Translations and Placenames

“We must learn those new names “¦ We must learn where we live. We must learn to make them our own.”On Monday night, I went to see Brian Friel’s modern classic play, Translations. Set in rural Ireland in the early 19th century, the action unfolds at a moment when the local people’s usual way of life is disturbed by the arrival of the British Royal Engineers. Their task was to map the country accurately for the first time – and give everything “official” (i.e.: Anglicised) names in the process. As the title suggests, much of the drama (and humour) in the play comes from the differences between languages – the Irish placenames of Baile Beag and Tobar Bhrí and Droim Dubh being as foreign to the English as Norfolk and Norwich were to the Irish.

 It got me thinking about place-names in general. I’m a big fan of funny-sounding place-names. Ireland has Boyle, Birr, the amazing Termonfeckin, and Inch Island: “Inch” is derived from the Irish inis, which means… island. Welcome to Island Island, everyone!

England’s historical mixture of Celtic, Roman, Saxon, Norse and Norman languages is also a wonderland of delights. On a recent road trip through Wiltshire I was delighted to find myself driving through Over Wallop. I was very amused indeed by Middle Wallop, and by the time the car got to Nether Wallop I was in the kind of laughter-induced hysterics that are incompatible with driving (yes, I pulled over).

Don’t even get me started on Wapping. If there was any justice that’d be an onomatopoeic euphemism for masturbation instead of a town.

Australia in particular has one of the English-speaking world’s most fantastic collection of odd-sounding placenames. Some are vaguely sexual, like Quairading, Wollongong, and the delicious Wallerawang. Many exhibit a penchant for double-O’s that are unrivalled even by James Bond’s bosses; Caboolture, Coolbellup, and Warnambool. When I actually lived there, I was focused on working and travelling, occasionally noting down a piece of naming brilliance, whether derived from another language or not (Useless Loop in Western Australia being a particular favourite example of the latter).

But when I look at a map of Australia now, I don’t just see entertaining tongue-twisters: I see centuries of absent meaning and history. Most of the languages which named those places (either directly, or indirectly through Anglicisation) are extinct, their speakers and culture long dead. I can giggle at Toowoomba because its just a funny sound now, and its meaning – whether related to a landmark, a story, a place to find a certain animal or plant – is lost. Of the over 350 languages that existed in Australia when the British began to colonise, most are extinct, and of the rest only 20 are not critically endangered. So little is known about the languages that existed on Tasmania that we can’t even estimate how many were lost through colonisation, and how much knowledge was lost with them.

In the long run, of course, this is “just history”: change is inevitable, cultures shift, and languages mutate or die. But what Translations makes clear is how much human struggle and resistance went into these changes, how often it was forced and unwanted, and how much can still be learned from the funny-sounding writing on the landscape.

6 replies on “Translations and Placenames”

I see centuries of absent meaning and history.

This is so sad, but true. So often we fail to think of the people who came before us, and their role in how we came to be here and who we are. In America there are a so many places named by or after the Native Americans that once inhabited the region, but many people are unaware of the history behind the name or that the name has a history at all.

I’ve heard few actual jokes about place names though we are always amused when an odd name pops up. I think it might be because we’re a multilingual country (11 official languages and many more “unofficial”) so a name that sounds strange in one language usually makes sense in at least one other.

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