Names are often the only surviving evidence of earlier ethnicities, languages and cultures. Place names are therefore an exceedingly important source for those who study the history of settlement, culture and language of a region.
Other scientific disciplines profit from the findings of onomastic research, e.g. the history of agriculture, social and economic history, geology and mineralogy, history of law, history of religion and church history, archaeology, folklore studies etc.
Not least of all, two governmental offices, the Office for Land Registration of the Canton Bern (Grundbuchvermessung) and the Federal Office of Topography (Landestopografie swisstopo), rely on the onomastic data collected by the Research Unit for Onomastics.
The main part of every article in the dictionary consists of the historical data combined with the phonetic records for each lemma (key word).
The most important and most difficult task is to explain the origin and meaning of the name. Sometimes it is obvious, i.e. in the case where the name is identical with a word of the present-day language, i.e. a general noun. For example: Bärg 'mountain', Tal 'valley', Matte 'meadow', Moos 'bog' etc.
Sometimes the name contains an obsolete word or an old personal name not currently in use anymore. For example: Old High German apholtra 'apple tree' is the base of the place name Affoltern. For this work, we rely on lexical works like the Schweizerdeutsches Wörterbuch (Idiotikon).
An etymological interpretation is often very difficult or even impossible. This is especially the case in the absence of historical attestations or if the spoken dialectal forms have been transformed and contracted so strongly that the original word can not be recognized anymore. Difficulties arise also when the name contains pre-Germanic elements.