New UNESCO chair in inclusive toponymy “Naming the World”

How are places named around the world? Who names them? And what political, cultural, social and memory issues are at stake? Researchers from the University of Geneva (UNIGE), Switzerland, are set to answer these questions following the launch of a new UNESCO chair in inclusive toponymy: Naming the World.

What are its goals? To highlight the conundrum of place naming, which is becoming increasingly prevalent; to explain the mechanisms that lie behind it; to create a space for dialogue between academics, civil society, and public and private operators; and to draw up an inventory of good practices and recommendations. Although toponymy is seemingly only a sub-branch of linguistics, it raises a number of problems, such as the question of gender, the visibility of minorities, indigenous languages and knowledges, unformal settlements and the relationship to colonisation. Over the next four years, UNIGE will start up a network of partnerships based around the new chair, in particular with Africa and Europe for academic networks, and with international organisations.

An international partnership

To address these matters, an academic consortium will be assembled, starting with the formalisation of an existing network on two scales: global – bringing together specialists and their teams on every continent together with interested international organisations; and African – with the launch of an observatory of African neotoponymy (the naming of new geographical objects), including a platform for dialoguing with practitioners and experts. The programme for the chair will also incorporate the production of a French and English twin-edition manual and an online course: Naming the World.

The decision to award UNIGE the candidacy for a new UNESCO chair is designed to validate the claims of this emerging field, where the cultural, heritage and development subjects are in line with the founding themes of the international organisation. Likewise, the positioning of the chair is consistent with a number of UNESCO’s priorities, in particular gender issues; the North-South academic and technical partnership, especially with Africa; and the inclusion of cultural aspects, including indigenous and vernacular knowledge, in sustainable development initiatives.