Intangible heritage of the Kujawsko-Pomorskie Voivodeship

The history of the protection of local names

The need to protect local names arose as early as the end of the 19th century, when it was noticed that they had great cognitive and historical value. This reflection, the earliest present in the scientific circles of historians and ethnographers, was connected with the observation of the process of uncontrolled disappearance of traditional naming. On the one hand there were the official historical names, which had been used in official nomenclature for some time, and on the other hand, the customary names, which functioned in the everyday language of local societies. The former category was of interest primarily to historians, while the latter became the domain of ethnographers. Field nomenclature of both mentioned categories was also of interest to archaeologists, who noticed that it could indicate the location of a potential archaeological site, e.g. a settlement, a temple or a cemetery. The importance of research on nomenclature was also emphasised by linguists (onomists) who started professional studies and research on this subject.

The growing awareness of the significance of field nomenclature gave rise to activities aimed at its protection and preservation. In Poland, more serious attempts were made at the beginning of the 20th century to put it under legal protection. The first legislative act was the “Decree on the Care over Art and Cultural Monuments” of 31 October 1918, issued by the Regency Council of the Kingdom of Poland. Article 12 of the act reads as follows: “the layouts of old towns and districts (…) together with (…) the names of streets and squares may be considered immovable monuments”. This provision, by virtue of the Regulation of the Council of Ministers of the Polish Republic of 20 February 1920, was extended to the territories of the former Prussian partition annexed to Poland, i.e. also to the Pomeranian Province. This was not an obligatory protection of the name, but only a recognition of its historic value, and only within historical cities.

In the case of local names in a wider sense, there was still postulatory protection, which was articulated by representatives of science. One of them was an outstanding ethnographer, Kazimierz Moszyński, the author of a special questionnaire for the study of topographical names, drawn up in the mid-1920s. In the introduction to this document we find valuable advice for field researchers:

“(…) Poland’s past is revealed to us not only by historical and archaeological research, but also – and in a completely irreplaceable way – by inquiries into the names of rivers and streams, lakes and moors, meadows and fields, forest charms, mountains, etc., etc.

(…) these eternal (…) names are being forgotten literally from day to day, disappearing irretrievably, and it is therefore the last moment to begin the diligent recording of what remains of them”.

Postulates of this kind have remained valid for decades.


Institutions of international law have also taken an interest in historic designations. The International Charter for the Preservation of Historic Towns, proclaimed in 1987 in Washington by the International Council for the Protection of Historic Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), stated that legal protection is afforded to “the complex of material and spiritual elements under which the historic names of a town’s spaces are concealed, as values relating to its structure and constituting its authenticity”. The Charter confirmed that historical names have de facto the status of monuments.

In Poland, the Act on the Protection and Care of Monuments of 23 July 2003 (Journal of Laws. 2003. No. 162, pos. 1568; Chapters 1 and 2; Art. 6. section. 2 aforementioned) states that “Geographical, historical or traditional names of a building, square, street or settlement unit may be protected”, and one form of their protection is their entry in the register of monuments (Art. 7.) In the next article (Art. 9. section. 2.) we read that: “The surroundings of a monument entered in the register may also be entered in the register, as well as the geographical, historical or traditional name of the monument”. It follows that in legal terms the local name does not have the status of an independent (self-contained) object, but is only an “environment” or an integral part of another immovable monument. This is confirmed by the list in Article 6.1, which does not mention local names.

            The UNESCO Convention for the Protection of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (proclaimed on 17 October 2003 in Paris and ratified by Poland in 2011) does not directly address the issue of traditional names. However, the document states that intangible heritage includes traditions and oral tradition (Article 2 of the Convention), such as fairy tales, proverbs, songs, orations, stories, eulogies, laments and shepherd’s and trader’s calls. Indirectly from the provisions of the Convention, it can therefore be concluded that place names meet the criteria and motivational arguments for the protection of intangible heritage. Let us recall that what is at stake here is the cognitive function of a given object, which is a source of knowledge of historical and contemporary reality and it performs the role of a “treasure trove of information” about the world and man.