Name studies have been around for a long time. In Ancient Greece, philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle saw names as central to the understanding of language, providing key insights into human communication and thought. Still, to the present day, questions such as ‘Are names nouns?’ and ‘Do names have meaning?’ are still hotly debated by scholars within both linguistics and name studies, often in connection with the related question ‘How are names used?’ This is not an issue of theoretical interest alone, but one with important implications for neuroscience. Psychologists have long been aware that names are more difficult to recall than words. A better understanding of their linguistic properties should help to explain why they are processed differently in the brain, which in turn will contribute towards the treatment of brain disorders.
In the meantime, different approaches to the study of names have also been developed. For much of the twentieth century, the field was dominated by the question ‘Where do names come from?’ Particularly influential was the English Place-Name Survey, founded in the 1920s by historians and philologists whose primary interests were in evidence for settlement patterns and language history in the Dark Ages. By tracing the origins of the names of ancient settlements and major landscape features, they were able to throw light on population movement during the migration period, settlement patterns during the Early Middle Ages, and lost or partly lost languages. In course of the work, it became apparent that the names of subsequent settlements and smaller landscape features held similar potential for later periods, so the remit of this and other national place-name surveys was gradually extended through the Later Middle Ages to the Early Modern era and beyond.
The names of people also originate in different languages and time periods, but whereas surnames, like place-names, are usually descriptive, personal names in most parts of the Western world are not. Here, then, the major questions are ‘Why are names chosen?’ and ‘How do names reflect society?’ Since personal names are bestowed afresh on each generation, there is more scope for deliberate choice, so the personal name stock can function as an index of changing values on a societal level. So too do the names of commercial products, one of the various types of names to be regulated by law. In a move away from an exclusive focus on etymology, similar questions are now being asked of place-names. Language varieties within the namescapes of multi-lingual urban environments are used to explore community identity, while the Glasgow-based Cognitive Toponymy project takes the relationship between descriptive names and human cognition as a starting-point to investigate how people conceptualize place in Western Europe.
These various approaches are based partly on the analysis of individual names, and partly on the comparison of large groups of names, from which significant patterns emerge. Name studies have thus been transformed by the technological advances that allow huge datasets to be rapidly and efficiently interrogated. Nowhere is this demonstrated more compellingly than in the study of names in literature. Once characterised by fragmented analyses of selected names from individual texts, this field has now been placed on a much more rigorous footing, with an expectation that each name will be considered against the backdrop of the wider corpus of names within the work or even genre to which it belongs. The question is no longer ‘How should this name be interpreted?’ but ‘How should this name be interpreted in its literary and onomastic context?’
It should be clear by now that there are many branches of name studies, including name theory, place-name studies, personal name studies, names in literature, and names in society, and that the field itself is interdisciplinary, relating closely to such disciplines as archaeology, geography, history, linguistics, literature, philology, philosophy, psychology and social science. One question remains. Is name studies a discipline in its own right? A growing number of universities in various countries offer courses on name studies, but I know of no degree programme on the topic. It is possible to study names as part of a degree, but not to be awarded a degree in name studies. Is it time for that to change?
Featured image credit: Enough with the names already by James Cridland. CC-BY 2.0 via Flickr.