Semantically related names, cities-within-cities

Line Sandst, Ph.D. candidate, University of Copenhagen

This feature (updated 26th September 2013) is a revised version of the feature published on 1st February 2013.

Semantically related names, cities-within-cities

A city is not merely a uniform mass of houses and streets. It often consists of distinct places and urban open spaces that stand out as unique from the rest of the urban area. Urban open spaces can vary in size and draw different kinds of boundaries; fences, facades or even entrance gates. Although Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, once lay protected behind ramparts and gates, in the latter part of the 1800s the city broke through the ramparts and started to stretch across the landscape creating the districts of Amagerbro, Vesterbro, Nørrebro and Østerbro. The new districts were given names that denoted the four main roads into the earlier Copenhagen-behind-ramparts. The name Nørrebro originally meant ‘the northern main street’, by which one could enter the city. Today the name is synonymous with a neighbourhood with its own distinct characteristics, separate from the rest of Copenhagen.

This paper presents an extract of a preliminary study as part of my PhD project on urban place names in Copenhagen. I have collected urban names in a limited area of 500 x 500 metres in the district of Nørrebro. In this text I focus on linguistic spaces and present the phenomenon of cities-within-cities.

Becoming a unified unit

Before 1857 Copenhagen-behind-ramparts constituted a defined enclosed space, with ramparts setting up a barrier between city and countryside. However, as the population increased, both gates and ramparts were demolished. Copenhagen soon spread so quickly across the countryside that a need for simplify and understanding the city’s new dimension, to allow urban navigation, soon arose.

This urban simplification process is what Martin Zerlang calls ‘scale reduction’. The origin of his thinking descends from Claude Lévi-Strauss’s, 1962, La Pensée Sauvage (The Savage Mind). Zerlang introduces the concept of scale reduction as ‘an attempt to make [the city’s] intense development surmountable’ (Zerlang, 2002, p. 16. My translation from Danish). Zerlang views scale reduction as a strategic tool with which people attempt to bring order to the disordered. He sees the urge to create smaller and more manageable units within the city as a consequence of the modern experience of strangeness and intensity. One of people’s strategies for overcoming this experience is the creating of what Zerlang calls ‘cities-within-cities’. Zerlang points at Tivoli, the amusement park, as a prototypical example of a city-within-the-city in Copenhagen. Tivoli is characterised by fences and gates that define an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside’ and it has its own infrastructure, visual expression etc. A city-within-the-city is typically ‘directed inward towards its own distinct world’ and ‘closes in on itself’ (ibid. p. 17 My translation.). I argue that one should not interpret this condensed atmosphere negatively but rather see it as the very constituting element defining cities-within-cities. Whilst urban spaces may take different forms (e.g. parks, squares) what they all have in common is that they create a type of ‘otherness’ distinguishing themselves from the surrounding city.

I view Martin Zerlang’s concept of scale reduction as having not only physical or situational applications but also broader linguistic ones.

A quarter of a square kilometre in Nørrebro

The district of Nørrebro, located northwest of the modern day city centre of Copenhagen, extends over an area of approximately 4.1 square kilometres. The Sortedams Sø (Black Pond Lake) constitutes the very visual and functional demarcation, as one has to cross a bridge to ‘enter the city’. Other demarcations defining the borders of Nørrebro are more subtle, with more imaginative appeal, as when one walks under the elevated railway at Nørrebro Station and suddenly feels the atmosphere change as you are now in a different neighbourhood called Nordvest. The city’s shift between moods involves both architecture and people walking in the streets and living in the houses. Together they form an urban landscape with mutual synergy, changing each other and ‘setting the mood’. And it is from this urban landscape that urban place names spring up.

Nørrebro is the smallest quarter in Copenhagen but also the area that houses the most people. In 2009 72.000 people were living there (Bydelsplan for Nørrebro, 2011 p. 7). The neighbourhood developed in the 1850s – in the same period that Copenhagen’s ramparts were demolished – and soon grew into a densely populated working-class neighbourhood. Whilst Nørrebro is still influenced by its past, today the area is more known for its multi-ethnicity with 22% of the inhabitants immigrants or descendants of immigrants, compared with 14% in the rest of Copenhagen (ibid.).

The area that I have investigated appears in figure 1. The map covers an area with a lot of homes, a church, a few sports centres, a square, kindergartens, bars and pubs, business enterprises, municipal institutions a wealth of shops and a portion of a park, which is currently hidden behind a fence while a new metro station is being built. The names I have collected originate from this area and are both visual and textual. The following section I will focus on the names of two specific areas, linguistic scale reduction and cities-within-cities.

 Figur 1_map section

Figure 1: Map showing the study area in Nørrebro, Copenhagen.

Group-named areas as scale reduction and rhetorical spaces as cities-within-cities

In the top right corner of the map, northeast of Nørrebrogade (the main street), is an area with semantically related street names. The theme underlying the names is mythology and the area is known by the name The Mythological Quarter.

Street name


Heimdalsgade Heimdal = a god from the Norse mythology
Midgårdsgade Midgård = Midgard. The name of where the humans live in the Norse Mythology
Slejpnersgade Slejpner = the god Odin’s horse
Hamletsgade Hamlet = the Shakespearian name of Danish mythological figure Amlet
Bragesgade       Brage = a god from the Norse mythology
Baldersgade     Balder = a god from the Norse mythology
Ægirsgade          Ægir = a god from the Norse mythology
Vølundsgade Vølund = a god from the Norse mythology
Nannasgade Nanna = a god from the Norse mythology
Mimersgade      Mimer = a god from the Norse mythology
Thorsgade Thor = a god from the Norse mythology

Figure 2: The street names related to The Mythological Quarter within the study area. Second element of the compound name –gade means ‘street’.

The principle of group-naming in Copenhagen is known from two different periods. The first period was from 1610-1670 in connection with a greater expansion of Copenhagen-behind-ramparts. The second period started in 1860, following the demolition of the ramparts and is still on-going (Jørgensen 1970 p. 106). Group-naming may either be place-bound or assume a more arbitrary character. Although The Mythological Quarter was established in an arbitrary way, it nonetheless creates a rhetorical city-within-the-city. The Mythological Quarter stands out from the surrounding city because this area, not the neighbouring area, is defined by a certain semantic value to be read in the street names, namely the mythological figures as the first element of the compound name. The underlying principle of group-naming is a rhetorical strategy that links words (names) to a unified unit. By creating a smaller and linguistic unit, based on our associations, an area is created and the boundaries defined by the (street)names not relating to the mythological theme. Therefore group-naming can be seen as an intended and rhetorical attempt to create cohesion at a place that might lack cohesion, and with the intention that people will actively use the rhetorical city-within-the-city as a point of orientation in order to navigate in the city.

So do group-named areas work as intended by creating defined urban open spaces that makes navigation in Copenhagen easier? Studies on group-named areas in different Scandinavian cities show different results and we still lack certain knowledge of The Mythological Quarter. But something indicates that the neighbourhood is perceived as a unified unit with strong referential effect inasmuch as The Mythological Quarter is mentioned in various blogs, referred to in housing ads and newspaper articles. In addition the municipality of Copenhagen are now branding the neighbourhood as a coherent area underlining the semantically related street names. Whenever a street sign in the area needs replacement a new sign explaining the name is hung. The new street signs tell the story and origin of the mythological figure that the street is named after. The aim is not merely to interpret the street name in question, but also to create a greater awareness of the area as something coherent and different from the rest of the city.

My pilot study of visible place names in The Mythological Quarter showed that only 10 out of 75 urban names other than street names mentioned something mythological. Rather than fusing with the theme of the semantically related street names the local business owners preferably uses other naming strategies. The names often point to ownership: Monas dame salon (Mona’s ladies’ hairdresser) or the locality’s function: Ungerådgivning (Adolescent Counselling). Few names tell a completely different story like the pub Karrusellen (The Roundabout). The employees do not know why it is called like that, but all are guessing it has something to do with high amounts of alcohol that is served in there.


In June 2012 an oblong recreational area was inaugurated on the outskirts of The Mythological Quarter. The recreational area consists of three smaller squares with different themes, colours (red, green and black) and names, but the recreational area as a whole was also named. In Copenhagen it is The Copenhagen Board of Naming (Vejnavnenævnet) that decides what streets, squares, bridges etc. should be called. Usually they pick a name themselves, but also local committees, citizens and other interested parties can propose a name that The Copenhagen Board of Naming can decide upon.

The Local Committee of Nørrebro suggested that the three squares were individually named Ydgård, Midgård and Asgård in keeping with the name theme in the local area. Ydgård, Midgård and Asgård are the names of the three worlds in the Norse mythology inhabited by giants, humans and gods respectively. The Local Committee of Nørrebro also proposed that the recreational area as a whole was named Bifrost, after the mythological rainbow that constitutes the bridge between the humans’ and the gods’ worlds. Bifrost would also point to the different colours on each of the smaller squares.

By choosing the mythological names The Copenhagen Board of Naming would build on the existing theme of names and probably make the brand and people’s awareness of the area even stronger. However, The Copenhagen Board of Naming chose other names. The three squares were respectively named Den Røde Plads (The Red Square), Den Grønne Park (The Green Park) and Den Sorte Plads (The Black Square) after their colours. The area as a whole was named Superkilen, which translates to ‘the wedge-shaped strip of land that is super’. It was the architects and project planners that originally came up with Superkilen and suggested it to The Copenhagen Board of Naming. I asked one of the name’s originators how and why they came up with the name. He said that the name sounded good because the area is wedge-shaped and, since the project’s goal was to create an area that people would use for various activities, they chose ‘super’ as first element in the compound name.

First elements in Danish compound place names usually describe a characteristic feature at or near the named place. These features often point out ownership or describe e.g. visual particularities like colour or size. But the adjective ‘super’ is commonly used in the sense ‘out of the ordinary’ and therefore it rather has an emphatic meaning. ‘Super’ emphasizes ‘the wedge-shaped strip of land’, but the name does not give the language users a concrete idea of the nature of the site.

Superkilen is the first registered place name in Denmark using ‘super’ as first element in the compound name (apart from a handful of young urban names on shops). The name both introduces ‘super’ to the vocabulary used for forming Danish place names, and creates a rupture with the semantically related street names in the neighbouring area. This, in itself, constitutes something out of the ordinary and only time can tell, if the name Superkilen will result in a new rhetorical city-within-the-city constituted of semantically related names.

 Figur 3_The Red Square

Figure 3: View of The Red Square in Nørrebro on the outskirts of The Mythological Quarter. In the background Café Castro is shown, located on the Aksel Larsen Square (Aksel Larsens Plads). Aksel Larsen was a famous Danish socialist. The names The Red Square, Café Castro and Aksel Larsen Square create a linguistic (and communistic) bond between the three names pointing towards their own rhetorical centre on the verge to creating a new city-within-the-city.


Bydelsplan for Nørrebro, 2011 = Center for byudvikling (red.), 2011: Bydelsplan for Nørrebro. København.

Jørgensen, Bent, 1097: Dansk gadenavneskik. København.

Jørgensen, Bent, 1999: Storbyens Stednavne. København.

Jørgensen, Bent, 2002: Urban toponymy in Denmark and Scandinavia. I: Onoma 37. Uppsala. p. 165-179.

Jørgensen, Bent, 2009: A Quarter of a Square Kilometre of Names. [unpublished manuscript]

Levi-Strauss, Claude, 1969: Den vilde tanke. København. p. 33-36.

Löfdahl, Maria & Lena Wenner, 2010: Angered – en stadsdel och ett språk i förändring. I: Namn – en spegel av samhället förr och nu. Red. af Staffan Nyström. Uppsala. p. 52-72.

Zerlang, Martin, 2002: Bylivets kunst – København som metropol og miniature. Hellerup.

On Superkilen:

Consultation response from Nørrebro Local Committee concerning naming of a new park in Outer Nørrebro (Høringssvar fra Nørrebro Lokaludvalg vedr. navngivning af et nyt parkstrøg på Ydre Nørrebro). 27-04-2012. Sagsnr. 2012-63864. Dokumentnr. 2012-337064.

In addition, various lists from The Copenhagen Board of Naming (Vejnavnenævnet) under the Technical and Environmental Committee (Teknik- og Miljøudvalget) at City of Copenhagen (Københavns Kommune): New Street names 2001-2010, Newsletter September 2012 (Nye Vejnavne 2001-2010, Nyhedsbrev, september 2012)

Thanks to Geoinformatics (Geoinformatik) at the Technical and Environmental Committee (Teknik- og miljøforvaltningen) for authorization to reprint the map: Kort 21N & 22N, 1996, Kortbog 1:4000, Stadskonduktørembedets kort, © City of Copenhagen (Københavns Kommune), 2012-159787

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