What’s in a name?

One of the silliest changes which occurred during the ignominious years of the dictatorship was the re-hispanicisation of Catalan place names. Lleida became ‘Lerida’, Girona ‘Gerona’ and my town, Cerdanyola del Vallès became ‘Sardañola del Vallés’. While many of these names had existed previously (see 1929’s Plaza de España in Seville), these towns changed their names officially during a time when Catalan was officially discouraged.

Now, they’re not used at all. While some older people from a more ‘Castilian’ background may still use the Spanish versions, the Generalitat and the Spanish government now exclusively use Catalan toponyms, probably for a mixture of reasons. I figure that the main reason behind using Catalan toponyms is that having two names for a place would be silly. Especially when the Castilian toponym is rarely if ever used.

Or so I thought. I happened to take a look at the Spanish wikipedia entry for Cerdanyola del Vallès and was surprised to see that it redirects to a page called ‘Sardañola del Vallés’. Weird, I thought: that’s not the name I recognise for this town. Those of you who are regular Wikipedia users will be aware that there are a lot of rules in place which govern the naming of articles, ‘point of view’, sources and so on. Before clicking on the ‘discussion’ page, I was fairly confident that this naming convention would have caused some dissent – and I wasn’t disappointed.

The crux of the argument that is laid out in defence of the Castilian spelling is that the Spanish Wikipedia does not use foreign language toponyms. For example, Bangkok is not referred to as “Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphimanawatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit”, it’s called Bangkok. Girona redirects to ‘Gerona’, but as with Cerdanyola, notes that the Catalan naming convention is also the official one. As supporting source for the Castilian toponym, one or two books are offered, but other editors note that these books simply repeat the spellings used during the Franco years rather than establish a modern precedent for a Castilian toponym.

I’d argue (though I haven’t ventured to do so in the pages of Wikipedia) that while in the cases of Gerona and Lerida, there is some historical precedent for the use of a Castilian toponym (both are provincial capitals and as such were considered important enough to have Spanish names; Sardañola del Vallés is nothing more than a translation, invented for political reasons and within living memory. I’d also argue that given that the Castilian toponym is never used, and that the Spanish government and the National Institute of Statistics  both use the standard ‘Cerdanyola del Vallès’, the Castilian toponym is nothing more than a relic of days gone by. Finally, in Spain, it is up to towns and Autonomous Regions to decide official names. According to both the Town Hall and the Generalitat, the official name of this place is Cerdanyola del Vallès. It seems to me that there is little linguistic or toponymic justification for the Wikipedia entry.

But what’s in a name, anyway?

5 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. I’ve often been confused in Galicia on which names I should use for towns. My husband’s family is from a small town there and we spend quite a bit of time (a couple of months per year) with the locals. As most of those now living and farming in the area were raised during a time when Gallego was forbidden and town names changed, they most always use the Castillian names. Since, of course, many of the towns have reverted back to their gallego names. Trying to be “politically correct” and not offend my family there, I’ve tried using the Gallego names. They’re fine with that, but among each other, the often still use the old Castillian names.

  2. It is a bit bizarre Tom, especially as the Wikipedia article almost immediately points out that it is officially known as Cerdanyola – I think most places apart from the larger cities have a name that is used almost universally and I can’t see why Wikipedia can’t adopt that policy….but it can be a funny place. At least they’ve got the name right in the English version.

  3. ‘Sardañola del Vallés’? no way! Why not go the whole hog and settle for “Sardañuela del Valle” instead?

  4. I think this often has to do with the political point of view of the person making the post, specifically their view of Nationalism whether, Spanish, Basque, Catalan or Galician. It seems to be a question of whether or not they can force themselves to stay fully impartial (as far as Wikipedia is concerned) – something not too common in the current poltical climate.

    This also happens to Basque place names and spellings – ‘Guecho’ for Getxo and ‘Guernica’ for Gernika. The same thing can be seen comparing different newspaper reports of the same incident or event. Will Senyera or Lehendakari get a capital letter or be put in quotation marks for example?

  5. Well, I am from Veneto, a bilingual region in Northern Italy. When speaking Italian, most of us use the Italian names of the towns (Padova, Vicenza, Belluno) and when we speak Venetian we use the Venetian names (Padoa, Vicensa, Be?un). Those who speak English even use the English name (in an English conversation) if it exists! (Padua)

    Kind regards.

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