Role of Place Names in Relating People and Space

Reference work entry


On the background of new cultural geography and after a glance at the naming process, the chapter highlights five essential roles played by places names in relating human to territory: (1) When they are descriptive, they emphasize spatial characteristics that are important for a community – they reflect in this way the interests of a given community and are condensed narratives on the cultural disposition of human communities in history and today. (2) In the status of endonyms (i.e., names used by the local community), place names mark the territory of a community, reflect the general human distinction between “ours” and “theirs,” and have a strong symbolic meaning. (3) In the status of exonyms (i.e., names used by a local community for geographical features outside their own territory), they indicate the network of relations of a community extending beyond the boundaries of its own territory. (4) They structure space. Often concepts of space are just defined by their names. Place names are not only carriers of spatial concepts and enable communication about spatial structures, but they also contribute to the mental structuring of space. By place names, spatial structures cannot only be described but also be shaped and modified. (5) They support emotional ties between humans and space and promote in this way the formation of space-related identity. Geographical names contribute in this way to space-related identity building, both of individuals and communities.

The chapter will not only describe and explain these roles, but also illustrate them by many examples.


Place names Descriptive naming Endonyms Exonyms Space-related emotion Community Space 


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Urban and Regional Research, Austrian Academy of SciencesViennaAustria
  2. 2.University of the Free StateBloemfonteinSouth Africa

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