LINGUIST List 29.3569

Mon Sep 17 2018

Review: Discourse Analysis; Pragmatics; Sociolinguistics: Östman, Ainiala (2017)

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Date: 31-Mar-2018
From: Susan Burt <>
Subject: Socio-onomastics
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Terhi Ainiala
EDITOR: Jan-Ola Östman
TITLE: Socio-onomastics
SUBTITLE: The pragmatics of names
SERIES TITLE: Pragmatics & Beyond New Series 275
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2017

REVIEWER: Susan Meredith Burt, Illinois State University


This volume consists of ten chapters, the first an introduction to the volume, the rest divided between two parts, Part I, Tradition, Identity and Transmission, and Part II, The variability of names.

In the Introduction to the volume, Ainiala and Östman argue that a socio-onomastics is long overdue, and that pragmatics is the route to establishing it; names, they argue, do a great many more tasks of cultural, social and interactional interest beyond the communicative task of referring. Not all scholars of onomastics have been interested in the workaday uses of names, and the field has been accused of lacking theoretical innovations; socio-onomastics, defined as “the sociolinguistic study of names” (p.6), will enrich the field of onomastics with methodological imports from pragmatics and sociolinguistics. Thus, for example, while gender was once shown to be a factor in toponymic knowledge in rural Finland, more recently, occupation and even hobbies play more of a role. Among the emerging types of research there is now an “interactional onomastics” (p.10), the study of how a speaker’s choice of toponym may depend on her assessment of the interlocutor’s origins and access to local knowledge. Socio-onomastics holds the promise of situating name study socially and historically, and challenging some of the romanticist and even introspective approaches of earlier onomastics.

Chapter 2, “The transmission of toponyms in language shift societies,” by Aud-Kirsti Pedersen, compares the transmission of place names from minority to dominant language in three different times and places, while at the same time, sorting out which of several different kinds of factors play a role. Pedersen focuses on three different language shift histories, 1) villages in northern Norway, where Norwegian replaced Sami and Kven in the 19th and 20th centuries, 2) Orkney, where Scots replaced Norn 250 years ago, and 3) northern Normandy, where French replaced Scandinavian after 1060. Both the means of transmission and the success of transmission of toponyms vary among these shift histories. Factors that play a role in transmission include the duration of contact between the two languages, the attitudes towards the minority speakers, attitudes of the minority speakers, language policies and literacy.

In Chapter 3, “Creating identities through the choice of first names,” Emilia Aldrin argues that naming a child is an act of identity. In choosing a name for their child, parents do not reflect social structures or social meaning, but rather “engage actively in the creation of certain social meanings and structures, as well as the creating of themselves and their child as certain kinds of social beings” (p. 46). Using both a postal survey and group interviews in Göteborg, Aldrin collected over 600 parents’ narratives of their choosing a name for their child. Her analysis revealed four axes of values which parents seem to use to inform their choices: 1) traditional-modern, 2) common-original, 3) pragmatic-aesthetic, and 4) foreign-international-Swedish. Characteristics of names are what acquire social meaning, in that they are “connected to certain social values, stances, and modes of thought” (p.51). Thus, a parent who chooses a traditional Swedish name for a child can be interpreted as positioning her/himself as valuing normality and authenticity, rather than trendiness or Anglo-American influence. Names may be chosen that associate parents and child with lifestyle values—literature or sports—or that dissociate from certain characteristics. Spelling choices or certain types of segments may contribute to this social positioning process; stops in a name (such as /k/ in ‘Jack’) may facilitate an interpretation of ‘tough’ on the aesthetic axis. Parents’ self-positioning through expressing values for name characteristics, however, has a social dynamic; in interaction with other parents in the group interviews, consideration for the face of other parents may mitigate or downplay the strength of self-expression. Name-givers and name-hearers may also differ in their interpretations of the values associated with names and their characteristics, bringing further ‘play’ into the system.

Chapter 4, “Naming of children in Finnish and Finnish-Norwegian families in Norway,” by Gulbrand Alhaug and Minna Saarelma, focuses on naming practices of Finnish minority and bicultural families in Norway, which of course shares a border with Finland, and thus, has seen long-term linguistic contact as well as intermarriage. Population bureau records of 2588 children were accessed, including 433 families in which both parents were Finnish (FF), 1321 families in which the mother was Finnish and the father Norwegian (FN), and 834 in which the mother was Norwegian and the father Finnish (NF). First names (where a child might well receive two names at birth) are divided into categories Finnish, Norwegian and ‘other.’ In all three types of families, interestingly enough, the ‘other’ category prevails; however, several trends emerge: parents are more inclined to give boys ethnically conservative names, and to give girls names from the ‘other’ category. In bicultural families, it is the ethnicity of the mother that is most likely to prevail in name choices, although the authors also give a variety of examples of patterns of compromise.

In Chapter 5, “Names in Contact: Linguistic and social factors affecting exonyms and translated names,” author Jarno Raukko sets up a typology of transmission/translation/transliteration/adaptation processes that names (toponyms and anthroponyms) may undergo as they are taken into languages other than their language of origin. An endonym is a name written and pronounced as native speakers of the place write and pronounce it. An exograph respells the name for speakers of the uptaking language: Raukko gives the example of the Norwegian spelling Moskva for the Russian capital. An exophone preserves original spelling but speakers of the uptaking language pronounce the name differently, as in English speakers’ pronunciations of Paris and Berlin, while a full exonym changes both spelling and pronunciation, as in the French Londres for London. Raukko discusses the significance of exonym creation and use, and finds it ambiguous: exonym creation might signify, on one hand, that the referent of the name is important, culturally and/or socially, to speakers, or on the other hand, that speakers are unfamiliar with the referent, including with the fact that an endonym is available. The use of a foreign language’s endonym in one’s own language, however, is also fraught: if I as an English speaker were to insist on pronouncing Paris as Paree, I could deservedly be criticized for trying to flaunt—or make claims to—some kind of elite cosmopolitanism. Raukko’s 30-respondent survey further demonstrates the difficulty of generalizing significance of exonym use or choice. Given the option to exonymize the names of the British princes Charles and William (should either of them eventually become King), the majority of the Finns surveyed decided that they would not want to create a Finnish exonym (Kaarle or Vilhelm): “English is familiar enough so no new exonyms for English names are needed” (p. 121). On the other hand, these Finnish respondents want to retain use of the Finnish exonym Tukholma for the Swedish capital Stockholm, and prefer to retain Peking for the Chinese city, although they know that Beijing is now standard: familiarity may ultimately count for more than exoticism in naming.

The second part of the volume is entitled “The variability of names.” In Chapter 6, “Orienting to norms: Variability in the use of names for Helsinki,” Tehri Ainiala and Hanna Lappalainen explore Helsinkians’ use of and attitudes towards names for the Finnish capital city: besides Helsinki and Helsingfors, both Hesa and Stadi are used by speakers today. Ainiala and Lappalainen have brought to bear both questionnaire data and focus group interviews in order to examine the self-reports and spontaneous uses of these variants by a variety of Helsinkians, both those native to the city and those who have migrated there from elsewhere in Finland. The results, not surprisingly, are complicated: while no speaker denies ever using ‘Helsinki,’ different stereotypes abound as to who uses ‘Hesa’ and ‘Stadi,’ two late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century slang variants. ‘Hesa’ is stereotyped as ‘peasant’ usage, and ‘Stadi’ as urban slang, but outside the city, using ‘Hesa’ “suggests a Helsinkian background and a Helsinkian way of talking” (p. 141); in other words, Helsinki natives also use ‘Hesa.’ ‘Stadi’ also is reported to be used by both natives and non-natives of the city: 12 of the 32 participants use this variant, seven of them city natives, five of them born outside the city but living there now. However, in the interviews, the researchers note that the only spontaneous spoken uses of ‘Hesa’ were by non-natives to the city, and the only spontaneous uses of ‘Stadi’ were by those born in the city. Why, then, do speakers self-report the use of the other variant? The researchers argue that self-presentation plays a role here, as does a kind of communication accommodation (Giles, Coupland and Coupland 1991): speakers may choose a variant that is typically ascribed to what they perceive as the identity group of their interlocutor, rather than that associated with their own.

Chapter 7, “Place names in contact: The use of Finnish place names in Swedish contexts in Helsinki,” by Maria Vidberg, continues the discussion of place names within the city of Helsinki. In this short chapter, Swedish speakers, who are in the minority in the city, are the focus: 24 Swedish speakers took part in focus-group interviews, from which both usage data and metalinguistic comments emerge. Vidberg sees three types of Finnish place-name use in Swedish contexts of talk: 1) the use of a Finnish name rather than a presumably available Swedish equivalent, 2) the use of a hybrid name, with both Swedish and Finnish elements, and the parallel use of both names. While some Finnish names (especially commercial names) may have no Swedish equivalents, other Finnish names may come more readily to mind, may be thought to be more recognizable to an interlocutor, or may be shorter. The close resemblance between Finnish –katu and Swedish –gatan, ‘street,’ also plays a likely role in the creation of hybrid forms.

In Chapter 8, “Attitudes towards globalized company names,” Lelia Mattfolk assesses the attitudes of Swedish-speaking citizens of Finland towards the use of English elements in company names; specifically, do they perceive common and proper nouns differently? Communities in Finland may be designated as Finnish-speaking, Swedish-speaking or bilingual. While the small town of Närpes is now officially bilingual, it was monolingual Swedish up until 2015. Thus Mattfolk chose it as a site for investigating attitudes towards English elements in Finland Swedish. Before 1970, there were no commercial names with English elements in Närpes; now more than 30% have some English. While some residents neither understand nor pronounce the English elements, the interviewees for this study seem not to mind them. One practical advantage is that choosing an English name avoids the difficulties of choosing among Finnish, Swedish or both; speakers in the focus groups, however, did not see English commercial names as posing a threat to Swedish—one even compared naming one’s business to naming one’s child, a personal decision. In general, the participants see commercial naming choices as different from the choice to use an English loanword, although Mattfolk points out that commercial names could provide a “back door” for allowing more English elements into Finland Swedish.

Väinö Syrjälä tackles a similar question in Chapter 9, “Naming businesses—in the context of bilingual Finnish cityscapes,” using the framework of linguistic landscapes. While official signs such as street signs or signs on public buildings must be bilingual in Finnish and Swedish in officially bilingual municipalities, commercial signage is less regulated; thus, language choice in a commercial sign may have communicative, indexical and symbolic functions. A polity is considered bilingual in Finland if either 8% of the population there or 3000 people speak the minority language. But foreign languages, such as English, are not precluded or proscribed. Thus, it is frequently the case that a Finnish linguistic landscape will show Finnish and English as both more predominant than Swedish. Syrjälä compares the commercial signage, not so regulated, in two municipalities, Kaunianen, bilingual but majority Finnish-speaking, and Karis, bilingual, but majority Swedish-speaking, with the assumption that the commercial names will “reflect the bilingualism in the communities” (p. 193). Three language choice strategies are differentially distributed between the two communities. The first of these, to choose signage only in the local dominant language, is used in 58% of the signs in the Finnish-dominant community, but only in 30% of the signs in the Swedish-dominant community. The second strategy, to use both languages in parallel, is used only in 10% of the signs in the Finnish-dominant town, but in 34% of the signs in the Swedish-dominant town; some other language, such as English, French or Italian, is used 32% of the time in the Kaunianen, and 36% in Karis. These results seem not very different from similar investigations in other Finnish towns and cities, and Syrjälä notes, “Even if the national languages of Finland are de jure equal, Swedish is de facto a minority language in a larger national context” ( p. 199).

In the final chapter, “The perception of Somali place names among immigrant Somali youth in Helsinki,” Terhi Ainiala and Mia Halonen situate their study in “folk onomastics,” which focuses on speakers’ perceptions of names and name usage. In this case, the perceptions of both Somali immigrants and Finnish natives on Somali-influenced names in Finland come under examination. A number of Somali immigrants live in an eastern section of Helsinki; Finnish speakers have unofficially named the area Mogadishu, and called one street Mogadishu Avenue (there is also a neighborhood in Helsinki unofficially named Bangladesh); the authors point out that such secondary toponyms can be found in any number of European (and North American) cities. Despite the racist discourses from which such names emerge, the authors’ interviews with 5 Somali teens show that these younger speakers either do not perceive the racism or choose not to interpret the name as racist. Slightly older Somali interviewees “say they do not know anyone with a Somali background who would be insulted by the usage of the name” (p. 213); some imply that the immigrants themselves are responsible for the naming, making the name a good candidate for reclamation.


The volume as a whole provides an interesting and refreshing view of onomastics; the geographical focus on Finland and its Nordic neighbors brings the unexpected benefit of a view of the linguistic diversity, language contacts, and ongoing globalization that have shaped one area of the world. The researchers succeed in bringing pragmatic and sociolinguistic methods into onomastics: the productive use of focus group interviews plays a role in recent research on the pragmatics and semantics of address (Clyne, Norrby and Warren 2009)—its importation into onomastics seems a natural extension. Pragmatic and sociolinguistic notions such as indexicality, linguistic landscape, and folk linguistics all play a role, and allow a richness of data interpretation in several chapters. Conversation Accommodation Theory also makes an appearance, though its use strikes me as possibly less well-motivated. Similarly, the discussions of child-naming practices in the chapters by Aldrin and by Alhaug and Saarelma approach the topic sociolinguistically using public birth records in a manner similar to that of Lieberson (2000), who takes a sociological and cultural-historical approach to U.S. American naming practices. The similarities in results—both find more ethnic conservatism in the naming of boys than of girls—lead me to think that an integration of onomastics into other linguistic sciences should indeed take a sociolinguistic/pragmatics route, as this volume proposes. Socio-onomastics should clearly prove of interest to scholars of names and naming, but also to those in pragmatics, sociolinguistics, and linguistic anthropology.


Clyne, Michael, Catrin Norrby, and Jane Warren. 2009. Language and Human Relations: Styles of Address in Contemporary Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Giles, Howard, Justine Coupland and Nikolas Coupland. 1991. Contexts of Accommodation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lieberson, Stanley. 2000. A Matter of Taste: How Names, Fashions, and Culture Change. New Haven: Yale University Press.


Susan Meredith Burt is Professor of Linguistics in the English Department at Illinois State University. She is interested in all manner of sociopragmatic issues, particularly the pragmatics and (im)politeness of address. Her first venture into onomastics was ''Naming, Re-Naming and Self-Naming among Hmong-Americans,'' in the journal Names 57:4 (2009).

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