Thursday, August 31, 2017

Answer: How can we find place names even after they've changed?

What's in a name?    

If you're lucky, there's just one name for a place.  Newly made cities, like Irvine, CA, have always just had one name.  But places that have been around for a while, with a rich and complex history--say, Istanbul, Turkey--will almost certainly have multiple names as countries, languages, and history changes the place.  

Probably the best-known name-shifting city is the city-currently-known-as Istanbul, which was previously known as Constantinople. 

Mosque in Istanbul (Not Constantinople)

Other places have had interesting name choices as well.  What's the story behind these?  

1. Where is El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula?  What is that city called today?  What would that place have been called in 1600?
Searching for the name:

     [ El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula ]  

tells you quickly that this is the place also known as Los Angeles, California (aka LA).  The Wikipedia page tells the story that Franciscan monk Juan Crespí tells about the Portolá expedition being impressed by a river they named El Río de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula. Meaning, "the River of Our Lady Queen of the Angels of Porciuncula." The name derives from Santa Maria degli Angeli, a small town in Italy housing the Porciuncula, a tiny plot of land that held the church where St. Francis of Assisi lived. Various versions of Crespí's name would be used for the town, including the exceedingly long El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora Reina de los Ángeles sobre el Río Porciúncula, and other variations on that theme. 

Other variations I've seen in my research: 
El Pueblo de la Reina de los Angeles Sobre el Rio de Porciúncula
El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles de la Porciúncula
El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles
El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reyna de los Angeles
El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reyna de los Angeles del Rio Porciúncula
Pueblo del Rio de Nuestra Señora la Reyna de los Angeles de Porciúncula
Of course, Portolá's expedition didn't reach the LA Basin until 1769.  What would the locals have called that place before he arrived?  

As you know, LA is a huge place--so when I think about "that place," what do I mean?  The point where the city was founded?  The largest nearby settlement of Indians who live nearby?  Where the first building was constructed?  How about the first Catholic mission?  

How would you find out? Here's my general query:  

     [ History of Los Angeles ] 

leads to the Wikipedia article on LA history, which has a section on "pre-history," which tells us that the Tongva people who inhabited the area when the Spanish arrived called the Los Angeles region Yaanga in their language.  And what's more, the Spanish pueblo was located near a large village on the river.  

To complicate things, the web site claims that around 500AD, Tongva Indians settled in the Los Angeles basin, displacing the previous inhabitants, the . By the 16th century, the region’s main village was called Yang-Na, near present-day Los Angeles City Hall.

Let's do some background checking here.  What sources are cited for each of the names? 

Yaanga - the book cited in the Wikipedia article is Munro, Pamela, et al. Yaara' Shiraaw'ax 'Eyooshiraaw'a. Now You're Speaking Our Language: Gabrielino/Tongva/Fernandeño. (, 2008)  Except when I search for this book on (a self-publishing site), I find there are two books with different authors.  One is by Pamela Munro, and the other is Julia Bogany.  This is slightly suspicious--it's a self-publishing site.  BUT when I search for these authors by name, I find that Pamela Munro is a linguist at UCLA with extensive work in Native American languages, including Tongva!  While Julia Bogany turns out to be a Tongva elder who teaches the language and culture of the Tongva. These aren't just random self-publishers with a passing interest, these are world-experts on the Tongva language.  

If you're ever going to find two experts in the Tongva language, these are the people you'd find. And when you look at both books, it's clearly the same book--one is just a "large print" edition.

I was able to find author Pamela Munro's email address without much trouble--so I wrote to her and asked her opinion about the name.  She graciously wrote back (almost instantly!) saying:  "The basic form of the name was probably Yaar or Yaay; we don't know. Different endings are added to the root Yaa- (not a word). The -nga ending means "in" and is also used for the form people usually give for village names."  

How about the other name for the village?   

Yang-Na is used in the DiscoverLosAngeles article, but has no citation for the source of the name.  And if you do a quoted search: 

     [ "yang-na" ] 

you'll find a lot of Chinese artist results, and a mention in U.S. History (again, without any reference for the name), but a mention that Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo came across the Yang-na village in 1542, noting the location on his map as he continued his exploration.

I shifted my search to be: 

     [ "yang-na" Cabrillo ] 

which then gave me a bunch of results.  This name is used just about everywhere.  But after extensive searching, I haven't been able to find a decent citation about where the name came from, OR Cabrillo's map with the name "Yang-Na" on it.  (I'll keep looking.) 

So, let's go with what the Tongva experts (and Wikipedia) call it:  Yaanga.  

 2. Where is/was Humqaq?  What was that place called in the late 1500s?
 The obvious query tells us that this is Point Conception, just west of the southern California city of Santa Barbara.  

     [ Humqaq ] 

The Wikipedia article says that: "Point Conception was first noted by Spanish maritime explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542 and named Cabo de Galera. In 1602, Sebastian Vizcaíno sailed past again, renaming the protruding headland Punta de la Limpia Concepción ("Point of the Immaculate Conception"). Vizcaíno's name stuck, and was later anglicized to today's version." 

And, for extra credit: "It is called Humqaq ("The Raven Comes") in the Chumashan languages..."   So the name Humqaq is the Chumash name of the point.  

After the lesson of Yaanga, it's worth doing a bit of checking.  To follow up and find a second source, I used this information in a query: 

     [ Point Conception Cabrillo ] 

which finds multiple confirming sources.  For instance, the book North to California: The Spanish Voyages of Discovery, 1533-1603.  (Paul A. Myers, 2004) tells exactly the same story, giving great, high quality references that you can check.  

 3. Where is the city of Óbuda?  And what’s this place called now?  
     [ Óbuda ] 

... tells us that this is / was a city in Hungary that was merged with Buda and Pest in 1873.  This area it now forms part of District III-Óbuda-Békásmegyer of Budapest. The name means Old Buda in Hungarian (or, in German, Alt-Ofen). The name in Croatian and Serbian for this city is Stari Budim, but the local Croat minority calls it Obuda (the name "Budim" they use for the fortress in Buda).

So, it's Budapest.  Again, to check, I did a query for: 

    [ history Budapest ] 

and found the city's official site, which tells the same story.  

4. What was the name of the country where the city of Dar Es Salaam is... before 1964?  (That is, if you're looking for historical documents about the city of Dar Es Salaam, what country do you need to look for?)  
I started with Dar Es Salaam: 

     [ Dar Es Salaam ] 

learning that it's in Tanzania.  The obvious query here is: 

     [ history of Tanzania ] 

Finding in Google's web answer that "...On 26 April 1964, Tanganyika united with Zanzibar to form the United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar. The country was renamed the United Republic of Tanzania on 29 October of that year. The name Tanzania is a blend of Tanganyika and Zanzibar and previously had no significance." 

I have to admit that I grew up with Tanganyika as a country in Africa, and was vaguely aware that it had ceased-to-be sometime in the mid-1960s, but I didn't know that the new country name is a portmanteau word combining Zanzibar and Tanganyika!  

So, if you're searching for information about the region around Dar Es Salaam, you'd want to know about this name change.  

5. What was the name of the capital of Zaire in 1900?

Again, here's another African country name that I was aware had changed, but I didn't really know the transformation process. 

The obvious search: 

     [ capital of Zaire ] 

gives you this result on Google: 

Be careful!!  If you just copied this answer, you'd be missing an important fact.  Zaire is no longer a country.  If you now do a search for: 

     [ Zaire ] 

you'll quickly find out that was the name for the Democratic Republic of the Congo that existed only for 6 years, between 1971 and 1997.  

This is an important point:  Check your work!  Kinshasha IS the capital of the DR of Congo, and was the capital of Zaire.  

But remember the Challenge question?  "What was the capital of Zaire in 1900?" This is a bit of a trick question, but it's the kind of question that you see all the time. It's the kind of question that comes up in real research--search questions don't necessarily have to make sense or be internally coherent.  That's the way this question is:  Zaire didn't exist before 1971.  So asking "what's the capital in 1900?" is an inherently odd question.  

So... what's a reasonable interpretation?  

I'd say the question is really like this:  What WAS that part of Central Africa called in 1900?  

Reading about the history of Zaire tells us that it was formed out of the Republic of the Congo in 1960.  Before 1960, this country was called the Belgian Congo, which was established by Belgium through annexation in 1908.  

Okay, what was it before 1908?  

Reading carefully, you'll find that the a group of European nations (the Berlin Conference), divided up the area of the Congo, ceding it to Belgium.  As a result, King Leopold II of Belgium received a large share of territory (2,344,000 km2 (905,000 sq mi)) to be organized as the Congo Free State. Congo Free State operated as a corporate state privately controlled by Leopold II through a non-governmental organization, the Association Internationale Africaine. The state included the entire area of the present Democratic Republic of the Congo (and therefore, Zaire) and existed from 1885 to 1908, when the government of Belgium annexed the area.

So what was the capital of the Congo Free State?   

     [ capital Congo Free State ] 

was... Boma. We find that "Boma was the capital city of the Congo Free State and Belgian Congo (the modern Democratic Republic of the Congo) from 1886 to 1926, when the capital was moved to Léopoldville (since renamed Kinshasa). 

To double check: 

     [ history of Boma Congo ] 

leads to several books (e.g., Historical Dictionary of the Democratic Republic of the Congo) that give us background information that agrees with this.  

I would say that Boma, in 1900, was the capital of the region of the Congo that was known as Zaire, and is now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  

Interestingly, as I was doing this research, I tried other search engines as well.  (You should too, from time to time, just to be sure you know what all is possible.)  

I tried Bing, and got this as a result:  

Bing correctly points out that NOW there is no country known as Zaire.  But when there was, and its capital was Kinshasa.  

On the other hand, if you give an expanded version of this query to Bing: 

      [ what city was the capital of Zaire in 1900 ] 

Bings gives the following web answer, which is close, but not quite right... It tries, and misses.  (Note that it's just giving us a summary of the commentary on "What was the capital of Zaire?" but ignoring the date!)  

On the other-other hand, Wolfram Alpha gets it definitively wrong (the Democratic Republic of Congo didn't exist in 1900):  

While Google doesn't even try (which is probably really the right thing to do): 

6.  You probably did a number of searches to answer these Challenges.  Is there a single reference work (hopefully online!) that would let you answer all of these questions?  What would should a work be called? 
Great work by Jon (the Unknown) who pointed out that a historical gazetteer is a reference work that contains information about place names, events, and changes over time.  
Jon writes that his query for gazetteers was: 

     [historical gazetteers] 

finds a Wikipedia page of gazetteers which has a listing of online world gazetteers. I found that the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency's mapping gazetteer works well. 

Using this query, I found the Historical Gazetteer of the United States (Paul T. Hellmann) in which I found this entry for Los Angeles:  

Note the highlighted passages.  This reference book uses the "Yang-na" form of the Tongva village name, and gives one of the variations on the long Spanish name of LA.  

Another useful reference to know about is the "Dictionary of place-names" that several reference publishers issue.  It's often useful to search for such a dictionary for a given place.  Here are a couple of examples that I've used: 

     [ dictionary place-names ] 

     [ dictionary place-name British ] 

     [ dictionary place-names California ] 

These will find resources that can answer all kinds of geographic place name changes over time!  

Search Lessons

1. Check your web answers!  As you can see, various sources give variations on a theme.  As I always say--double source (or more!) your answers.  Get your information from places you can trust.  

2. Remember that you can always ask a real expert.  In this case, Pamela Munro was a fantastic resource--she's a world expert on this topic, but was gracious in giving me an answer to a fairly technical question.  People are generous, as a rule.  Reach out to them.  

3.  Be sure you understand the question.  In the Zaire capital question, the answer took some digging to get to the bottom of the issue.  It really was NOT obvious what the answer was, and took some thinking about what a possible answer would be.  Don't give up digging! 

4.  Sometimes questions take a while to answer.  I'm still looking for the Cabrillo map with "Yang-na" on it.  (Or something similar.)  It may take a while, but you never know... 

5. Know what a gazetteer and a dictionary of place-names can do for you.  

Well... this was fun!  And it took more time than I'd anticipated.  (I spent WAAY too much time trying to find the origins of "Yang-na.")  

But we'll be back next Wednesday with a new (and much simpler) Challenge.  

Search on! 


  1. Thanks for the 'tip of the hat' jon tU

    1. Hello Jon tU and Dr. Russell. I didn't know gazetteers nor about dictionary place-names. So thanks for writing about it. I don't think there is something in Spanish as gazetteers. I am trying them in English

      Dr. Russell, how did you use "National Geospatial Intelligence Agency's mapping gazetteer "? I clicked in the map and in search box but didn't find anything similar to what we are looking for, so I wonder what I did wrong.

      I tried [dictionary place-names mexico] good results