Urban toponomy: teaching socio-onomastics in practice

by Line Sandst

My socio-onomastic research focuses on urban toponomy and meaning-making. I am particularly interested in the modalities and socially constructed geosemiotic conventions that enable language users to distinguish between different grammatical categories (e.g. between proper names and appellatives) – and therefore different kinds of meanings – in the linguistic landscapes.

As assistant professor of Danish Linguistics at Aalborg University, I teach a diverse group of subjects from Danish phonetics, to rhetoric and theories of argumentation to language history. However, I have also experimented with a more direct kind of research-based teaching in socio-onomastics for MA students, as I outline below. I share my thoughts on my teaching practice in the hope that others might benefit from my experiences. Please do feel free to share your viewpoints, experiences and give feedback so we may all benefit from an exchange of ideas.

Teaching objectives

When teaching socio-onomastics from an urban toponymy point of view, I find it important that the students gain experience from actual field studies. I put together a curriculum of texts that can be divided into four overall topics: an introduction to onomastics, methodology, current socio-onomastic studies, and theories of names and naming and other theoretical problems depending on interest, such as multimodality, geosemiotics, language policy etc. During the course, we discuss the texts on the curriculum, but I also spend time helping the students to come up with a relevant research question/problem, and prepare them for conducting fieldwork.

Finding a research question is usually the hardest part for my students. The socio-onomastic scholarship on the curriculum serves as a framework and inspiration for them to come up with their own research questions and designs. I encourage them to find a problem that sparks their academic curiosity as I find that a personal interest is the best motivation for academic work. However, for those students who find it hard to come up with a question, I present three examples of possible studies for inspiration:

  • Investigation of commercial names in the linguistic landscape: Pick a street or an area of town and take photos of the commercial names in the study area. What do you find? (Possible angles depending on the data could be (one or a combination of) e.g. multimodal names, names that do not conform to expectations, names coined in other languages than Danish. Do you find any patterns or tendencies? Are you able to say something about the identity of the study area based on the commercial names?)
  • Investigation of recent street names: Pick an area where there is a construction project under way. Take a walk in the area and take photos. What kind of identity is being created? Do the new names fit the area? How come/ why not? You may even compare your findings to relevant architectural drawings and building contractors’ documents containing ‘visions/narratives’ about the area’s future identity.
  • Investigation of the relation between commercial names and street names: Pick an area with theme based street names and take photos of the commercial names and street names in the area. How many – if any – of the commercial names have a name that fits the theme of the group named area? Are you able to say something about the identity of the area based on the relation between the two name categories?

I encourage my students to work in groups or pairs because it enables them to discuss and solve the problems that might occur during the data collection and later in the analysis process. I find that when students are held responsible to each other, they are less inclined to give up if they are confronted with unforeseen obstacles, or if they find the task at hand hard to complete.

In class, I spend time discussing research questions and research designs with each group and make sure they have a clear idea of how to conduct the actual fieldwork. When interpreting proper names in the linguistic landscape, the researcher always needs to consider the context thoroughly. This is why I encourage my students to take pictures of the proper names as well as other objects they might find interesting in the field, and I instruct them to take field notes during the field study. This makes the subsequent analysis and interpretation much easier.

Presenting the data and results

In the last session, each group has to present their study for the class and I instruct them to present:

  • Research question
  • Presentation of data
  • Possible sources of errors / limitations
  • Analysis and results.

All listeners have to give constructive critique to their fellow students on their fieldwork and studies. Since all students will have fieldwork experience themselves, I find that they are very capable of asking relevant and constructive questions to the studies conducted by their fellow students. Asking the students to offer criticism to one another gives them a unique possibility to reflect upon others’ as well as their own role as researchers. If necessary, I direct the discussions and ask them to relate practice to theory. I sometimes ask how they would have conducted their study, if they had to do it all over, in light of what they have learned through our discussions. My students tend to have already considered the methodological implications of their own practices, and asking this question allows them to reflect further on their study as the first step towards an improved or perhaps different empirical study based on fieldwork – hopefully one with a socio-onomastic point of departure.

ICOS Summer School in Helsinki

Text and photographs: Lasse Hämäläinen

The writer will receive his PhD in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Helsinki in September 2019. He worked as the coordinator of ICOS Summer School.

Participants

The International Council of Onomastic Sciences organised its first ever Summer School at the University of Helsinki on August 26th–30th 2019. The objective of the course was to bring together young onomastic scholars from all over the world, to increase their knowledge about the international scientific culture and to help them create new research networks. Altogether, there were 21 participants from 15 different countries. Most participants were PhD students, but also a couple of MA students and recently graduated PhDs were within.

Name badges

The theme of the course was Methods of Onomastics. The course program consisted mainly of lectures concerning the topic, given by the responsible teachers Terhi Ainiala and Paula Sjöblom and also a few visiting lecturers. However, the program also included other activities, for example a full-day text workshop, a Three Minute Thesis workshop, and excursions to the Institute of the Languages in Finland and Helsinki University Almanac Office.

Program

In addition to the scientific program, many students participated in recreational activities after working days. We visited bars, restaurants, and the island of Suomenlinna. Luckily, the weather was great during the whole week, so we could enjoy the beautiful evenings of the late summer outside. I was pleased to notice that the students were willing to participate also these unofficial events, because according to my experience these informal activities and discussions could be an important part of scientific meetings.

Suomenlinna
At the restaurant

As the course coordinator, I would like to thank all the participants and teachers. The week was quite exhaustive but also extremely rewarding and pleasant. It was a great experience to present the city of Helsinki and the diverse onomastic work made in Finland and ICOS. According to our closing discussion, participants were happy and satisfied with the course, too. They hoped that a similar event would be arranged in the near future. Where and when, remains unsolved. That will surely be discussed and hopefully decided in the next ICOS congress, which will be in Krakow in August 2020.

View of Helsinki from Suomenlinna

Studenter utforskar namnens betydelse för social och ekologisk hållbarhet

Kan namnbruk bidra till social och ekologisk hållbarhet?

Denna fråga fick studenter fördjupa sig i under en kurs om “Namn i språk och samhälle” vid Högskolan i Halmstad våren 2019. Arbetet genomfördes i samverkan med Samhällsbyggnadskontoret i Halmstad kommun, där man har inlett ett omfattande och långsiktigt stadsomvandlingsprojekt för två stadsdelar som ska utvecklas från industriområden till attraktiva bostadsområden. Studenterna fick i grupper under ett par veckors tid genomföra analyser av de nuvarande namnen i områdena, undersöka platsernas historik, jämföra med andra områden i staden och utforska både nuvarande och framtida möjliga platsidentiteter.

Resultatet visade att svaret på den inledande frågan är JA! Studenterna gav förslag på hur ett aktivt arbete med befintliga och nya namn i områdena skulle kunna bidra till att höja attraktiviteten för de boende, skapa stolthet, välkomna fler samhällsgrupper samt signalera värden som jämställdhet och mångfald. Den ekologiska hållbarheten lyftes också fram genom aktiv namngivning av cykelstråk och gångvägar samt en mängd namnförslag med kopplingar till det lokala djur- och naturlivet. Nu är förhoppningen att kommunen går vidare med studenternas goda idéer!

Emilia Aldrin