Friday, March 23, 2018
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Philippine toponymy and Philippine Rise

05:03 AM March 07, 2018

The controversy generated by China’s naming of five features of Philippine Rise (formerly Benham Rise) and their being approved by Unesco’s Sub-Committee on Undersea Feature Names has led the Philippine government to also consider the naming of these undersea features. Even knowing that the outcome of our local naming and submission effort is already late and fraught with uncertainty, still the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority (Namria) has been instructed to propose domestic names for the five marine features surreptitiously named by China. This can still bolster the Philippines’ rights over the coveted area, especially if more features are identified in addition to the named ones.

Actually, according to National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr., there was a plan to name the features after local trees and birds, but this has not been done yet. Also, the detailed naming of the different features of the Benham plateau should have been done immediately after the United Nations ruled in 2012 that the Philippines has sovereign rights over Benham Rise as part of its extended continental shelf. This failure of ours to promptly provide names to significant features of our undersea landmass and our tepid plan to provide less meaningful biological names are reflective of our lack of place-name consciousness or of the undeveloped state of toponymy — or the study of place-names or toponyms and their meanings, impacts, applications and typology — in the Philippines.

By way of digressing on toponymy and in relation to our neighbors, it is observed that the study is more advanced in Indonesia and Malaysia, as shown by their introduction of standardized Bahasa orthography into the names of their important places in order to assert their nationalistic and ethnic identities after emerging from colonialism. And they are in the process of producing gazetteers, glossaries and reference books on the place-names of their settlements and heritage sites and structures — publications that are sorely needed in the Philippines.


In our case, we have yet to seriously examine our place-name system, including our rampant whimsical practice of changing historic names of streets and structures and putting in their stead names of local politicians. For instance, in a recent list of 370 renamed streets in Metro Manila provided by Wikipedia, I conservatively counted more than 50 place-names with heritage value that have been renamed after local politicians and businessmen. How I wish, for instance, that they retained Calle Aceiteros in San Nicolas, Manila, and not changed it to M. de Santos, in order to remind us that, interestingly, the street used to be lined with tradesmen who pressed oil from ilang-ilang flowers for export to French perfumeries.

To go back to the plan of naming the Philippine Rise features after local trees and birds, this appears to be a feeble approach that is not reflective of our need to stress a nationalistic, controlling and protective stance for resources already granted to us. Toponymy may be studied using taxonomic, epistemic, semiotic and ideological approaches. Our present need is to use the semiotic and ideological approaches where we employ critical toponymy or spatialized politics to deal with contested space. This involves an inquiry into spatially contested activity by a dominant group and its control of indigenous space and the infusion of its values and beliefs into the local culture.

These approaches should be employed against China, which has used in naming the undersea features cryptic and intimidating words, such as (according to the Chinese English Pinyin Dictionary): “alarm, alert” (Jinghao); “to cram, to feed to the full” (Tianbao); and “to inhabit a region, to get together, voodoo, spell, fetish” (Jujiu).

The challenge to Namria is how to formulate more potent alternative identities that will stamp out the ominous ownership implications of these sneakily introduced names.

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Meliton B. Juanico, a retired professor of geography at the University of the Philippines Diliman, is a licensed environmental planner and is active in consultancy work in urban and regional planning.

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TAGS: Benham Rise, Hermogenes Esperon Jr., Inquirer Commentary, Maritime Dispute, meliton b. juanico, Philippine Rise
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