Matters of linguistic and geographic fact are determined by meritorious debate, not majoritarian opinion.
Yesterday the New Zealand Geographic Board announced that there is a valid case for the name of the city of Wanganui to be spelt in its correct rendition of Whanganui. (I posted on this issue twice recently.)
The NZGB explicitly rejected the majoritarian argument, stating that the debate was important, not just the show of hands:
The Board noted the results of a referendum held in 2006, when a considerable number of Wanganui residents indicated their preference to retain the current spelling. However, the Board was conscious that declining the proposal at this point would not allow views both for and against to be expressed
Michael Laws has predictably come out calling this an attack on democracy. Unfortunately for demagogues like Laws (fortunately for the rest of us) facts are not democratically determined. Facts are defined by their relationship to reality, not by their relationship to majority opinion. Democracy is good for a very large number of things, but it’s very poor indeed for determining matters of actual factual observable and demonstrable reality.
But the really important aspect of the NZGB’s release are the implications of the following two statements:
â€œWanganui, the name given to the town to reflect its position near the mouth of the Whanganui River, was spelt incorrectly and has never been formally gazetted by this Board or its predecessors. It is therefore not currently an official New Zealand place name.â€
â€œWhile the Board acknowledges the historical transcription was based on the local pronunciation, the mechanics of standardising a previous unwritten language, together with its full meaning/translation, signal that the name was intended to be â€˜Whanganuiâ€™. This is about correcting a mistake made more than 150 years ago.â€
In these statements Dr Don Grant suggests that a local council may not by simple fiat enshrine an error as a norm – the origin of that error matters, and if its correctness is disputed then the intention of those who originated it becomes relevant. This implies a burden of proof on those wanting to retain the current no-h spelling to demonstrate that those who originally spelt the name that way intended to do so – thereby coining a new word. That is an untenable position held only by those with no genuine arguments of merit, whose leader Laws stated that people who didn’t like the current spelling could go to `Fuckatanay’ (as he pronounced it), neatly highlighting the crass idiocy of the position.
It is also an important matter of precedence. My arguments have been based on the idea that the current spelling of `Wanganui’ is the correct spelling in law, while Dr Grant made quite clear that it has no legitimacy, having never been formally recognised by the body properly constituted to do so, which is not the Wanganui District Council. Because of this, the decision the NZGB needs to make is not whether to confirm the de jure status quo spelling as the settlers suggest, but whether to give the de facto spelling precedence over the de jure status quo, which (since no alternative spelling has been approved by the properly-constituted body) can only be Whanganui. The core of the settler position is this claim to the status quo, that possession is nine tenths of the law and that since the name is currently in settler possession it is theirs to define and use as they wish without consideration to others or to the historical, linguistic and geographic facts of the matter. The status quo in this case is clearly on the side of the h: if the settlers cannot convince the board of their claim it will not remain as Wanganui but will revert to the correct spelling. That’s a huge difference.
Submissions open in mid-May. If you have an argument you want heard on this, make a submission. The debate matters.