David Bly: What’s in a name? An abundance of history

VKA-BLY-5181.jpgRead aloud a list of B.C. place names and it sounds almost like music — Okanagan, Esquimalt, Chemainus, Skookumchuk, Carmanah, Bella Coola, Stikine, Keremeos, Nanaimo, Coquihalla.

But those names do more than pleasingly trip off the tongue — they are full of history. To understand the origins of geographical names is to better understand a place, its history and its peoples.

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That especially holds true for B.C.’s aboriginal place names, many of which were displaced by European explorers and colonizers, who often regarded the landscapes they were viewing as “terra nullus” — empty lands.

“They didn’t even check,” said Gunter Schaarschmidt, retired University of Victoria linguistics professor. “They realized these people they met had no written language, so they thought they probably didn’t give names to the environment. That’s probably why they were so liberal with the names. They did it without asking anybody: ‘What do you name this peak, this part of the country?’ ”

As colonization proceeded, the renaming of the landscape was a deliberate part of the attempt to erase aboriginal culture, he said, but it happened less extensively here than elsewhere — B.C. has more aboriginal place names than any other Canadian province.

And some of the original names are returning.

Schaarschmidt attended the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Calgary last month, where he spoke on the trend of restoring aboriginal geographical names.

His interest in place names grew out of his study of indigenous languages, especially the Salish languages of Vancouver Island and the Saanich Peninsula.

B.C. is Canada’s most linguistically diverse province. Of the 60 or so aboriginal languages spoken in Canada, 34 of them are found in B.C. But the number of people able to speak those languages is declining.

“It’s a struggle, especially in B.C.,” said Schaarschmidt. Languages such as Cree, Ojibwa and Inuit are thriving, he said, because they have large groups of people who speak those languages. But in B.C., many languages are threatened because only a few people are native speakers.

“But there’s a lot of revitalization going on,” he said, and restoring place names is part of that trend.

“As people become more aware of what the original languages were, they are insisting they change [place names] back,” he said. “It adds to their confidence, to their identity, to the fact that they have a place in Canada.”

He applauds the restoration, for example, of the name Pkols to Mount Douglas, and Lau,Welnew to Mount Newton. One name doesn’t have to replace another, he said, as they can exist side by side, each reflecting a different era of history.

As he prepared to deliver his paper in Calgary, Schaarschmidt was interviewed by a reporter from a national newspaper who quoted him as referring to “the Salish languages that are spoken on the Spanish peninsula on Vancouver Island.”

He had a good laugh over that one, but said the reporter wasn’t so far off the mark, given the many Spanish names connected to the Island’s history.

We become so accustomed to those names, most of us probably don’t give much thought to the Spanish explorers who splashed their name choices all over the map: Cordova Bay, Quadra Island, Cortes Island, Gabriola, Bazan Bay, Port Alberni, Descanso Bay.

And of course there’s Juan de Fuca, the navigator employed by the Spanish and after whom the strait and other features are named. But if we were to be meticulously true to origins, we would call it Ioánnis Phokás Strait — the maritimer was actually Greek (if he really existed, which some historians doubt). The name we are familiar with is the Spanish rendition.

The British followed the Spanish explorers, and so we have countless names reflecting that history.

But people lived here thousands of years before the European explorers arrived. They gave names to places for many reasons, such as the physical appearance of the landscape and connection to historic events or legends. Many sites are considered sacred; their names reflect spiritual beliefs.

When we can know those names, we know more about the places and the people who named them, more about our shared history.

It is not revising history to restore those names, it is making history complete.

dbly@timescolonist.com

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