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Review of  The Grammar of Names in Anglo-Saxon England

Reviewer: Geoffrey Sampson
Book Title: The Grammar of Names in Anglo-Saxon England
Book Author: Fran Colman
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Morphology
Philosophy of Language
Subject Language(s): English, Old
Language Family(ies): Germanic
Issue Number: 26.32

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


New parents seeking attractive names to give their children are sometimes disappointed to find that the etymologies of traditional English names don’t seem to make much sense. Alfred, for instance, meant ''elf-advice'', while Rosalind meant ''horse-snake''. (Although Alfred is an Anglo-Saxon name, few such names survived the Conquest; but plenty of now-traditional English names which were introduced by the Normans derive from a sister Germanic language and reflect similar conventions: thus Richard meant ''kingship-hard''.) The Anglo-Saxons, like a number of other Indo-European peoples, did not choose personal names to be meaningful. What they mostly did was to form compounds from pairs of roots which might have no natural semantic relationship with one another. These roots were usually drawn from a stock of roots standardly used as name-components, many of which were rare or obsolete as common (i.e. non-name) words. The semantic arbitrariness of the resulting compounds probably helped them to be recognizable as names, and the fact that the roots could be combined fairly freely allowed for a good supply of distinctive names even though the same individual roots, ''elf'', ''kingship'', and so forth, cropped up in many different names. (For us the distinctiveness of our names resides principally in our surnames, but for the Anglo-Saxons inherited surnames lay far in the future.)

Linguists agree that one component of the tacit knowledge which a speaker draws on in using his or her language must be a ''lexicon'': a register of the relevant linguistic properties of individual common words. Fran Colman argues that a speaker must also have a mental ''onomasticon'', which records the facts the speaker needs to know in order to follow the conventions for using names, and particularly for bestowing names on newborns in a socially appropriate way. Her aim in this book is to explore the nature of the pre-Christian English onomasticon.

(Christianity introduced great changes to naming conventions. The Church encouraged people to use Biblical and saints’ names, whose etymologies would have been opaque to most Europeans and which in any case were formed on different systems. And even when pre-Christian names continued in use, the idea of combining roots freely was lost. Boys are still christened Alfred or Richard, but not *Alfhard or *Richred, though for pagan Anglo-Saxons ''elf-hard'' and ''kingship-advice'' might have been equally good names.)

Part I of Colman’s book analyses the general concept of names. One chapter discusses what it is logically to be a name, another argues that a name should not be classed grammatically as a noun, and another discusses the grammatical functions which names do possess. Then Part II treats names in Old English. A chapter introduces the data on name-formation. Many names were two-root compounds as discussed above, but some were single roots, either bare or with derivational affixes, and the roots might be phonetically modified, often representing baby-talk pronunciations. As with us, a particular name was usually exclusive either to males or to females, and this might correlate with grammatical gender of a root, or with the meaning of a root, but the correlations were not straightforward. (Gertrude meant ''spear-strength'', two roots which do not represent notably feminine concepts, though the ''strength'' root is feminine in gender; the roots of Rosalind are, I believe, grammatically neuter and masculine respectively. Although neither of these names was Anglo-Saxon, similar cases occurred in that language.) Further chapters discuss more technical aspects of Old English morphology applicable to name words, and related matters.

Colman includes abundant references to earlier literature on the subject, and takes issue with some of what has been said. Compounds where neither root occurs separately have apparently been seen as oddities, but she points out (p. 195) that an Old English name such as Beagstan, where neither 'beag' nor 'stan' are used as common words but both occur in other names, is perfectly normal. In other cases she sees a predecessor as failing to observe rules limiting the possible root-combinations, for instance (ibid.) J.R. Dolan posited a hypothetical name *Sunuæthel (I use ''th'' for the Old English thorn letter), which for Colman is ''ungrammatical''.

The concluding chapter leads up to the presentation of a sample extract from an Old English onomasticon structured as Colman believes appropriate. Individual entries are for single roots (rather than for names as wholes), and the various categories of information contained in an entry show whether it can be used as first or as second root in a compound name, or as a single-root name (some roots can occur in all three ways), which sex it applies to in the various positions (some roots are sex-neutral as first root in a compound name but sex-specific as second root, others are sex-specific in either position), which declension-class it belongs to (as a second or sole root), and how, if at all, it can form a diminutive. (The full name Dudman yields either of the familiar diminutives Duding or Dudecil, for instance, but Leofhelm can become only Leofing.) Speakers of Old English, according to Colman, did not (as we do) hold in their heads a list of complete names; they held information about name-roots, and used this to coin well-formed names when the need arose.


This is a rather muddled book, which is already manifest in the first, introductory chapter. A book-chapter headed ''1: Introduction'' normally sets the scene for what follows by outlining at least some of the main issues that the body of the book will proceed to take up. But more than half of Colman’s Introduction is about a specific question which is not relevant to the rest of the book: namely, whether any Anglo-Saxon moneyers (the people who were commissioned to manufacture coins, and commonly included their names on their coins) were female. The question arises because two of the many name-forms found on coinage look feminine; but names were often abbreviated, and Colman’s conclusion after many pages of discussion is that these were probably abbreviations of masculine names and that all moneyers were male. That would be unsurprising, in view of general social conditions and the fact that coin-making with simple technology needed strength and stamina. But in any case the sex of moneyers tells us nothing about the declared topic of Colman’s book. Evidently she came to that topic, Anglo-Saxon naming behaviour, through a prior interest in numismatics, and her examples of Anglo-Saxon names are largely drawn from those found on coins. This is well and good, but there is no reason to expect readers of a book about naming conventions to share all the other interests the author happens to have.

Even within the proper topic of the book there is an unresolved tension. On the one hand, it is about the theoretical linguistic concept of a mental ''onomasticon'', on the other it is about naming conventions in a long-dead society for which the evidence is limited. One might think that a better foundation for an onomasticon theory would be data from a range of present-day societies, where fuller evidence is available and where that evidence would make it easier to distinguish universals of onomasticon structure from conventions specific to a particular society. But if the main concern is the facts of Anglo-Saxon naming, then the extremely abstract nature of Colman’s theorizing tends to blur these rather than bringing them into focus. Often I wondered whether some feature of her theory corresponded to a real Anglo-Saxon convention or merely to limitations in the available data. Do we really know, for instance, that the diminutive suffixes did not combine freely with the name-roots? If we have Duding and Dudecil, and Leofing but no Leofecil, could it be that the form Leofecil was also possible but just happened not to occur in writings which survived? I do not know the answer to that, but the nature of Colman’s treatment does not encourage the reader to explore such questions.

Some of Colman's factual statements about names in our own society do not chime with my experience. She says (p. 47) that giving (any) name to a car would be ''breaking a linguistic convention'', but it seems to me that plenty of competent English-speakers have names for their cars; and (p. 48) that a name like John is reserved for male humans, so that, again, calling one's dog John would be ''breaking with convention'' -- but while some dogs have specialized dog-names like Rover, I should have thought it was absolutely normal to give a pet dog a human name. When it comes to coining names by combining roots productively, as the Anglo-Saxons did, Colman shows how difficult it is to determine what the conventions are by revealing lack of awareness of modern English word-coinage conventions. On pp. 68-9 she queries why some linguists recognize ''hydronymy'' (misprinted at one point as ''hydronomy''), i.e. names of rivers, lakes, etc., as a special category of names but do not recognize parallel categories of mountain-names or island-names; and she suggests that the latter should be called ''vounonymy'' and ''nisionymy'' respectively. Now in the first place, so far as I know historical linguists talk about hydronyms as a category not for any theoretical reason but just because, in practice, names of rivers often (but names of mountains or islands less often) reflect languages that are no longer spoken in their vicinity. But also, when learned words are formed from Greek roots, conventionally they always use classical rather than modern Greek roots, spelled according to Latin orthography. The appropriate English terms would be ''bunonymy'' and ''nesonymy'' (though, since the word which gives modern Greek 'vouno', ''mountain'', meant something smaller in the classical period, in practice a coinage for ''mountain-naming'' would use the classical term for ''mountain'', giving ''oronymy''). These conventions are easier to ascertain than those for Anglo-Saxon name formation.

Colman repeatedly undermines her own authority by including anecdotal material apparently just for the pleasure of personal reminiscence. For instance, she recalls (p. 77) a ''wine-sodden'' lunch with friends in Greece where conversation turned on the word ''sybil'' and the catchphrase used by Prunella Scales playing Sybil Fawlty in the television series Fawlty Towers. It must have been fun to sit at that table, but the story does little to further the academic argument of the surrounding paragraphs, so the reader is left wondering whether the author is taking her task seriously enough to justify correspondingly serious effort on the reader’s part. (This book is far from an easy read.) When, in a discussion of modern names as social indicators (p. 41), Colman writes ''personal experience has ... encouraged the expectation that a twentieth-century man called 'Angus' with a Scottish surname is likely ... to have been born in southern England'', I am really not sure whether she is suggesting that the majority of people called Angus McSomething nowadays are southern Englishmen (interesting if true, and surprising to me), or merely that she happens to have a couple of friends who fit that description and she wants to give them a name-check in her book.

Conversely, Colman has an odd habit of using quotations from her own earlier publications as if they had an authority which would not be accorded to the same assertions if they were made here directly, outside inverted commas. At one point she even writes ''I no longer understand the observation of Colman (1988: 121) that ...'', which must tempt readers to respond ''If you don’t understand what you wrote yourself, how are we expected to understand what you write now?'' When she quotes others, sometimes she adds wording such as ''I will forbear to comment''. In English this is usually code for ''This is obviously wrong'', but here it is not clear whether that is what Colman means (if so, what is obvious to her was not always obvious to me).

Overall I was disappointed by this book. I learned a certain amount I did not know before about Anglo-Saxon personal names, but not as much as I had hoped. And I have no way of judging whether the features of Colman’s mental onomasticon reflect human naming behaviour in general, pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon naming behaviour in particular, or just accidental properties of the extant corpus of Old English inscriptions.
Geoffrey Sampson studied Chinese at Cambridge and linguistics and computing at Yale. After working in the corpus linguistics group at Lancaster University, he held the linguistics chair at Leeds and was later a professor of informatics at Sussex University. Since retirement from Sussex he has been a research fellow in the Linguistics department of the University of South Africa. His books include ''Liberty and Language'', ''Schools of Linguistics'', ''Writing Systems'', ''English for the Computer'', ''The 'Language Instinct' Debate'', and (with Anna Babarczy) ''Grammar Without Grammaticality''.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780198701675
Pages: 384
Prices: U.K. £ 75.00