The Cognitive Toponymy Project: People and Places in Synergy.

The Cognitive Toponymy Research Network brings together national and international scholars of archaeology, geography, history, linguistics, onomastics and psychology, to collaborate for two and a half years on the development of new approaches to the study of place-names focusing on the role of human cognition in mediating external reality. The network aims to investigate (i) how human beings conceptualise place, and (ii) how the conceptualisation of place has impacted on the development of Western society.

It focuses on evidence from Scotland and Denmark over the last two millennia, drawing on and strengthening existing links between researchers in both countries. Knowledge exchange activities both contribute to the research and raise awareness of how place-names help us to understand our society and environment. The network utilises the cognition-based approaches that have recently become prominent in a range of disciplines including archaeology, linguistics and psychology. The focus is on mental models and the role of embodied experience in the everyday interaction between human beings and the world. Cognitive archaeology focuses on the material expression of human thought, cognitive linguistics on the synergy between thought and language, and cognitive psychology on the relationship between mental processes and sensory input.

The project harnesses these approaches within an interdisciplinary study of perceptions of place, examining the strategies used by humans to impose order on their surroundings and to make sense of their environment. Drawing on comparative evidence from Scotland and Denmark, it investigates names given to places in order to assert ownership, to express political or religious ideology, or to establish identity. It also examines relationships between mental maps and cartographic representations, between spatial direction and mental images, and between external reality and beliefs. Axes of comparison are diachronic as well as synchronic, ranging from the initial response of early settlers in an untamed wilderness through to the expression of identity as manifested in housing and urban development naming acts.

The project explores the rich diversity of source material provided by the wide range of communities represented in Scotland both throughout history and at the present day, and is informed by historical links as well as significant contrasts between the naming systems of Scotland and Denmark. Whereas the bulk of Denmark’s place-names derive from a single Scandinavian language, Scotland’s place-names derive from a range of Scandinavian, West Germanic and Celtic languages, interacting and overlaying each other in different ways in different parts of the country. The project’s outcomes will increase our understanding of how the physical use by human beings of geographical places interacts with how we perceive, characterise and name them, not only in the way that naming places reflects how they were used and perceived at the time, but also in the ways that place-names themselves may have affected future landscape usage and perception. An important focus is on how these interactions may have changed over time in accordance with the cultural development of society.

Three sub-projects are nested within the overall project:

i) The geographical and mental compass

‘North’ does not always mean north in a strict geographical sense. Local communities tend to have a ‘mental compass’ which often differs from the geographical one, leaving outsiders (or later observers) looking in the wrong direction when trying to understand such expressed conceptualisations of space. This sub-project examines how people at different periods have used geographical directions such as north/south/east/west in their individual and social cognitive understanding of the landscape, turning undifferentiated space into meaningful place by using place-names alongside other kinds of spatial language. It also investigates the role of image schemas such as up/down and in/out in the conceptualisation of place through the act of naming.

ii) Christianisation and the standardisation of cognitive toponymy in medieval Europe

Religion is increasingly recognised as a determining factor in landscape use and perception through time. This sub-project addresses two main questions. Firstly: to what extent did the implementation of a common religion in Western and Central Europe in the Middle Ages lead to a standardised way of conceptualising spaces within a religious context, as reflected in place-names? Secondly: to what extent did this conceptualisation promote a ‘Europeanisation’ within religious-cognitive toponymy?

iii) Perceptual aspects of appearance

When not defined according to purpose or location, places are often described according to appearance. In reality, appearance is both multi-faceted and variable, depending on point of observation, time of day and season of year, yet communities somehow agree on a single defining aspect for naming purposes. This sub-project builds on previous work on colour terms in place-names, and extends it to appearance terms in general, investigating the factors that determine salience in the visual perception of place. Traditional approaches to onomastics have been primarily historical and philological, as reflected in the English Place-Name Survey and Danmarks Stednavne (Place-Names of Denmark). Work on the Survey of Scottish Place-Names, initiated by Taylor’s 5-volume survey of Fife and extended to other counties through an AHRC-funded project led by Clancy, Hough and Taylor, is underpinned by the same principles but puts more emphasis on geographical and linguistic context. A recent approach known as ‘critical toponymy’ prioritises political and social dimensions of naming, with regard to such issues as implications for language planning.

The Cognitive Toponymy Research Network has the potential to establish a new theoretical paradigm for name studies, with Scotland at the forefront of developments in the field. The Cognitive Toponymy Research Network brings together established academics and early career scholars from a range of disciplines at the Universities of Copenhagen, Glasgow and St Andrews to develop an exciting new area of research. It will produce significant outputs and lay a foundation for future collaborative work.

The Cognitive Toponymy Research Network‘s logo and background are built upon an imagine from the 1900 Europa; Enciclopedia Romana housed in the Library of the “Lucian Blaga” at the University of Sibiu. The image is available for redistribution and reworking as per Creative Commons rights, details of which can be found http://digital-library.ulbsibiu.ro/123456789/325 and http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/. As requested by the library, the reworked image used for both the background and logo of the project is available freely under the Creative Commons act. Other parties are free to share and redistribute the material in any medium or format and adapt, remix, transform and build upon the material. Thanks are given to Scott Gliniany for his help in creating the logo.


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