and perhaps by extension the territory they occupy.” The definition of “national language” used by the Endonym Map is unspecified, but it seems to rely on official recognition.

Map of Indigenous and Arabic Country Endonyms in Africa A close reading of the Endonym Map reveals some interesting patterns of African linguistic development. To highlight such patterns, I have constructed two maps that categorize the names used on the Endonym Map. As can be seen here, most sub-Saharan states give official standing to the languages of their former colonial rulers. French, English and Portuguese predominate, giving rise to the terms Francophone, Anglophone, and Lusophone Africa. Equatorial Guinea, a former Spanish colony, has designated Spanish, French, and Portuguese as official languages, but as Spanish is most widely spoken, the country’s name appears in that language. (Fang is probably spoken more widely than Spanish in Equatorial Guinea, but it is designated as a “recognized regional language” rather than a “national language.”)

Map of African Country Endonyms by LanguageThe most intriguing pattern revealed by the Endonym Map is the widespread use of non-European tongues as the dominant official (or national) languages of sub-Saharan African countries. Chad, for example, is conventionally depicted as a Francophone country, and French is indeed one of its two official languages. But Arabic also has official status in Chad, and the Chadian dialect of Arabic has emerged as the country’s lingua franca, spoken by forty to sixty percent of its people. Elsewhere, a number of indigenous languages of sub-Saharan African origin are gaining prestige and have acquired official status. As the map shows, local languages function as the dominant official means of communication across much of eastern and southern Africa.

One of the more intriguing examples of an indigenous official African language comes from the Central African Republic (CAR). Like neighboring Chad, CAR is usually regarded as a Francophone country, and French is indeed one of its official languages. Yet far more people in the country speak Sango, which also has official status. Over the past several decades, Sango has been spreading rapidly, emerging as the country’s effective lingua franca.* The expansion of Sango has been documented by Mark Karan, who shows that it is also spreading into neighboring countries.

Wikipedia Map of Francophone AfricaAlthough Sango is clearly an indigenous language, it has been heavily influenced by French. In fact, most of Sango’s vocabulary is of French derivation, although the most commonly used words, as well as the basic grammatical patterns, are fully indigenous. Most linguists classify Sango as a creole language, or one that “developed from the mixing of parent languages.” Evidently, Sango emerged as a vehicle of inter-ethnic communication along the Ubangi River before the initiation of French colonialism. Its use was later promoted by both the French colonial army and Christian missionaries, and it gained many French words in the process. As a result of such patronage, Sango became the dominant language of the capital city Bangui, enhancing its appeal.

Mark Karan's Spread of Sango Map and Book CoverThe use of a creole language as a dominant official (or national) language is relatively rare. As it happens, another website is devoted to precisely this issue: Peter L. Patrick’s Pidgins & Creoles as National or Official Languages. Patrick lists nine cases: Cape Verde, Central African Republic (CAR), Haiti, Mauritius, Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone, São Tomé and Príncipe, Seychelles, and Vanuatu. With the exception of CAR and Sierra Leone, all are island countries. Of the official creole languages of these countries, all but Sango of CAR are based on European tongues.

Although Patrick lists Sierra Leone as using a creole language (Krio) as its main national language, the Endonym Map depicts the country in English. This discrepancy stems from the fact that Krio is merely the de facto national language of the country, rather than one that has been given official standing as such. According to the Wikipedia, “Krio is spoken by 97% of Sierra Leone’s population and unites the different ethnic groups in the country, especially in their trade and social interaction with each other.” It is also used in some public schools in the country, and has evidently even been recognized as a “home language” by the New York public school system. Eventually, Krio will probably gain some sort of official standing, requiring a change to the Endonym Map.

*According to the Wikipedia, only about half of the population of CAR is conversant in Sango, but Patrick claims that “it is used as a second language by almost the entire population.”


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What’s in a (Country) Name: The Georgia/Grúziya Controversy

Map of Georgia Showing Different Names Used For the CountryNames of countries in foreign languages (exonyms) often bear no relationship to the names of the same countries in their own official language or languages (endonyms). Such differences are generally accepted without complaint; the fact that English speakers refer to Deutschland as Germany and Nihon as Japan is not a problem for the governments or the people of those countries.

Occasionally, however, diplomats from a given country request that other governments change its name. In 1985, francophone Ivory Coast asked the international community to use its name in French only: Côte d’Ivoire. The request was honored by governments across the globe, although many English-language news agencies still use “Ivory Coast.” When East Timor gained independence in 2002, it asked to be called Timor-Leste, leste being the Tetum* word for “east.” (As “Timor” derives from a Malay word meaning “east,” Timor-Leste would translate into English as “East-East.”) Most countries followed suit, but Australia still uses “East Timor.” Such rejections of name-change requests usually reflect diplomatic tensions. Although Burma has insisted on being called Myanmar since 1989, Britain and the United States continue to call it Burma, in deference to Burma’s own democratic opposition. News agencies in the United States vary on this score. It will be interesting to see how this issue works out now that Burma is opening diplomatically and perhaps moving toward democratization.

Diplomatic requests for country name-changes do not necessarily reflect a desire to substitute indigenous names for those of foreign derivation. Both “Myanmar” and “Burma” are Burmese terms for the country—pronounced “Myanma” and “Bama”—the former being more formal, the latter more colloquial. In some cases, foreign governments are asked to switch from one exonym to another. Over the past several years, Georgia has been trying to convince a number of countries to call it “Georgia,” even though the Georgian name for the country is Sakart’velo.

            As the map shows, Georgia is referred to by a number of distinctive names in different languages. The government of Georgia has no problems with most of these terms. That Armenians call the country Vrastan, for example, is not an issue; the President of Georgia recently congratulated the Georgia-based Armenian-language newspaper Vrastan for “strengthening friendly relations between the two neighbor nations.” But the Tblisi government does object to the Russian term Gruziya, and all names derived from it. In June 2011, the Georgian foreign ministry announced with satisfaction that South Korea had agreed to drop Gruzya in favor of “Georgia.” It also pledged to continue to pressure Japan, China, Bulgaria, Belarus, Croatia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Serbia, Hungary, Macedonia, and Ukraine to make the same change.

Several years earlier, in 2005, Georgia began lobbying Israel to drop Gruzia in favor of Georgia. The Israeli case was considered particularly important, as a Hebrew variant of “Georgia” had been widely used before the influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union shifted the designation to the Russian-derived term.  Georgian diplomats argued that the switch to Gruzia could generate historical confusion in Israel, as “Georgian” has long been used to denote the Christian pilgrims and monks from Sakart’velo who once maintained prominent positions in the Holy Land. It was also suggested that Georgia objected to the “Gruzni jokes,” targeting Georgian Jews, that circulate widely in Israel. The Georgian ambassador in Tel Aviv, however, insisted that such crude humor is “an internal Israeli matter.”

The name Georgia itself has a complex and contested history. Various etymologies have been suggested, but most scholars now agree that it derives from “the Persian-Arabic designation of the Georgians—gurğ—which reached the Western European crusaders and pilgrims in the Holy Land who rendered the name as Georgia (also Jorgania, Giorginia, etc.).” The use of “Georgia,” in its various forms, seems to have been solidified in Western Europe through a false etymology; many people concluded that the name must have stemmed from Saint George, an exceedingly popular figure in Georgian Christianity. Supposedly, 365 Orthodox churches in the country are named after Saint George.

As a geography teacher in the United States, I would not mind the international community dropping “Georgia” altogether in favor of Sakart’velo. This is not a matter of preferring endonyns to exonyms; on the contrary, I usually use “Ivory Coast” rather than “Côte d’Ivoire,” as I see no reason to translate an English term into French. The problem with “Georgia” is rather the confusion generated by the existence of a U.S. state with that name. Internet searches of “Georgia” mostly return articles on the American state, making it cumbersome to conduct research on the country that shares its name.

Map Showing Countries Blocking YouTube in Mid 2010Georgian nationals often find this situation frustrating as well. But rather than changing the exonym of their country, some would prefer to rename American Georgia. In response to a YouTube video of Ray Charles singing “Georgia on My Mind” in early December 2011, one commentator opined, “americans rename your matherfucker state! when i want to look something about my country searching system show me your state! from GEORGIA (caucasus) with hate.” That comment, no surprise, elicited an outpouring of obscenity-laced vitriol from offended Americans. One responder, however, tried a more diplomatic approach: “This is an AMERICAN website! Georgian or russian language websites might cater more to your desires. Or maybe you might try searching for T’bilisi. Beautiful city that one! In fact both your country and our state are lovely places!”

But to what extent is YouTube an “American website?” The company, now a subsidiary of Google, is indeed headquartered in San Bruno, California. But the firm isList of YouTube Languages highly international. YouTube videos are readily accessible across most of the world, although a number of countries periodically put up total or partial blocks. Increasingly, YouTube is customized to various languages. According to the Wikipedia article on the company, “The interface of the website is available with localized versions in 34 countries,” employing “51 different language versions.” Georgian is not yet one of these languages, but there is a Facebook page for “YouTube in Georgia.”

*Tetum and Portuguese are the two official languages of Timor-Leste


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Ethnic Politics and the Relocation of Ghana, Benin, and Mauritania

Map Showing Modern Ghana and the Old Empire of GhanaAs was recently mentioned in the GeoCurrents discussion forum, the names of several modern African countries were derived from former African kingdoms (or empires) located in different places. When the British Gold Coast gained independence in 1957, for example, it was rechristened Ghana, a name borrowed from the Ghana Empire (830-1235 CE) in what is now Mali and Mauritania. In 1975, the leaders of Dahomey changed its name to Benin, even though the former Benin Empire (1440–1897 CE) was situated in what is now Nigeria. Mauritania is also seemingly displaced, as the ancient Kingdom of Mauretania was located in what is now Morocco and Algeria.

Adopting such venerable names is generally understood as an attempt to borrow the glory of the former kingdoms, enlisting their prestige to give a measure of historical significance to modern states whose borders were created by European colonial powers. In each case, however, the designation of the new names was a rather more involved process.

Map Showing Modern benin and the Old Empire of BeninBefore 1975, the West African country sandwiched between Nigeria and Togo had been called the Republic of Dahomey. That name derived from the Kingdom of Dahomey (1600-1894 CE), a once-powerful state that had dominated the coastal zone. Under the colonial regime, a larger region extending well inland was dubbed French Dahomey. The independent Republic of Dahomey followed in 1960. After a Marxist coup toppled the government in 1972, the country’s new leaders wanted a clean break from the past, and in 1975 they renamed the state the People’s Republic of Benin. After the fall of the communist government in 1990, the official name was shortened to the Republic of Benin.

According to the Wikipedia article on the People’s Republic of Benin, the new name was chosen to reflect the Benin Empire “that had once flourished in neighboring Nigeria.” Most sources, however, maintain that the new name referenced not the Empire but the Bight of Benin, the adjacent stretch of the Atlantic Ocean. The country’s new leaders rejected the name “Dahomey” because they considered it too ethnically exclusive, since the old kingdom of that name had been closely identified with the Fon people of the coastal zone. The new name, based on physical geography, seemed less divisive—even though the term “Benin” ultimate derives from the former Benin Kingdom of the Edo people in what is now Nigeria. The capital of that state, Ubinu, gave rise to the term “Benin City,” which was generalized to cover the entire kingdom, and was subsequently applied to the adjacent sea.

In the case of Ghana, formerly the British Gold Coast, the new name directly refers to the old Kingdom (or Empire) of Ghana. Yet interpretations of the name change vary. According to the U.S. Department of State, “The Gold Coast was renamed Ghana upon independence in 1957 because of indications that present-day inhabitants descended from migrants who moved south from the ancient kingdom of Ghana.” Any such “indications” of major population transfers, however, are weak to non-existent. A more common view holds that modern Ghana’s founders wanted to reflect the prestige and power associated with West Africa’s first major empire.  But as was the case with Dahomey/Benin, issues of ethnic and regional inclusivity also played a role. According to a 2004 GhanaWeb article, Kwame Nkrumah— founder of the country—selected the new name after examining its history and etymology in great detail. He chose “Ghana,” the author argues, in part because of its association with the inland portion of West Africa. Since “Gold Coast” referred historically to the southern part of the country, continuing under that name would have alienated the northern peoples. As many northerners are Muslims, the association with the former Islamic state of Ghana would be advantageous in this regard.

Map Showing Modern Mauritania and Ancient MauretaniaThe specific connection between the modern and ancient states of Mauritania/Mauretania is also contested. In this case, the place name is of colonial origin, as the French dubbed their holdings in the region Mauritanie.  According to the Wikipedia, the name was derived from “the ancient Berber Kingdom of Mauretania, which later became a province of the Roman Empire, even though the modern state covers a territory far to the southwest of the old kingdom.” But according to the Library of Congress “country study” of Mauritania, the name actually derives from the pseudo-ethnic term Maure, which in French denotes the Arab and especially the Berber inhabitants of northwestern Africa, cognate with the English word “Moor.” Maure, in turn, stems from the Latin Maurus, meaning “coming from Mauretania.”

Map of French West Africa from 1936If “Ghana” and “Benin” were selected in part to signal ethnic inclusivity, the same cannot be said of “Mauritania.” The country is deeply divided along racial lines, with the Arab- and Berber-descended Bidhans, also known as Maures or Moors, maintaining hegemony over the people of sub-Saharan African descent. According to the Wikipedia, “The descendants of black Africans abducted into slavery now live in Mauritania as ‘blacks’ or haratin and partially still serve the ‘Moors’ (whites), or bidhan, as slaves.” The Anti-Slavery Society reports that approximately eighteen percent of the people of Mauritania are currently enslaved to one degree or another.

The Mauritanian government officially abolished slavery in 1981, and finally outlawed the practice in 2007. Several human rights organizations, however, claim that such laws are not enforced, and that those who struggle against the practice of slavery face persecution. In January 2011, three anti-slavery activists who had publicized the enslavement of a ten-year old girl were sentenced to a year in prison for the crimes of “unauthorized gathering” and “rebellion.” In August 2011, Amnesty International reported that, “The draconian response to the work of these activists suggests that the Mauritanian authorities are trying to cover up the fact that slavery takes place in the country.”


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The Many Meanings of “Guinea”

Map of the Three African "Guineas"Few place-names have been used to refer to more distinct places than “Guinea.” Four countries now share the name, three in western Africa (Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and Equatorial Guinea), and one in the western Pacific (Papua New Guinea). Historically, several other places were referenced by the name as well. The Wikipedia disambiguation page lists thirteen “countries” called “Guinea,” in one form or another, including the former Dutch Guinea and German Guinea in West Africa. The same article counts seven additional regions called “Guinea,” including one in Gloucester County, Virginia, USA.

The origin of the term is uncertain. It entered English and other European languages by way of the Portuguese word Guiné, applied by fifteenth-century mariners to the African coast south of the Senegal River. How the term entered Portuguese is unknown. Some have linked it to various Berber words for dark-skinned people, others to the major commercial city of Djenné, located far inland on the Niger River. A third theory holds that “Guinea” comes from the medieval kingdom (or empire) of Ghana, located in modern Mali and Mauritania.

H. Moll's Map of West Africa Showing GuineaIn the eighteenth century, European geographers applied the term “Guinea” broadly to the West African coast, although the exact zone so labeled varied. In Herman Moll’s 1736 map posted here, Guinea does not include the areas that would later be called Portuguese Guinea (now Guinea-Bissau) and Spanish Guinea (now Equatorial Guinea). The early gold trade in this region is reflected in Moll’s map, in which the Gold Coast figures as a prominent sub-division of Guinea. As this area had long been the main source of gold for Europe and the Mediterranean region, British gold coins minted between 1663 and 1813 were called “guineas,” eventually valued at one pound plus one shilling. (To this day, payments at British livestock auctions and horse races are often figured in hypothetical “guineas,” each of which is worth 1.05 pounds.) It has been suggested the use of the term “Guinea” to refer to an area in Gloucester County, Virginia dates to the Revolutionary War, when the local swamps attracted deserting Hessian mercenaries who had been paid in guineas. Although the Wikipedia judges this etymology “incorrect,” it does not supply any alternatives.

Map of West Africa Showing GuineaThe designation of “New Guinea” for the massive island north of Australia dates to 1545, when it was bestowed by the Spanish mariner Yñigo Ortiz de Retez on the basis of the indigenous inhabitants’ physical resemblance to the people of Africa’s Guinea coast. Today the more local term “Papua” is often preferred, with the landmass as a whole sometimes called “Papua Island.” “Papua” is also of uncertain origin, although most sources link it to the Malay term papuah, meaning “frizzled,” evidently referring to the hair texture of the island’s inhabitants. Both “Papua” and “New Guinea” are thus foreign terms that refer to the physical characteristics of the islanders. But both terms have also been indigenized: the official name of the country that covers the eastern half of the island is, in Tok Pisin (Melanesian Pidgin English), Independen Stet bilong Papua Niugini (or, in English, the “Independent State of Papua New Guinea”).

And if that were not complicated enough, “Guinea” is occasionally confused with Guyana (Guiana), a term referencing the northeastern coast of South America. The two words not only sound similar, but they exhibit a parallel geographical structure: both refer to coastal strips that were formerly divided among European powers: Guyana historically encompassed British Guyana (Guyana), Dutch Guiana (Suriname), French Guiana, and Portuguese Guiana (Amapá state of Brazil).  The two terms are not etymologically related, as “Guyana” probably stems from a local word meaning “land of many waters.” Confusion between the two, however, may have given rise to the term “guinea pig.” The Guinea pig is a South American rodent with no connection to Africa. Ties to Guyana, however, are tenuous, as the animal originated in the Andes. A more plausible explanation stems from the fact that the rodent was “first brought back to Britain aboard Guinea-men, ships that plied the triangle trade between England, Guinea, and South America.”

The domesticated guineafowl, on the other hand, is of West African origin. But it too has been involved with place-name confusion and substitution. According to one theory, guineafowl were first called “turkeys” in Britain, owing to the fact that they were introduced to the country in the 1500s by “Turkey merchants” who traded with the Ottoman Empire. The first English colonists in New England subsequently confused the large native fowl with the African bird, calling it “turkey” as well. The mix-up extends to scientific nomenclature. According to the Wikipedia, “The word meleagris, Greek for guineafowl, is also shared in the scientific names of the two species, although for the guineafowl it is the species name, whereas for the turkey, it is the name of the genus and (in an altered state) the family.”

As a final note, “Guinea” has also been applied pejoratively to Americans of Italian descent. According to first definition in the Urban Dictionary, “Guinea” is “the most vile racial slur that can be used against an Italian-American. Refers to the Guinea Coast of Africa; using this slur is a very offensive way of implying that Italian-Americans are non-whites…” Actually, the origin of this derogatory usage remains uncertain. According to a theory propounded in the WikiAnswers discussion page, the word goes back to British guinea coins: “the early Italians, seeking jobs & ways to get money, would walk around saying, “Ginny, Ginny, which at the time … was an English form of money…”

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The Migration of Place Names: Africa, Libya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Sudan

Map of Relocated African Place NamesSeveral weeks ago, GeoCurrents noted that the place name “Afghanistan” had been geographically displaced, as it originally referred to a region in what is now northwestern Pakistan. Left unsaid was the fact that such toponymic displacement is common. Over time, the areas denoted by place names often expand, contract, or move laterally. If one is not aware of such dislocations, confusion can result.

The historical displacement of place names is especially pronounced in Africa. “Africa” itself is a prime example. “Afri” was originally a Latin term for either the Carthaginians, a people of Phoenician descent, or a group of their Berber neighbors; under Roman rule, the province of Africa encompassed modern Tunisia and part of northwestern Libya. After the Muslim conquest, the same area came to be called Ifriqiya in Arabic. In the late classical European imagination, the area called “Africa” gradually expanded. By medieval times, the word had come to denote one of the three major divisions of the world, alongside Europe and Asia.

Reconstruction of the Mental World Map of Herodotus Ancient Greek geographers had previously devised this three-fold continental scheme, but they called the African landmass “Libya.” Greek scholars, however, disagreed over where Libya should be bounded. Some limited it to the lands west of Egypt, and others placed the continental divide on the Nile itself, splitting Egypt between Libya and Asia. Herodotus and his followers considered such usage absurd, and thus applied “Libya” to the entire landmass. The term eventually dropped out of use, replaced in Greek itself by a variant of “Africa” (Αφρική). In the early twentieth century, Italian imperialists, fixated on classical precedents, revived the name. In 1934, they combined their North African colonies of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania into a single “Libya,” which later became the independent state of the same name.

Although the ancient Greeks used “Libya” as the continental place name, they tended to restrict the term “Libyan” to North Africans of Berber background. They called peoples living further to the south “Ethiopians” (or Aethiopians), just as they called the lands below the Sahara “Ethiopia,” including the upper Nile Valley south of Aswan. As the only people of this region familiar to the Greeks were the Nubians of what is now northern and central Sudan, “Ethiopia” often functioned as a synonym for the Nubian kingdom of Kush (or Meroë). The country now called Ethiopia vaguely fit under the same designation, but knowledge of it was scanty at best. The ancient Greeks also used “Ethiopia” to signal other unknown or quasi-mythical lands located to the south or east of the Mediterranean. As a result, even parts of India came to be regarded as “Ethiopia” in some accounts.

Map Showing Ethiopian Ocean In the early modern period, European geographers generally located Ethiopia in the unknown (to them) African interior, as can be seen on the map posted above. In certain circumstances, however, they applied the name to sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. As a result, the eastern South Atlantic was commonly dubbed the “Ethiopian Ocean” (or Sea) through the 1700s. In many maps of the time, the Ethiopian Ocean was depicted as extending from the South Atlantic into the western Indian Ocean. The modern concept of discrete oceanic basins dates only to the 1800s; previously, named oceans and seas were often conceptualized as strips of water wrapping around landmasses.*

In European usage, “Ethiopia” did not refer to the modern country of that name until the second half of the twentieth century. Previously, the Ethiopian kingdom (or empire) was generally called “Abyssinia,” a term derived from the Arabic ethnic designation “Habesh.” Yet in both Ge’ez, the sacred language of Ethiopian Christianity, and the modern Ethiopian Semitic languages (Amharic and Tigrinya), the country has long been called Ītyōṗṗ. Ītyōṗṗ is generally thought to be derived from the Greek “Ethiopia.” Some experts reject the connection, however, arguing that the “Book of Aksum, a Ge’ez chronicle first composed in the 15th century, states that the name is derived from ‘Ityopp’is,’ a son (unmentioned in the Bible) of Cush, son of Ham who according to legend founded the city of Axum.” Regardless of its ultimate origin, “Ītyōṗṗyā” certainly sounds as if it were a cognate of “Ethiopia.” Yet even in Ethiopia itself, the Arabic-derived word “Habesha” still denotes the core Semitic-speaking ethnic groups, and is sometimes applied more broadly to all peoples of the country.

Wikipedia Map of the Periplus of the Erythrean SeaThe “Habesha” people are not limited to the modern state of Ethiopia, as they extend into Eritrea. By the same token, “Abyssinia” historically included much of northern Eritrea as well. The separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia was largely the result of Italian imperialism; in the late 1800s, the Italians conquered the area now known as Eritrea, but failed to annex Ethiopia proper. Just as they did in Libya, the Italian imperialists adopted a classical name for their new colony. “Eritrea” derives from the Greek Erethria, meaning “red land,” associated historically with the Erythraean, or Red, Sea. As the modern country of Eritrea fronts the Red Sea, the term seems geographically appropriate. But to the ancient Greeks, the Erythraean Sea was what we would call the Indian Ocean. The ancient Greek maritime manual called the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, for example, details trade routes extending to eastern India. The water-body now called the Red Sea was then deemed the Arabian Gulf.

The term “Sudan” has undergone its own migrations. This place name derives from the Arabic bilâd as-sûdân, or “Land of the Blacks,” essentially referring to Africa south of the Sahara. “Sudan” was later used by Europeans to cover the relatively fertile and well-populated belt of land south of the Sahara and the Sahel. In the late 1800s, a vast track of land in West Africa was organized as the “French Sudan Territory.” Further to the east, the British designated their corresponding sphere the “Anglo-Egyptian Sudan,” which became the independent country of Sudan in 1956 before splitting into Sudan and South Sudan in 2011. In environmental terms, only a small portion of Sudan and South Sudan are within the Sudan (or Sudanian) eco-region, a zone defined by its distinctive savannah vegetation.

The places referenced by many place names have shifted over vast distances, with toponyms taking on different meanings as they are translated and as basic geographical conceptualizations change. Such transformations are unsurprising, as change is intrinsic to language itself. But they do present pitfalls for unwary readers. For years I assumed that when ancient Greek writers mentioned “Ethiopia” they were referring to the highlands of the Ethiopian Plateau, and I was dumbfounded to discover that they actually meant the lowlands of the Nile Valley to the south of Egypt.


* I have written about this topic in “Dividing the Ocean Sea,” The Geographical Review, 1999. Vol. 89, number 2.


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What’s In A (Place) Name? The Gulf Controversy

In mid-January 2010, the Islamic Solidarity Games—scheduled to take place in Tehran in April—were cancelled over a toponymic dispute. The Iranian organizers of the athletic competition insisted on labeling the body of water located between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula the “Persian Gulf” in their promotional materials. The event’s organizing committee, based in Saudi Arabia, refused to tolerate such effrontery, and called off the competition. Officials in Saudi Arabia, like those in many other Arabic-speaking countries, regard the term “Persian Gulf” as a form of Iranian cartographic imperialism. They prefer Arabian Gulf, and if that name cannot be used, they insist on a neutral term such as The “Arabo-Persian Gulf” or simply “The Gulf.”

This controversy reveals the deep cultural cleavage between Iran and the Arabic speaking realm. Most other bodies of water named for particular places do not inspire much animosity. The United States lodges no protests over the Gulf of Mexico; India does not object to the Arabian Sea; Malaysia has no problem with the South China Sea; Taiwan and Japan do not worry about the Philippine Sea; Madagascar and Australia are fine with the Indian Ocean. The only other water body to generate a similar quarrel is the one marked on our maps as the Sea of Japan, which the Koreans insist on labeling the East Sea. Like the Arabs and the Persians, Japanese and Koreans have a long history of conflict, which lends vehemence to seemingly arcane debates over geographical nomenclature.

The term Persian Gulf has been widely used by European geographers since the time of the ancient Greeks. Substituting the term “Arabian Gulf” would generate its own problems, not least by infuriating the Iranian people. It could also lead to confusion with the adjacent body of water known as the Arabian Sea, or even with the nearby Red Sea (which Europeans sometimes historically called the Arabian Gulf). Partly for these reasons, the International Hydrographic Organizations maintains that the Persian Gulf is the Gulf’s only proper name. The United States government, however, is no longer sure. Although the State Department’s Board of Geographical Names settled on Persian Gulf in 1917, the U.S. military now asks its personnel to avoid the term, preferring either “The Arabian Gulf” or simply “The Gulf.” U.S.-based universities operating branch campuses on the Arabic-speaking side of the gulf do likewise. In the United Arab Emirates, the term Persian Gulf is simply banned.

What’s in a name? In a politically charged context, evidently quite a lot.

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