“What’s in a name?” Swahili toponymy of past towns on the East African coast
For the last century, archaeologists have surveyed and studied archaeological sites on the Swahili coast of East Africa, that represent the remains of past Swahili settlements and, in few cases, living historical towns. This paper is the first discussion of a collection of the names under which these past towns have been known, some of which may date back to the precolonial period. The present enquiry is concerned with the analysis of linguistic features, folk etymology and the conceptual content of these toponyms. It considers the recognised important themes in archaeology and history of the Swahili society, such as the political functioning of these towns as city states and the attested social and economic relevance of trade, the built environment and the ocean. Utilising this knowledge, it reflects on how the names contributed to place-making and defining the identity of these towns both as individual entities and as part of the Swahili cultural sphere. The interdisciplinary approach and perspectives (linguistic and archaeological) help to elucidate the connection between the socio-historical relevance of these sites with their cultural conceptualisations.