Arctic Toponymy in my Alternate History

Fun fact: the last archipelago of substantial size to be discovered on the Earth was the Severnaya Zemlya islands, only being noted by cartographers in 1913 (though its existence seemed to be known as early as 1810), and not charted in any detail until 1930-32. This despite it being located less than 40 miles from the mainland of Eurasia, Siberia’s Taymyr Peninsula to be precise. Moreover, it’s located less than 400 miles from Novaya Zemlya, which had been known to Russians since at least the 11th century, almost a millennium earlier, when Novgorodian hunters made use of the area.

Of course the missing piece of the puzzle is that Severnaya Zemlya is surrounded by pack ice year-round, and thus is very difficult to sail to. It’s also nowhere near any of the usual routes taken by seafarers. Moreover, its harsh maritime arctic climate means it’s shrouded in fog and clouds for most of the year, making it unlikely that any of the few sailors passing close by would even notice there was land there. As Nikolay Urvantsev, a geologist on the 1930-32 expedition, put it:

I have seen God-forsaken Chukotka Peninsula, blizzard-ridden Wrangel Island, twice visited fog-enshrouded Novaya Zemlya, and I have seen Franz Josef Land with its enamel sky and proud cliffs garbed in blue, hardened glacial streams, but nowhere did I witness such grimness or such depressing, lifeless relief…

The archipelago extends up to a latitude of 81 degrees north, only two degrees lower than the northern tip of Greenland, Earth’s northernmost lands.

For similar reasons, an archipelago 300 miles westward of Severnaya Zemlya, Franz Josef Land, was not discovered until 1865 by whalers, who kept their find secret, with the first announced discovery only being in 1872, quite late in the game as far as island discoveries in the annals of history go.

This 1872 expedition was Austrian, which is why this archipelago got the name Franz Josef Land: it was named after the Austrian Emperor at the time, Franz Joseph I — yes, the same guy depicted in the “Sissi” trilogy, though by this time he was considerably older (he actually managed to live long enough to still be on the throne in the early years of World War I).

The Winds of Change reach the Maps of the Arctic…unless they don’t

Similar nomenclature once applied to Severnaya Zemlya; the explorers who discovered it named it “Tayvay Land” (Земля Тайвай), after the first syllables of each of their icebreakers’ names — the Taymyr (Таймыр) and the Vaygach (Вайгач) — but it was soon renamed Emperor Nicholas II Land (Земля Императора Николая II), after the then-reigning Tsar of Russia.

For obvious reasons the Soviet Union didn’t much care for Nicholas II, so in 1926 the Presidium of its Central Executive Committee decided to rename it “Severnaya Zemlya” (Сéверная Земля́), which in Russian means “Northern Land”. Way to be creative, eh? 🙄  Perhaps they were inspired by the precedent of Novaya Zemlya (Но́вая Земля́), whose name translates to “New Land”. Not really new at this point, having been known for 1000 years, but then again Newfoundland (“newfound land”) isn’t exactly new anymore either, is it? 🤪 

It’s rather amusing how Nicholas’s islands got renamed by the Soviets, but they never bothered to change the name of Franz Josef Land after those islands were definitively established to be Russian domain starting in the 1920s. Guess the Bolsheviks had more of a grudge on Nicholas II than they did on the old Austrian Emperor; he! Particularly odd, considering that the Soviet government got as far as serious consideration of a proposal to rename it “Fridtjof Nansen Land”, after Frittjof Nansen, a Norwegian arctic explorer, who extensively charted the islands during an 1890s expedition which involved a long stay there.

Personally I rather like the idea of naming the archipelago after Nansen; at least he actually went there and had a role in exploring the place. Franz Joseph, whatever his other outstanding qualities may be, seems an odd choice of namesake, considering he never came within a thousand miles of the place.

Relabeling the Map of the Arctic? And with a point of Divergence no later than 1900?

I can’t help but wonder what these lands would be named in my alternate history, which diverges from ours quite substantially in the 20th century. In particular, Russia doesn’t become communist, but Nicholas II is deposed in favor of Prince Lvov. This might hold implications for Severnaya Zemlya’s nomenclature. Would the new liberal-democratic Russia too have a grudge on Nicholas II, or would it leave the Tsarist name in place? Might they change the name to something other than what it was changed to in real life? And if so, what?

Why do I have a feeling that they might just revert it to the name given to it by its discoverers: Tayvay Land? Oh well. It would seem to also be a possibility that the Fridtjof Nansen Land proposal for Franz Josef Land considered in real life would still be considered in my timeline and just might stick. Already we have some alternate-historical flavor on the natural map of the world: seeing “Tayvay Land” and “Fridtjof Nansen Land” on a map of the Arctic would tip one off that this isn’t our world.

What other changes could be made? Svalbard, which is located a few hundred miles westward of Franz Josef Land, was originally and best known as Spitsbergen, which today officially refers just to the main island. The Norwegians changed it when they assumed control over the area in 1925. Which actually made some measure of sense; scholars had proposed as early as 1827 that the Norse toponym “Svalbarði” (the modern Norwegian form of which is “Svalbard”), found in Icelandic sources, referred to Spitsbergen. However, this claim remains contested; there’s some basis for believing “Svalbarði” was actually Greenland or Jan Mayen rather than Spitsbergen. Might Norway, then, hold off on the change? Assuming they even are able to make their claim to the area stick at all in the new timeline…

Eastward of Severnaya Zemlya, we have the New Siberian Islands, a rather unimaginative name for an archipelago which was first discovered for Russia by Yakov Permyakov in the early 18th century. Wikipedia lists a Yakut name for the area, but it just translates as “New Siberian Islands”, i.e. same as the Russian name. It seems this area was named fairly early in any case, and there really isn’t any other obvious nomenclature that could be used.

The easternmost of Russia’s Arctic islands is Wrangel Island, so far east it’s just 300 miles from Alaska. This one is a bit more interesting in terms of alternate-history nomenclature. The island’s current name is in honor of Baron Ferdinand von Wrangel, who never reached the island himself but nevertheless was a polar explorer and was the first white man to determine that there must be an island in the area, and searched for it (unsuccessfully).

A surprising number of names have been given to this rather curious little place off the Chukotkan coast. In 1764, before Wrangel’s efforts, Stepan Andreyev called it “Tikegen Land”. In 1849 British Captain William Kellett landed there, and the British thenceforth called it “Kellett Land”. The current name, Wrangel Island, was bestowed upon it not by Russians but rather by an American whaling captain, Thomas Long, in 1867. Claims for the United States were made on the island from 1881, with serious efforts to claim the place being sponsored by the American government as late as the 1920s. Russia, however, formally declared sovereignty in 1916, and this claim eventually stuck.

Unlike a lot of these islands, Wrangel Island has a true-blue indigenous name, in this case from the Chukot people: “Умӄиԓир”, which Romanizes as “Umqiḷir”. This apparently is pronounced something like “Oom-khee-leer”, the “kh” being the guttural sound found in the “ch” in “Bach” and “loch”. If you ask me that sounds a lot cooler than “Wrangel Island”.

Fun fact: Wrangel Island is believed to have been the last refuge of the woolly mammoth, with the last specimens only dying out around 4000 years ago there. Yes, there were woolly mammoths walking the Earth when Khufu was building the Great Pyramid at Giza. Amazing to think about, isn’t it? Anyway, I quite like the exotic quality of the native name; after all, which sounds cooler: the “Wrangel Island mammoth”, or the “Umqiḷir mammoth”?

This might become more relevant than one might think; if mammoths could be successfully cloned and the species resurrected, Wrangel Island, as the last place they survived in real life, might be a suitable place to begin their reintroduction into the wild, especially considering it’s one of the few relicts of the mammoth steppe that dominated the world during the last glacial period. Obvious alternate-history science-fiction fodder right there.

The next island group eastward of Wrangel is the insular Canadian Arctic, a massive archipelago whose islands’ names on our maps come from European explorers, primarily the British. One name, though, stands out as very changeable in an alternate history like mine: the cluster of islands north of the Northwest Passage, the northernmost part of the region, is named the “Queen Elizabeth Islands”, after Elizabeth II; in honor of her coronation in 1953 the name was changed from the “Parry Islands”, which had been their name for over a century, after British Arctic explorer William Parry. In my timeline at least there is no Queen Elizabeth II, so obviously that bit of nomenclature will be different.

Ellesmere Island, the largest of this archipelago, and famous as being among the northernmost lands in the world, was named in 1852 for the Earl of Ellesmere, who at the time was the president of the Royal Geographical Society. Not exactly a close connection. The Inuit have their own name for the place: “Umingmak Nuna”, the land of muskoxen.

So it is with Greenland: the Inuit call it “Kalaallit Nunaat”, which means “land of the Kalaallit”. “Kalaallit” traditionally was specific to the Inuit of western Greenland; inhabitants of northern Greenland call themselves “Inughit”, while inhabitants of eastern Greenland call themselves “Tunumiit”. However, in modern times the term has been extended to refer to any Greenlandic Inuit.

Interestingly, the Norse nomenclature actually has chronological priority over the Inuit’s; the current crop of Inuit arrived only after the Norse colonized Greenland (and subsequently disappeared) and gave the place its current name on the map. Before them there were natives that long predated the Norse, but they were of the rather mysterious “Dorset culture”, not the Inuit.

That about completes a circumpolar survey, but it might be worth noting that Baffin Island is a large geographic feature that appears on world maps, and this name is of recent European origin. Specifically, it was named for English explorer William Baffin, who came across it in 1616 while searching for the Northwest Passage. He wasn’t the discoverer, though; Martin Frobisher, another Englishman, sailed there in 1576, and named it “Queen Elizabeth’s Foreland”, after the original, and best 😉 , Queen Elizabeth. Obviously that name didn’t stick, though.

The Inuit call Baffin Island “Qikiqtaaluk”, which means “very big island” (such creativity…). But there is a name of European origin that predates all of these: the Norse knew of a land they called “Helluland”, meaning “stone land”, and it’s believed that this term refers to what we now call Baffin Island.

Although the following lands are not part of the Arctic, it might be worth noting that the Norse names for Labrador and Newfoundland long predate the current nomenclature. Labrador is actually named after a man, Portuguese explorer João Fernandes Lavrador, who sailed by the area in 1498-99. The Norse knew of a place called “Markland”, which is believed to be one and the same as this peninsula. Famously, “Vinland” is believed to be one and the same as what we now know of as Newfoundland.

There’s an even shadowier land the sagas indicate was located beyond Vinland, “Írland hit mikla” (Great Ireland), or “Hvítramannaland” (White Man’s Land), which some scholars believe was mythical (yeah, just like they thought Vinland was mythical…), but others believe may have been located in North America, perhaps as far afield as the Chesapeake Bay.

Last but not least, we have Iceland, which was uninhabited, save for a few Irish monks (yes, really), at the time the Norse settled the area, and has basically always been primarily known by its current name, though “Snæland” (meaning “snow land”) and “Garðarshólmur” (Garðar’s Isle, named after the first Swede to reach the island) have also been recorded.

Going Native

So what are the possibilities here, particularly for my alternate history? All of these areas are already well-characterized and named by the 20th century, but there is a strong possibility of adopting more indigenous names. This seems to be a strong trend in my universe, which has emerged in the storytelling process.

In an unpublished story, as early as 1940 Mount Rainier is changed back to its original name of Tacoma, a name by which at that time it had long been locally known, including among whites. A similar situation as Denali in Alaska; only difference is in real life Alaska was successful in making the native name stick. In the alternate timeline the state Tacoma is located in, Washington, changes its name to Tacoma as well, after the mountain, in part to avoid confusion with the city of Washington.

In my latest story, “Orphans of Opry Tower”, also yet to be published, Mount Mitchell is known as Attakulla, and Clingmans Dome is known as Kuwahi; both are the native names. The Great Slave Lake is known as “Tu Nedhé”, one of its native names. And even over in Japan, which in this timeline retains the Kuril Islands into our time, Atlasov Island is known as “Oyakoba”, the native name.

And Greenland is referred to as “Kalaallit Nunaat”, though only in dialogue in the context of an Inuit throat singing concert, so it remains ambiguous whether this is the name in general use, or if they are used in parallel with the Norse name, “Greenland”.

Nevertheless, sense a pattern? It seems the global trend, much more strongly than in real life, is toward restoring the indigenous toponyms into official and common usage. Though never explicitly stated in any stories, my view is that in my world this accelerates markedly after the 1960s, to a much greater degree than it did in real life.

So you could easily see Wrangel Island may appear on maps in this universe as “Umqiḷir”. Ellesmere Island may well appear as “Umingmak Nuna”, Baffin Island as “Qikiqtaaluk”. Franz Josef Land might become “Fridtjof Nansen Land”, and Severnaya Zemlya may well become “Tayvay Land”. Svalbard may well remain Spitsbergen. And the Queen Elizabeth Islands may well remain the Parry Islands. Indeed, of all the major insular features of the Arctic Rim only the New Siberian Islands and Greenland would likely retain their names as we know them. And that’s with just a divergence in the 20th century!


That was quite a bit to go over, but I hope the point has been made: with slightly different historical circumstances among the European powers, and a much greater willingness to adopt native nomenclature for natural landmarks and geographic features, a surprisingly large number of labels on the world map can be rendered unrecognizable. More geography we know and love is of more recent discovery and christening than you might think…

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