Perhaps more than any other word class proper names are situated at the interface of languages and most researchers no longer consider them as mere tags. On the contrary, synchronic approaches now arouse interest among linguists as the increasing number of projects related to synchronic toponymy shows.
Actually, although the relative textual frequency of proper names is not very high, their relative lexical frequency appears to be significant. Synchronic studies of proper names and mainly toponyms is therefore an essential task, not only to determine the conditions of their use, but also to describe their structure and lexical status as well as the psychological, sociological and political implications of their use and function in discourse. All these factors account for the great variety of linguistic projects related to toponyms, i.e. grammatical and morphosyntactical studies, modelisation, as well as the use of toponyms in spoken and written contexts.
This conference will offer the opportunity to take stock of this question and to identify the heuristic value of synchronic research in toponymy for the descriptions of languages.
The existence of toponyms in a given language is a real challenge for linguistic analysis. As a matter of fact, endonyms as well as exonyms follow the linguistic rules of each language, but also the specific constraints for proper names on the grammatical and phonological levels. The challenge is even greater as toponym analysis has to describe not only their internal structure, often quite complex, but also has to take into account the presence of linguistic components belonging to different word classes and/or of various origins.
Furthermore, the description has to consider that any written or spoken text mentioning foreign places thus introduces, from the source language to the target language, ‘foreign’ linguistic elements which more or less fit the structure of the target language, thus introducing deviating forms into its morphosyntactic system.
A functional analysis aiming at describing the nature of the constituents and their internal relation of determination testifies of that complexity on a general level. A morphological and morphosyntactical description provides in turn a detailed formal classification of the types of toponyms and gives an overview of their behaviour in context.
Results of those different analyses contribute to establishing linguistic rules and eliciting criteria for normalisation. A modelisation based on these rules facilitates the comparison between linguistic systems as well as computer applications. Combining modelisation with large corpora targets automatic recognition of toponyms in context, which represents a theoretical and methodological challenge.
CONTEXT AND USE
The study of toponyms in written contexts (press, school books, touristic brochures, maps, etc.) and in spoken contexts (conversations, media, etc.) as well as in various geographical, linguistic and social situations frames their pragmatical behaviour. The use of allonyms and their different functions in context is a recent field of investigation.
The treatment of detailed linguistic information about toponyms is another challenge in lexicography. Actually, the roles of dictionaries and encyclopaedia, be they uni- bi- or multilingual, are not clearly defined. In the same way, cartography applied to atlases and gazetteers does not seem to be based on a consensus of principles concerning the choice and presentation of endo- and exonyms respectively. The constitution of data bases increases the lexical and contextual knowledge thus contributing to the elaboration of multilingual toponym dictionaries and grammars.
In the field of sociotoponymy, the attitude of speakers preferring to use allonyms points out their sense of belonging to a community. The field of microtoponymy is concerned with individual or local use of toponyms in a small village or urban quarter, which may also reflect the social relations of their inhabitants. On a community level, such an analysis implies political concerns for example in bi- or multilingual societies.
These concerns are taken into account, on an regional or national level, in the normalization of official forms of endonyms as well as exonyms. Another concern is the legal status of geographical names and the compulsory use of specific forms in different contexts, as well as their relation to brand protection. Studies concerning spoken or written exonymisation lead to a reflection upon normalization concerning, for example, problems of transliteration (e.g. romanisation) and transcription.
Any contribution examining one or more of these challenges in synchronic toponymy will be welcome. The conference languages are French and English.