In every language there are words that have become obsolete or taken on a different meaning over the centuries. When this happens, once a word is no longer in use, it can simply disappear. But if a word is connected with a place then it can also end up becoming part of something known as a toponym. Even when we no longer understand what that name means, we use it anyway. The name of the place eventually serves to preserve an old word that is no longer used. It becomes an archaic expression.
Such is the case of an impressive cave located on the coast near Sant Vicent de sa Cala, just north of the Allà Dins residential development. The cave is known as Cova de ses Puntes des Forn. Those of us familiar with the cave cannot forget our first impressions of it. Deep and long and tall, its ceiling made up of perfectly aligned rock strata. These strata explain the use of the word puntes in its name, but why forn? It’s obvious there’s no oven here, nor could there ever have been. In fact, this is a very ancient reference, one that was used in the spoken Latin of Tarraconense (one of three Roman provinces in Spain). It gives rise to an interesting connotation in proto-Catalan and medieval Catalan: the word forn used as a synonym for cave. The same thing is true in the Caló des Forn east of S’Illot des Renclí, and the Racó des Forn, on the southwest tip of Cala Roja (near the Cala Comte tower). In all three cases, there is no need to look for an oven, because what we have is simply a cave that bears witness to the type of Catalan spoken by the 18th-century conquistadors.
A similar case is that of the word calder. In medieval Catalan, this word was interchangable with cocó – a name for a hole in the rock, especially near the sea. These cocons are often filled with water, which evaporates in the warmth of the sun, leaving behind the characteristic salt crystals, or sal de cocó, used by the payéses of Ibiza and Formentera.
In Ibiza, two such well-known places are Illa d’Encalders and Punta de S’Illa d’Encalders. We often find these names written as En Calders, as if they were personal names. But there is no record of a person named Calders in Ibiza’s written history. On the contrary, what we do have at Punta de S’Illa d’Encalders, are the largest natural cocons on Ibiza, natural pools where it is possible to swim, protected from the waves. So, it’s not the name of a person, but rather the preposition en combined with the noun calders. It’s also interesting to note that, 700 or 800 years ago, Illa d’Encalders was almsot certainly not even an island, but was instead connected to the mainland.
The words forn and calders are typical examples of archaic expressions – words whose meaning was generally understood in the 17th century, but which have, over time, become opaque and incomprehensible to most speakers.
However, some cases of toponyms that may seem to be archaic expressions, lead us to suspect that there is something else behind them. Such is the case with galeres (galley) and naus (ships).
The word galeres (except for in some isolated examples of islets), refers to a cape. It seems that this too is an ancient metaphor in Latin, referencing a ship with oars at either side. Today, several de sa Galera capes can be found here; off the coast of Sant Joan (at Portinatx); near Sant Miquel (at Es Portitxol); near Santa Agnès (at El Cap Nunó) and off the coast of Sant Antoni, where Punta Galera is the best-known of them all. The name is also used near Sant Agustí, just north of Cala Molí, and on the north coast of Formentera near Punta Prima. In each case, the capes have rocky points with stones breaking off them; and, in some cases, they’re even places from which we know that rocks have been extracted – they have been used as quarries. It is precisely this last fact that leads us to suspect that, behind what appears to be an archaic expression, there could be something more. Is it possible that our galeres bear some relation to the pre-Roman word calio, meaning rock? In theory, its derivative caliaria could well have become galera. This is mere speculation, but it is sometimes a good idea not to lose sight of speculative hypotheses.
A similar case is Racó de sa Nau, in Ses Balandres, off the coast of Santa Agnès de Corona. The toponym seems clear. A type of yacht called a balandro was used to pick up firewood, which was cut at the top of the cliffs and thrown into the sea. Nau is more generic, less specific than balandro, although Racó de sa Nau is used to designate just the eastern part of Ses Balandres. So far, no problem. However, south of Pla de Corona lies Torrent des Clot de Sa Nau. Evidently, in this case, the name cannot possibly bear any relation to a ship. Could these toponyms – Racó de sa Nau and Torrent des Clot de sa Nau – possibly be interrelated? And, if this were the case, what might the word nau refer to? If we have a Racó de sa Nau just north of Pla de Corona and a Torrent des Clot de sa Nau just south of it, could it be that this nau refers precisely to the plain of Corona itself?
Throughout the linguistic domain of Castillian and Euskera, we see the widespread use of the word nava to mean, ‘a high, barren plain, surrounded by hills where rainwater tends to concentrate’. According to the linguist Joan Coromines, the word seems to have originated in pre-Roman times and reappears in some dialects of the eastern Alps and in the toponyms of other Roman areas. It may have its origin in the Indo-European naus, a word brought by archaic invaders from central Europe and meaning boat – a reference to the shape of the nava. This generic pre-Roman expression may have given rise to various place names, such as Navaleno, Navaliego, Navarri, Navascués, Navardú, Navel, Navàs, Navas, Navascort, Nava, Navés, Navata, etc. This word can be associated with the Castillian and Portuguese nava, the Basque naba, the family of words that in Catalan-speaking areas have left only a few fossil records in the toponyms used in the Pyrenees Region.
From this perspective, although the toponym in question likely has its origins in some sort of ship, we can consider the hypothesis that the plain surrounding Corona may have been referred to as Nau ( ‘a hollow or valley between mountains’), or some such similar name, in pre-Catalan times. And, it’s possible, this name was soon replaced with Corona (another metaphor with the same meaning), giving rise to two interrelated toponyms, one on the coast and another in the interior. The one on the coast is easy enough to reinterpret, but the one in the interior would remain opaque to this day and has even resulted in a tautological repetition (Torrent des Clot de sa Nau, or Torrent des Clot des Clot).
This hypothesis is quite bold, but it’s so thought-provoking that it’s well worth expounding. This may well be an Indo-European remnant that has survived to this day.