Why pursue a history of a region’s name? It is really important to stress at the very beginning that the aim of this discussion is the absolute opposite of the aim usually assigned to studies or popular overviews of historical geography. In traditional, ethnocentric historical narratives, the emphasis is normally put on demonstrating the continuity or the authenticity of certain toponyms or ethnonyms, on locating the present-day subject in the past. In this case, the aim is to emphasize the complementary aspect of discontinuity and change in the geographical nomenclatures of the past. The point is to demonstrate that names assumed by modern nations and nation states were neither pre-given, and directly transmitted from the dawn of history, nor were they created out of thin air with the arrival of the Modern industrial era.
As concluded by social theoreticians a few decades ago, the both of these extreme views are ill-conceived27. Modern geographical names are certainly well-rooted in earlier geographical traditions, and though to many people today, names of cities, regions or communities are normally unchanging or at least fixed for greater periods of time, there was a great deal of naming and renaming in the past, and there sometimes even existed divergent geographical traditions at the same time. Contemporary geographical terminology whether relating about places, regions or communities, is inevitably rooted in some earlier geographic tradition. Modern geographical names are simply derived from some of the previously existing traditions, with no method of deciding which one is more correct or justified. This is decided by the current interests and constellations, nicely illustrated by cases where an emergent modern nation state struggles to choose its name, trying to distance or relate itself to historical subjects. But one should also not forget that geographic names are not always drawn from the historical record; indeed, circumstances of colonization of new lands or radical social changes often bring along radical breaks with the existent geographic traditions. Both regions and people were often named purposefully or not, in spite of existing traditions. It is how divergent geographic traditions are created, making the history of geographic names possible.
Names are also quiet often simply a matter of practical consideration. Again, it all depends on the specific case and the current circumstances. It is however relatively safe to claim that once we are dealing with names of historical regions or ancient tribal names, the modern geographic term whether derived or directly applied will also inevitably transmit the associated historical connotations. Thus, the names often come to play an important role in the process of modern nation formation; they relate the present day nation states or regions to a historical subject, claiming a number of heritage rights, such as cultural or historical heritage, resources and territory. In this part of the World, modern political or regional subjects construct their identities primarily using the material of history. The name here is obviously an essential element. Nationalist ideology, including national history has made the general public believe that they are simply the modern descendants of a group or groups of people, regardless of the centuries and millennia of demographic changes, internal divisions, and shifts in identity. The national conception has no problem upholding the idea of the continuity of a people, even in cases where names and identities have changed over the ages. This is because the nation is in essence a teleological concept; nations are present even before they are born.
The case of the name Macedonia has by now become a classic in Anthropological studies in the field of modern national identities. Although far from being typical for the rest of the World, it nicely illustrates the role of historical symbols in the definition of national identities. The focus of this discussion will be solely on the history of the name, its territorial expansions and contractions, and its transformations from an ethnonym, a name of a caste, to a regional name, and back to a people’s name. We’ll also hopefully touch upon the divergent geographical traditions that brought about the modern, nationalist dispute between the two Balkan states. It has to be noted that this is only meant to be a brief historical sketch, primarily addressing the general public, not an exhaustive study in the region’s historical geography. The latter would naturally cost years of historical research, naturally resulting in a far more voluminous study.
27 B. Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, London 1983, E. Gellner, Nations and Nationalism: New perspectives on the past, 1983. Back