Toponymy has emerged in the 1960s as a fashionable discipline of its own among the Soviet scholars of Central Eurasia. Since that time, from Azerbaijan to the Altai a number of dictionaries and monographs have been published on place-names, their origins, meanings and typology. In the 1990s the popularity of place-names study has reached local populations of rural areas, who then begun to swamp local newspapers with articles of their own on local lore. Within academic circles this discipline, first practiced by linguists, gradually reached historical sections of the academy of sciences. This phenomenon has been recently illustrated by this book by F. G. Khisametdinova, the Director of the Ufa Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences of Russia: an in-deep historical exploration of Bashkir toponymy. After initial statements on the multiethnic character of the Western Urals region, the author expresses her wish to complete the current linguistic classifications by taking into account migrations, interactions between the respective languages of the Finno-Ugric natives and of the Turkic invaders, and the impact of a wide range of socio-political conditions on the evolution of Bashkir toponymy.
The first chapter is a critical and useful presentation of substantial main existing works on the toponymy of the main Turkic groups established in Russia. For Bashkiria, the starting point was an article on “Bashkir toponymy” published in 1956 by the famous linguist Dzh. Kiekbaev. A lexical and semantic analysis of village names, this article was the first attempt to find out their etymology. According to Khisametdinova, none of the studies that came out later managed to establish a link with the complex history of the Bashkir tribes nor to insert this regional case into an overview of Turkic toponymy. Unfortunately, her wish to fill the gap leads the author to presuppose the permanency and the homogeneity of Bashkir language, especially when she affirms that “using retrospective method, we can go back to the origins of Bashkir toponymy (p. 51).” Another difficulty is the lack of written sources for the period before the sixteenth century. The only available documents for this period are those emanating from the Russian administration (information on clans and landscape was collected during mezhevanie and revizi controls), travelogues (especially those by Rychkov, Lepekhin, and Pallas) and ancient geographical maps. The author has also discovered unpublished materials in varied public archive collections in Moscow, Ufa, Orenburg and Cheliabinsk. Apart from this official documentation, she has also brought to light traces of ancient toponyms in Volga Bulghar epitaphs, in shezheres (clan genealogies transcribed during the nineteenth century), and in village stories written by mullahs or other well-read people. All these sources are described with interesting annotations on the validity of their descriptions.
On this documental basis the second chapter provides no less than a new semantic classification of Bashkir toponyms used between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Arguing that place names were given by the inhabitants according to a local community’s main activity, the author recalls the nomadic way of life of Turkic tribes for explaining the predominance of ethnic denominations (viz., tribe names) over anthroponymic ones (based on individuals’ proper names). Among the two or three phonemes that used to compose a place name, one of them is usually linked with a tribe name: Ay produces Aybash, Ayli Yurt, Aylina etc. The author provides other illustrations by showing for instance how the word yurt has produced place name like Yurtovo, how kura (summer pasture for cattle) gave Kuraly and how the term aul (permanent rural settlement) was rarely used in Bashkir toponymy before the nineteenth century. Through statistical comparisons with other Ural-Altaic languages, the specificities of Bashkir history are well demonstrated. Despite some simplifications, in particular when stating that the presence of Bashkir ethnic denominations in the western regions of nowadays Bashkiria testifies that local inhabitants were “Bashkirs (p. 74),” the historical demonstration is almost persuasive which will require a reassessment in the study of identification processes: It is only after the instauration of the cantonal system in 1798 that ethnic denominations have begun to be replaced by personal names (of local starshins) for designating newly founded villages.
The last chapter is a linguistic study subtly displaying the semantic structures of Bashkir toponymy. The methodical deconstruction of hundreds of toponyms according to the number of their phonemes, their grammatical composition (verb, noun and complement together or separately) and the multiple combinations of river, person and ethnic denominations allows the author to defend her central hypothesis on a linguistic settling process (auloobrazovaniia—i.e., the formation of an aul). Stating that the Mongol invasion obliged Bashkir tribes to struggle against Volga Bulghar influence and to get back to nomadic life, she defends the idea that temporary living places received clan names which remained after the clan departure. As a result, the same place could be named with several toponyms and only the formation of aul and the progressive segmentation of tribal structures after the Russian conquest led personal place names to discard ethnic denominations in Bashkir toponymy.
Finally, despite some non-argued assertions the author manages to keep away from endless and fruitless controversies on the ethno-genesis of the Bashkir, and to offer an illuminating history of Bashkir language. Besides its interest for both linguists and historians of the Turkic world, the book owes his pedagogical value to its inclusion in a new multidisciplinary current. The lack of maps and illustrations is partly compensated by the quality of the appendixes (a long list of Bashkir villages with their name, localisation, date and circumstances of their foundation, and some etymological data). These appendixes, a dictionary in making, have been republished and completed in Khisametdinova F. G., Geograficheskie nazvaniia Bashkortanstana: materialy dlia istoriko-etimologicheskogo slovaria [Geographical Names of Bashkortostan: Materials for a Historical and Etymological Dictionary], 2nd ed. revised and enlarged, Ufa: Gilem, 2006, 132 p.