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A historic map of the Arabian Peninsula

Translating place

Orthography and the problem of place names at the Royal Geographical Society, 1830–1919

Research by Beth Williamson

Beth Williamson

September 2021 start. Royal Holloway, University of London: PI Dr Innes M. Keighren and Professor Veronica della Dora 



This project seeks to understand how the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) sought to resolve a seemingly intractable problem: how to accurately and authoritatively record the world's place names in the face of dizzying variety in global spelling, pronunciation, and alphabet. How the Society tackled the problem of 'orthography' - and how it subsequently policed and promoted its solution - reveals much about the relationship between institutional authority and geographical knowledge. It exposes the complex relationships between indigenous and imperial modes of understanding space and place. In tracing the development of the Society's orthographic principles, the project will show how geography and linguistics, and politics and diplomacy, shaped the way the world was brought to 'order' in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Revealing the imperial underpinnings of orthography, and its impact on the production of maps and other geographical publications, offers an important opportunity to contribute to wider efforts to decolonise the discipline and to encourage new audiences to engage with its empirical and material legacies. The project will use community engagement activities including counter-mapping and the development of non-imperial orthographies-to challenge traditional histories of geography and to engage under-represented communities with the collections of the Society.