I have reported on politically inspired place-name changing in India; now it’s the turn of South Africa and Ireland. It seems the former country’s capital, Pretoria, is being renamed Tshwane, adding to a list of similar changes that includes, for instance, Pietersburg changing to Polokwane a few years ago. While I understand the desire to eliminate names associated with the apartheid government, in this case it seems like there must be better ways to spend the billion-plus rand the change is expected to cost. Of linguistic interest is the fact that the -h- represents aspiration, so the new name is basically pronounced “Tswane,” although I’m sure most English-speakers will use the /sh/ sound because of the spelling. Also, it’s not at all clear what the meaning of the new name is. The Hindustan Times story says:

Pretoria was named after Andries Pretorius, who settled here with the so-called “Voortrekkers” (front trekkers) a vanguard of Boers who left the Cape colony with ox-wagons in the 1830s and the second group to live in the area.
The first were Nguni-speakers, known as the Ndebele who named the place Tshwane, which means “Little Ape”. The word Tshwane is said to symbolise the chief’s motto — “we are the same.”

So that’s two possible meanings right there (though I’m not clear on what “symbolizing the motto” means); the page “Meanings of place names in South Africa” quotes a government website as saying:

The name Tshwane comes to us from Chief Mushi, who settled in the Pretoria area about 100 years before the arrival of the Voortrekkers in the early 1800s. Chief Mushi and his tribe had moved from Zululand and first settled at Mokgapane (Mooiplaas, east of Pretoria). He later moved from Mooiplaas to what is now the Pretoria area, on the banks of the Tshwane River, named after his son Tshwane (today called the Apies River). Tshwane is the authentic African name for Pretoria. Also interesting is that the word tshwane means “we are the same” or “we are one because we live together”.

No ape here, just the “motto.” My problem is that I can’t find any of these meanings in my Zulu dictionary; the only similar entry is -tshwana, meaning the Tswana tribe or its characteristics or language. Can anybody provide more information? (Eliza?)
Elsewhere on the political-topography front, Ireland has “enacted a law outlawing English in road signs and official maps on much of the nation’s western coast, where many people speak Gaelic.”

Locals concede the switch will confuse foreigners in an area that depends heavily on tourism, but they say it’s the price of patriotism…
On the breathtakingly beautiful Dingle peninsula in northwest County Kerry, signs with English spellings were taken down weeks ago, even in cases where the English versions remain popular in local parlance. Local villages still principally known as Ballydavid, Castlegregory and Ventry are now called only Baile na nGall, Caislean Ghriaire and Ceann Tra…
Another impact of the law is that, for many places, the government has settled eons of argument about what the locality’s real Gaelic name should be. Some villages and smaller rural entities called “townlands” have had rival spellings — and even totally competing names.
The town of Mountcharles in northwest County Donegal, for instance, has often been known in its straight Gaelic translation “Moin Searlas,” but the government-approved list rejects this in favor of a more medieval name “Tamhnach an tSalainn,” pronounced as “townuck awn tallan” and meaning “hill of salt.”

Thanks to to Gauteng for the South African story and to Mark Swofford of Pinyin for the Irish tip.


  1. My girlfriend is a student at the University of Pretoria; she told me about this name change a couple of weeks ago, and complained (rightly so I think), especially considering that building homes and improving conditions in townships would be a much better investment of public funds, not to mention that renaming the university, for instance, might have a detrimental effect on its international reputation (I mean, who knows where Tshwane is?).
    Funnily enough, I’m also Irish, and the first I heard about these road sign changes in the Gaeltacht areas was over the web. I don’t understand it myself — what’s wrong with having bilingual signage? Would it be fair of us Pale-dwellers to paint over the Irish translations of street names around Dublin in return?

  2. Dliodoir says

    I am a frequent visitor to the Kerry Gaeltacht and it is true that many locals would refer to Baile na nGall or Ceann Tra as Ballydavid or Ventry, even as Gaeilge. However, I support the signage change as it will create the opportunity for tourists to use the Irish names and, thus, use Irish! Learning will surely ensue therefrom! For example, Baile na nGall translates as, town of the foreigners. When inquiring as to this meaning, tourists will learn that Baile na nGall was a Viking settlement. Irish placenames are full of history and meaning which their English counterparts rarely do justice to. Though I do feel sorry for English speaking tourists when they first attempt to pronounce Baile an Fheirtearaigh!!

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