ANS Member Research: “From the Countryside to the Urban Outskirts: Displacement of Old Microtoponyms” by Sara Racca

Recently presented at the 2024 Annual Meeting of the American Name Society, Sara Racca’s work explores the displacement of microtoponyms in Italy. You can watch the presentation here:

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Place names are usually studied for their stability over time, that makes them ‘linguistic fossils’ informing us about previous stages of languages and people who spoke them on a certain territory. Furthermore, the study of their etymology unveils landscapes’ features that may have changed over time. However, while the relevance of the etymological study is undisputed, sometimes it can misdirect: over time, a toponym can “move” from its original place to a new location somehow related to the previous one. Thus, the semiotic relationship between toponym and referent falls apart, so that the study of etymology is no longer sufficient, and it becomes necessary to reconstruct the motivation that led to the displacement. This proposal presents the case study of some place names collected in an Italian town. Specifically, they are vernacular microtoponyms originally referring to rural areas, which, due to a process related to the role of contemporary hodonymy, have come to indicate suburbs of the town located a few hundred meters from the original place. The process is driven by the need to find new names for new urbanized areas, and can be found probably in other contexts with similar needs. The displacement, however, is in progress: inhabitants use the investigated toponyms to refer whether to the original rural areas or the new suburbs, depending on their socio-demographical characteristics. Therefore, the research captured the (perhaps transitional) time in which, in a sense, the identity of those place names is under redefinition.


Sara Racca is a Postdoc at the priority program Language and Space, University of Zurich (Switzerland), where she is also affiliated with the Department of Geography. She obtained her PhD in Dialectology, Geolinguistics and Sociolinguistics in Turin (Italy) in 2022. In the field of onomastics, her main interests concern urban and sociotoponomastics.


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