Onomastics Research Paper

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‘Onomastics’ (from Greek onoma, ‘name’) is the intellectual endeavor which studies names of all kinds (geographical names, personal names, boat names, names in literature, etc.). As names are embedded in, and transmitted through, language their study is often regarded as a subdiscipline of linguistics, and more precisely of lexicology, the study of words. This limited approach, however, does not do them justice, for names are not simply words with additional properties, and therefore they transcend purely lexical considerations. In this broader sense, they are also the legitimate subject of investigation by scholars working in extralinguistic disciplines, such as history, geography, sociology, psychology, philosophy, law, religion, literary criticism, and so on. It is in this wider ambience that onomastics will be treated here. The most extensive and authoritative account of names and their study is to be found in Name Studies: An International Handbook of Onomastics (also containing articles in French and German), Eichler et al. (1995–6).

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1. Names And Words

The study of names, whether pursued as an integral part of, parallel to, or complementary to the study of words, has a long and distinguished history, although its terminology and the concepts it represents have led to a certain amount of confusion, a state of affairs which has not been resolved adequately even in our time. It is therefore necessary to pay close attention to the criteria which are being applied in each approach. Furthermore, in English the situation is complicated by the fact that, in addition to its indigenous term name (Old English nama, noma), inherited ultimately from Indo-European and therefore shared with the other Indo-European languages, it has, among others, also adopted the term noun, which goes back to Latin nomen, via Old French nun, num, and is now usually applied to substantives. This contrast between names and nouns is, however, not carried through systematically, and one still comes across such largely synonymous pairs as common noun and proper noun on the one hand, and common name and proper name, on the other, in which common and proper reflect classical tradition. Though the term name and the concept behind it are consequently at least pan-Indo-European, it is advisable to treat its descendants with care within each individual language. Such caution is, naturally, also called for in connection with name studies in non-Indo-European languages. Otherwise, any attempt at a theory of names or, more correctly, a theory about names, is destined to founder from the outset. (For further reading see Algeo 1973, Gardiner 1954, Pulgram 1954.)

1.1 Semantic Distinctions

Though names and words share many characteristics, they differ in one major respect which has fundamental consequences: their semantic properties. If words are to be used competently, they must have meaning on the lexical level; otherwise they fail to serve the purpose of linguistic communication. Such a condition is essential to words of all kinds, whether they apply to concrete (table, stone, street) or abstract (kindness, politics, religion) phenomena. Meaningless words cannot fulfill their connotative function which is inclusive in its potential reference to any kind of ‘table’ or any variety of ‘kindness.’ This basic prerequisite is not expected of names which function perfectly well without any lexical meaning in what has been called ‘the speech act of identifying reference’ (Searle 1969, p. 174) which is both denotative and exclusive (Aachen, Glasgow, Paris; Karin, Maggie, Robert).

Although most names started out as words or combinations of words that, in their time, had been transparent semantically on the lexical level, it is their capacity to function while being opaque semantically that makes them such fascinating and useful evidence for scholarly investigation, i.e., for what has come to be known internationally as onomastics. What they do need instead of lexical meaning, however, is onymic contents—this city (Toronto), this hill (Bennachie), this person (David Livingstone), this ship (Titanic), this dog (Rover), etc. In this context, it is essential for effective communication that there is a minimum of shared knowledge about that content, in order to avoid misunderstanding or complete failure. We need to know names, not understand them. The investigation of brand names, which has become very popular in recent years, can be said to straddle onymic and extra-onymic fields of research (Eichler et al. 1995–6, Sect. XIX).

1.2 Name Clusters And Fields

Despite the basic role of names as identifiers of individual referents, to the exclusion of all others, the number of names which can justifiably be claimed to refer to just one place, person, boat, cat, etc. is very small in our day and age. For that reason, true individuation can only be expected in limited environments (one first name in one generation of a nuclear family, one street name in a small town, one fishing boat in one home port, one horse in one stable). It is, however, a truism that no name can function alone but can only be useful in relation to other names, either in loose name clusters or, particularly, in structured onomastic ‘fields’ (a metaphor borrowed from physics), such as all names in a family; all, or most, street names in a town; names of all fishing boats in a harbor (and perhaps even beyond); all names of horses in a stable. Research into ‘onomastic fields’ parallels the study of ‘lexical fields’ (Schmidt 1973) but, because of their respective differences in semantic status, is subject to different criteria (Nicolaisen 1988).

1.3 Lexicon And Onomasticon

It is customary to think of the inventory of words in any language as a lexicon of which dictionaries are the best-known repositories. The equivalent corpus of names may be regarded as an onomasticon which, like a lexicon, may range from all the names embedded in any culture or language to the personal inventory of names known to one individual. Their conventional home is the gazetteer. It is when lexical items cross the threshold from lexicon to onomasticon as part of the naming process that their semantic status changes drastically. Even if, as often happens at least in the initial stages, onymic items are still lexically transparent (Neustadt, Westhill, Rose, Smith), the recognition of that word meaning hardly ever interferes with the (newly) acquired onomastic contents, even if these two aspects apparently contradict each other, as in the case of a Neustadt ceasing to be a neue Stadt ‘new city’, or of a man named Smith becoming a baker. In fact, a baker called Baker is likely to be an amusing anomaly rather than the prevailing norm in cultures with heritable surnames. In this sense, the longrunning controversy of whether a name is in essence more of a name when it is (lexically) meaningless than if it has preserved semantic transparency on the lexical level can be demonstrated to be based on false alternatives. This judgment is supported by the realization that not every name starts out as a word or word compound with lexical meaning, because any pronounceable sequence of sounds/letters can become a name, and in some instances there are intra-onomastic transfers in a personal name becoming a place name (Jefferson), a place name becoming a personal name (Pittendriech), or a place name or personal name becoming the name of a ship (Deutschland, Queen Mary). Sometimes this process can be repeated, as when the English place name Washington first turns into a surname and then into a place name again (Washington, DC Washington State).

2. Onomastic Methodology

It is clear that in such transfers from one onymic category to another, or in names with non-lexical origins, a search for the original word meaning would not only be fruitless but also inappropriate. Since they are, however, in the minority, and since much onomastic research has its origins in the investigation of linguistic history, it is not surprising that etymological approaches have been, and still are, very common, especially in the study of place names (toponymy). This is, in principle, not very different from the lexicographical search for the derivation of words insofar as its chief requirement is the utilization of the earliest recorded spellings or forms, but nevertheless differs from lexical etymology because its aim is to reduce the name to the word(s) it once was in the act of naming: nevertheless, etymological research must be regarded as a fundamental first step in most kinds of onomastic procedures, as long as its successful completion is not also taken to be their sole goal. The many volumes of the county survey by the English Place-Name Society, for example, speak of the necessity for, and efficacy of, this method (EPNS 1924–).

2.1 Toponymic Research

The study of place names (Eichler et al. 1995–6, Sects. XV–XVII) has for a considerable time been one of the foremost occupations of the scholar of names. The main reason for this has been the very fact that names can function without the aid of lexical meaning, whereas words cannot. This characteristic has allowed names to survive not only when the words which have formed them have died out at an earlier stage of the language that coined them, but also to outlive the very death of that language itself and its replacement by another language. In Scotland, for instance, only a handful of words has been adopted by the English language from Gaelic, whereas the maps contain many thousands of place names of Gaelic origin; the same can be said of the Slavic ingredients in the vocabulary and toponymy, respectively, of the eastern parts of Germany. In some parts of Europe and in Europeanderived cultures, this process of toponymic survival at times of language replacement has sometimes been repeated more than once. In the north-east of Scotland, for instance, Pictish place names have survived from preGaelic times, and it is also possible to detect a preCeltic, i.e., pre-Gaelic and prePictish layer of IndoEuropean river names ascribable to the same ‘Old European’ linguistic stratum which, on the European continent, is linked to the Bronze Age. Some of the major island names in the Northern and Western Isles reflect the sometime, presence of speakers of an as yet unidentified non-Indo-European language. In southern Europe, multiple layering in linguistic stratification is also demonstrated by toponymic evidence.

The value of place names as evidence for this kind of investigation increases with their relative antiquity. Research among living languages has shown that in periods of linguistic and cultural contact the main process by which place names pass sequentially from one language to another is chiefly by phonological adaptation. However, partial translation, full translation, and complete replacement also occur, albeit more rarely; it is also natural that many names do not survive language change. What has emerged from this type of study is the realization that lexical dialects and onomastic dialects are not always congruent (Nicolaisen 1980). It has also become clear that the translations of maps showing the spatial distribution of place names into maps demonstrating chronological sequences is fraught with difficulties.

2.1.1 Name Transfer. The kind of toponymic palimpsest which these processes create provides a key to a relative chronology in the settlement history of speakers of relevant languages. More often than not, individual strata, or the stratification as a whole, reflects the importation of languages from elsewhere. The settlement of the New World by Europeans since the sixteenth century is a particularly striking example, since many of the names designating new locations were imported unanalyzed from elsewhere, usually without regard to their semantic fitness (Zelinsky 1967). It can also be shown that ‘colonial’ settlers take with them in their mental luggage not just a lexicon of words but also an onomasticon of name models which are applied to the new terrain in the creation of landscapes reminiscent of home (Nicolaisen 1987). One instructive instance of this is the settlement of the Northern and Western Isles of Scotland from Norway, from the ninth century onward, for without names there are no landscapes and no habitats, but only wildernesses and disorientation.

3. Socio-Onomastics

Initially, name scholars concentrated largely on the naming process itself and on its product, the name, but in recent decades the focus of their research has shifted more to socio-onomastic concerns, and especially to the role of names in society (Eichler et al. 1995–6, Sect. XXI). Usage and process have therefore become more central to their discussions. There are various aspects to this new direction. A major facet of place names is, in this respect, their role in politics, especially in political change, of which the emergence of a ‘new Africa’ is an instructive example, having prompted the creation of a large number of country names in the postcolonial era (French Soudan becoming Mali, Gold Coast becoming Ghana, Southern Rhodesia becoming Zimbabwe). Of special interest is the Republic of South Africa, in which radical internal changes have necessitated the wholesale reconstruction of its place-nomenclature, a task in which scholars with extensive expertise in onomastics have become involved (Raper 1998). More generally, in the ‘global village,’ the United Nations has created the ‘United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names’ (UNGEGN) to oversee particularly the standardization of names in official usage, a move which has, as a byproduct, created a greater awareness of exonyms (Copenhagen for Københa n, Cologne for Koln, Aix-la-Chapelle for Aachen) and their legitimate but circumscribed usage.

A long-standing experience of professional involvement by name scholars in the shaping forces toward a politically, as well as linguistically acceptable toponymy is to be found in Quebec and its aspirations regarding independence (Dorion 1998); and the sociopolitical implications of the use of place names by speakers of minority languages in countries such as Italy, France, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Scotland, etc. have attracted the attention of name scholars (Kuhebacher 1986), as have the alternative usage of place names in informal, unofficial onomastic registers and the minutiae of microtoponymic concerns.

3.1 Personal Names

It goes without saying that the study of personal names (anthroponymy) is central to socio-onomastic investigations, as names are an essential component of human beings as unique individuals, and of their role in society. Just as there are no landscapes without place names, there are no societies without personal names. Parallel to etymological investigations regarding other categories of names, a certain amount of basic research has gone into establishing the linguistic origins and meanings of personal names, but the main thrust has been toward a systematic investigation of personal names as markers of human identity, traditional family pressures, or fashionable models, in various contexts. These include the naming of children; the historical development of heritable surnames from their four main sources—patronymics, occupational names, nicknames, and place names— anthroponymic typologies; the morphology of personal names; the increasing use of middle names; the overt and covert use of bynames; continuity and change in favorite names, etc. (see Eichler et al. 1995–6, Sects. XI–XIII).

3.2 Names And Education

There has been a growing tendency to introduce the discussion of many aspects of personal names into the classroom, for didactic purposes (Franz and Greule 1999). Their own names and other people’s names are of interest to children from an early age, and psychologists as well as educationalists have studied their increasing awareness of names in the development of selfhood and in the process of socialization. Personal names also form an immediate basis for children’s involvement in, and contribution to, such discussions, just as investigations into local place names provide convenient inroads into local history and spatial awareness.

4. Literary Onomastics

The study of names in literature (Eichler et al. 1995–6, pp. 533–6) attracted an increasing number of scholars in the last few decades of the twentieth century. Its double roots in onomastics and literary criticism have made it a truly interdisciplinary pursuit. Much of the research conducted in its early phases was directed toward the role of names in individual works by individual authors. This search for name inventories as texts within texts gave, and to a certain extent still does give, literary onomastics a strong bias toward intratextual questions. However, recently there has been a conscious movement toward intertextual approaches and names as devices in intertextual relationships, or as means by which the factual world can become fictionalized, and fictive persons and places can become factualized. A special branch of this approach is concerned with the translatability of names, on both the lexical and the onomastic levels, whereas other scholars are concerned with problems of name stylistics. The role of names as devices employed in autobiographical writings in attempts to create a credible past has also attracted special attention.

5. Conclusion

Having started out as a subdiscipline of linguistics and functioned for a long time as a pursuit which was, because of the special status of names, admirably suited to throw light on puzzling concerns of other intellectual endeavors. But gradually onomastics has abandoned this handmaiden role and has developed into an independent, though amply connected, discipline which studies names as names, for their own sake, thus establishing a foundation for their effective investigations as interdisciplinary evidence. The introduction of socio-onomastic approaches has been especially productive in this respect, but onomastics has also widened its scope and diversified its methodology in other respects, in a concerted drive toward greater sophistication and a more systematic and systemic outlook. The growing scholarly interest in matters onomastic is reflected in the existence of several academic institutes devoted to name studies and usually attached to universities or academies (in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Belgium, Scotland, England, Northern Ireland, etc.), as well as many international, national, and regional organizations in the field, and regular congresses and conferences, often dedicated to special facets of onomastics.


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