On the importance of including names in lexicographical projects

Unlike some other cultural legacies, languages leave no trace in the archaeological record. There’s often no trace in the written record, either.

Only a small portion of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages are well-documented in places like dictionaries and grammar books. Those that are least well-documented are the most endangered. [Daniel W Hieber, “Renaissance on the bayou: the revival of a lost language”]

We have argued before (see here) for the importance of including proper names data in any study of historical linguistics, and that the usual omission of proper names from standard lexicons is problematic. The quote above highlights these points.

Names, as a part of language, leave very little trace in the archaeological record — there is only the occasional name painted on a pot or carved into a stone. Of the “small portion” of languages which are well-documented in dictionaries, only a portion of each individual language is documented by these dictionaries, given the tendency to wholly omit proper names. The names which are least documented are the ones most endangered: A hapax legomenon which occurs in only one manuscript is in much greater danger of being erased forever. Even a name which has made it out of manuscript and into printed edition, say, a 19th-century edition of a cartularium, are still at risk of being “lost” if no one knows that they are in there. As we’ve also argued before (see here) one reason that people mistakenly identify certain names as modern coinages is simply that they don’t know or don’t have access to the evidence, usually in a culturally or geographically remote context, that shows the name has a much longer history. Without detailed onomastic lexicons, an important part of our linguistic history is threatened with extinction.


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Work-experience and Individual Research Projects

One of the most important things about preparing and organizing a research project the size and scale of the DMNES is recognizing that it is impossible for a single team of researchers to do all the work. As a result, from the beginning we have been keen on looking for ways that we can crowd-source information for the Dictionary — in much the same way that the OED and the DMLBS (in its early stages) had a crowd of source-readers who would go through specific books looking for relevant citations to words, in the future we hope to have a form on http://dmnes.org/ where anyone can submit information or citations or corrections, thus allowing us to have more than just a handful of editorial staff entering the data.

But we would also like to have a somewhat more formal means of taking advantage of outside volunteers, in the form of work-experience and individual research projects. We are very pleased to announce that in the last week we have taken on our first three such. Each of the individual projects has a clearly defined research or output goal, and the results of these projects will be collated in a series of DMNES Research Reports, which will be published on the main website. The three projects, and the people doing them, are:

  • Claudia Lewis: Medieval Translations of the Bible
  • Joshua Alfaro: The Spelling of Names in Vernacular Bibles
  • Jerimiah Bergstrom: Arthurian Names in Chrestien de Troyes and Mallory.

If you, or one of your students, would be interested in doing a similar work-experience or individual research project with the Dictionary, we have many projects of different types and sizes available, and are also interested in proposals. Please contact eic@dmnes.org for more information or to volunteer.

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Call for Paper Proposals: Leeds IMC 2016

The Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources is pleased to announce its intention to organize sessions on medieval cross-linguistic/cross-cultural onomastics at the Leeds International Medieval Congress 2016, July 4-7, 2016. Please distribute the following Call for Proposals to any of your colleagues that would be interested, and consider submitting a proposal of your own!

Call for Paper Proposals

Does your research involve names (of people, of places, of things)? Does this research have a cross-cultural or cross-linguistic element? Do you want to present at one of the largest, most exciting medievalist conferences in the world? The Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources, http://dmnes.org/, is organizing sessions for the 2016 Leeds International Medieval Congress (July 4-6, 2016, Leeds, England) with a focus on cross-linguistic onomastics. Many onomastic studies focus on a single time and place, providing a detailed linguistic and social analysis of the names from a narrow data set. While there is no doubt these studies provide valuable information, in our sessions we seek to go beyond a narrow, mono-cultural approach. We stress the importance of looking beyond a single social/cultural/linguistic context in conducting onomastic research and are looking for paper proposals on any aspect of onomastics — place-name studies, anthroponymy, names of organizations, buildings, ships, guilds, etc. — which includes an emphasis on the comparison of data across linguistic, social, geographical, and temporal boundaries.

Please submit proposals to eic@dmnes.org no later than September 10, 2015. Proposals should include the following information:

  • Title of presentation
  • Language of delivery (Deutsch, English, Español, Français, Italiano, or Latina)
  • Name and title of presenter
  • Affiliation
  • Full address
  • 100-200 word abstract

Authors will be notified whether their proposal will be included in the DMNES’s proposal to the IMC by September 20, 2015.

Any questions may also be directed to eic@dmnes.org.

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How about some stats?

Earlier this morning we passed another milestone, reaching 30,000 citations:
It’s been awhile since we did a stats post, so this seemed like as good a time as any to do one.

Entries & citations

Finalized entries: 1482
Unfinalized entries: 2636
Total: 4118

Finalized citations: 30023
Unfinalized citations: 7388
Total: 37411

Avg. no. of citations per entry (finalized): 20.25
Avg. no. of citations per entry (total): 9.08

Feminine names (finalized): 8101
Masculine names (finalized): 21901
Names of uncertain gender (finalized): 5

Languages (finalized citations only)

Latin: 14028.
English: Old English: 5; Middle English: 419; Early Modern English: 10426.
French: Old French: 684; Middle French: 946.
German: Low German: 1552; High German: 477.
Catalan: 217.
Swedish: 202.
Spanish: 159.
Scots: 148.
Hungarian: 28.
Norwegian: 9.

Dates (finalized citations only)

6th C: 4.
7th C: 73.
8th C: 33.
9th C: 844.
10th C: 370.
11th C: 1076.
12th C: 3857.
13th C: 3202.
14th C: 4490.
15th C: 3358.
16th C: 12536.

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Digital humanities, medievalism, and the importance of errors

Two weeks ago, I attended the Middle Ages in the Modern World conference in Lincoln (and gave a talk on medieval vs. ‘medieval’ names if you haven’t already read the recap of that), which included an extremely interesting paper by Bridget Ruth Whearty (Stanford), “Of Scribes and Digitizers: Modern Digitization Studio as Medieval Scriptorium”, in which she gave the audience an overview of the making of a digital medieval manuscript, in particular the painstaking processes that are in place to ensure that every single digital copy of every single manuscript leaf is presented in identical conditions to every other one. The lighting of the room is controlled, the camera is perfectly placed, there are constraints on what the technicians can wear while the digitization is taking place, etc. The same leaf can be photographed multiple times until an error-free version is obtained. The result is as close to the original as you can get, perfect in presentation — and also perfectly anonymous. And both these facts gave rise to critical discussion during the Q&A.

In particular, it was pointed out that, for a group of people who claim to understand and respect the importance of history, we can be remarkably bad at the keeping and documenting of our own history, in this case, the ‘history’ that is created in the context of digital humanities or digital medievalist projects, such as the digitization of a book. By concentrating on the production of a ‘perfect’ piece, the process by which the piece is create is erased: The end product has no record of the images that were ultimately discarded, the ones where the light was wrong, or the folio misaligned, where there is a reflection of one of the technicians visible, or even a more tangible piece such as a hand or an arm. People in the 21st C interested in manuscripts are often deeply interested in their production — how were they made? By how many people? In what order? What were the tools and techniques used? People dedicate their academic careers to answering these questions: So why don’t we provide the answers to the same questions concerning the production of a digital copy of a manuscript? Another worry is that focusing on the production of a perfect end product can (though it is important to note that it doesn’t have to) result in the erasure not only of the errors along the way to perfection but also of the people who participated in the production. This erasure is even more problematic than the other, because of who it is that is doing the work in these projects: Often it is junior researchers, sometimes even undergrads, and more often than not these junior people are women. When only the name of the PI is attached to the finished product, and not the names of all the people by whose work the product was produced, these already often marginalized people are further marginalized by their erasure from the history of the digital MS. Again, historians often spend lifetimes seeking to identify particular scribes — is hand X the same as hand Y? Do we know the name of the person who wrote this MS? When such questions are answered, it is a cause for celebration. So why, the question was raised during the Q&A on Whearty’s presentation, are we so eager to remove from the modern context the very information that we seek for so ardently in the medieval context?

These are all important questions that I think anyone working on a digital humanities/digital medievalist/digital classicist project needs to keep in mind, that it is not only important to use these techniques to shed light on the history of the past, but also important to make sure we don’t extinguish the light on the history of the present. I’ll admit, I listened to Whearty’s presentation and the ensuing discussion with some amount of surprise (not ever having seen the ins-and-outs of the procedure of digitization before), because it showed to me that the Dictionary has been developed to work in a very different sort of context. Two of the guiding factors in the development of our technical infrastructure have been, from the very beginning:

  • Document EVERYTHING
  • Attribute EVERYTHING

Every single piece of information is, from the moment the file its in is created, is deposited in a version control repository, specifically, github (it’s a private repository, though anyone who would like the code, as opposted to the data, can obtain it by asking). Every single change, no matter how small, to any file is documented: What was changed, who changed it, when it was changed, and why. Every file is reviewed by hand before it is marked for inclusion in an upcoming edition, and we keep track of who marks an entry as ‘live’, and when. When errors are identified, they are corrected, and again everything is documented: Was the error a typo? Was it a misidentification of the canonical name form? Was it an identification of a medieval place name with its modern correspondent? Was it the addition of further information? Was it the follow-up of a ‘todo’ that had previously been put into the file? By keeping track of all this information, we are able to pinpoint specifically when and how errors entered the data (because we know that there will be. No one is perfect, not even us!), and gives us a means by which we can provide quality control over our processes.

This means that none of our history is lost. If at one point we have a variant name form identified with one canonical name form, and later on realize this was in error and update it, we not only have the updated version but also the chain of documentation that led us to that version. This is particularly important for anyone who might question “Why is X a form of Z rather than of Y?” or for any errors in published versions that are noted by our readers and corrected in later versions. The latter point is crucial. By publishing new editions on a quarterly basis, we give up some amount of stability that ordinary books have: Information in an edition that someone cited in one month might not be there a few months later if an error has been identified. This may make some think that the Dictionary is not useful as a stable source to be cited, but in fact, there is no reason to worry: Because we document everything, no information is ever lost. When entries are updated in new editions, the old versions do not disappear, they are simply moved to the archive, and then noted as such (cf., e.g., the archive of the 2015 no. 1 edition). Thus, researchers can cite any version of the Dictionary confident that even if the data they cite gets superceded, it never gets removed or destroyed.

So much for “document EVERYTHING”. The other guiding factor is “attribute EVERYTHING”. Documenting everything makes it easy to determine mechanically who contributed to an entry, either by writing parts of the main entry, or entering variant name forms, or by reviewing and correcting typos, or even by fixing XML errors. I decided early on that I did not want to be in the business of deciding whose contributions were “important enough” to warrant including them in the citation, because the truth is that every contribution was necessary before that particular entry could be published. This is why every single entry has its own, individual “how to cite” instructions at the bottom, e.g.:

example citation

The author lists for these are created automatically by extracting the authors of the git commit messages for the relevant files for each entry. By including everyone who contributed, we ensure that while we are documenting medieval history, we are documenting our own history as well.

The field of digitial humanities is still relatively new, and for the most part people active in it are still working out what exactly the field is, and how it should function. This means it is still early enough to make these important aspects – documenting the process, not just producing the oucome; and giving credit where credit is due – part of our basic operating principles. If your project doesn’t already operate along similar lines, I’d like to charge you to consider why, and whether this should change.


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The Launch of the DMNES at IMC2015

Monday afternoon saw the official launch of the Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources to a packed audience at the International Medieval Congress 2015 in Leeds.

DMNES launch

Photo courtesy of Rob Briggs (@SurreyMedieval)

The editor-in-chief, Dr. Sara L. Uckelman, gave an introduction to the Dictionary, providing a brief overview of the who-what-when-where-why-how (see her slides here), and then editorial assistant Dr. Nina Shiel showed how data from the Dictionary can be used — even by non-medievalists — to answer questions such as “How medieval were the names in Sir Walter Scott’s novels?” These two talks were followed up by an extremely lively and productive half hour of discussion.

It was so exciting to present our project to such an interested and enthusiastic audience. We’d like to thank everyone for coming, and encourage everyone to share news of the Dictionary with all their friends, whether medievalists or not:

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Gwendolyn, Rowena, Rhiannon, and Morgana: Medieval vs. ‘Medieval’ Names

Yesterday, DMNES editor-in-chief Dr. Sara L. Uckelman gave a talk at the Middle Ages in the Modern World conference in Lincoln on “Gwendolyn, Rowena, Rhiannon, & Morgana: Medieval vs. ‘Medieval’ Names”. This post is a summary of her talk; slides for it are available here.

The goal of the talk was to explore answers to three main questions:

  • What names do people think are medieval, but are in fact modern?
  • What names do people think are modern, but are in fact medieval?
  • Where does the mismatch come from?

Names like the ones found in the title of the talk, Gwendolyn, Rowena, Rhiannon, Morgana, were taken as proto-typical ‘medieval’ names: Names that the average non-medievalist (or maybe only dilettante medievalist) would probably classify as medieval but whose historical lineage is much more complicated.

The first clear historical use of the name Gwendolyn dates to the 19th century. However, many people think that it is much older due to the variant names which can be found medievally — not as the names of actual people, but as the names in literature. The feminine name Gwendoloena appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (c1135), but his source for this name appears to be a misreading of the Old Welsh masculine name Guendoleu as Guendolen (an easy mistake in many medieval scripts!).

Rhiannon likewise appears in medieval literature, uniquely as the name of a legendary/divine character in the Mabinogion. Though the name has become popular in and out of Wales in modern times, there is no evidence that it was used by real people during the Middle Ages.

Rowena is another literary name, best known because of the character in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.

Morgana, of the four, is the exception. It, too, is a literary name, best known as the name of the Arthurian enchantress Morgan le Fay, whose name occurs in many forms (Morgen, Morgain, Morgaine, Morgana) in medieval accounts. Unlike the other names, it was used outside of literature: Morgana can be found in Rome in the early 16th C.

But it is not just that people assume many modern names are medieval which are in fact not, but also the reverse happens. We have discussed some of these here previously, in consideration of made-up names. What is interesting when surveying these examples is that many of the names which people in the English-speaking world incorrectly point to as modern coinages were not used in English historically, but rather in other languages (Amanda being an exception); thus, if we interpret these people as saying that use of these names in English is modern, then perhaps we have less to complain about their assertion. Secondly, some names that people incorrectly think are modern they think are because there is a clear post-medieval moment of creation that can be pointed to: e.g., Cedric in Ivanhoe, Wendy in Peter Pan. Here we must be careful to not say that Scott and Barrie did not coin the names, for the process by which a name is coined is not one that can only occur once. Scott and Barrie may have seen themselves as creating a new name for their characters, and if they did not have any knowledge of the previous uses of these names, then there is nothing to prevent us from saying that they did coin these names for their characters, it just happens that the names they coined had previously been coined. Thus, we must differentiate between the actual use of a name throughout history from our epistemic access to its use: One who does not know (and further, could not reasonably have been expected to know) of the previous existence of a particular name can plausibly lay claim to having (re-)coined it.

Having surveyed examples of names which fall on both sides of the line, the third question considered was “Where does the mismatch come from?” Why is it that non-specialists views of what counts as a “medieval name” or a “modern name” are so far off the actual mark? This is a complex issue with many possible contributing factors. Two important factors were singled out:

  • Literature
  • Shifting standards of cultural and personal identity

Literature: Many of the names cited above have close connections with literature. People read books which are apparently set in the Middle Ages, and assume that the names being used there are appropriate for the setting, because they are rarely told otherwise. The renewed interest in the Middle Ages of the Victorians brought with it new access to medieval literature and legend which provided fertile fodder for the desire of the Victorians to romanticise the Middle Ages. The roots of our modern historical and romantic views of the Middle Ages can both be located in these Victorian developments, and there often was no clear line drawn between the two, allowing literary names to pass easily from fiction into fact. Thus, the inheritance of the 20th and 21st C of the Victorian views of the Middle Ages brought with it a stock of names which naturally came to be viewed as “medieval” without distinguishing whether they came from medieval fact or medieval fiction.

But this summary shouldn’t be taken as saying “Oh, the Victorians couldn’t tell the difference between fact and fiction”; and this is because there are reasons why one might not feel the need to distinguish names from historical sources from literary ones, and that is because medievally one fertile source for names was in fact literature. We are familiar with the use of Arthur, Lancelot, Gawain, and Guinevere outside of literature in the Middle Ages; the popularity of these names is directly attributable to the popularity of the various songs, stories, and legends that circulated throughout Europe. But Arthurian cycles were not the only source of literary names in the Middle Ages. Other sources include the related tales of Tristan and Isolde, stories of Greek heroes and other legendary characters such as Hector, Alexander, Lavinia, and Hercules, Germanic romances such as the tales of Roland, and lays and troubador songs which are less well-known to modern audiences but which gave us the characters of Digory, Crescentia, and Griselda. And let us not forget the non-human characters, such as crafty Reynard the Fox, whose name became so closely associated with foxes that the term renard came to simply mean ‘fox’ in medieval French. Given that so many medieval names were in fact drawn from myth, literature, and legend, it is excusable for the non-specialist to assume that other important medieval literary names were also used by real people in the Middle Ages.

All of this so far has been directed at the level of individual given names, but misperceptions about medieval naming patterns also exist. These — most often in the form of insistence on a precise spelling of a name or on the belief that multiple languages can, and were, combined in the same name — have their origins in other factors. Specifically, we argue that the standards of personal and cultural identity that people have today are closely tied up with their names in a way that simply wasn’t the case medievally. In most western countries, people have a canonical form of their name which is instituted upon them soon after birth and which requires legal action in order to change. The centrality and importance of the name which is instituted upon them along with the difficulty involved in changing it means that this originally instituted name, in precisely the form in which it was instituted, has primary significance. Sara is not the same name as Sarah, and one who refers to the former by the latter will be reprimanded. This emphasis on the originally instituted name in exactly the way it was instituted as the legal marker of personhood of a person is simply not the way names were viewed medievally. Because orthography was not, for the most part, standardized (though this does not mean — as some people take it — that you can spell any name any way you wish!), Willyam was the same person as Wylliam who was the same person as Guilliam: It was the name, rather than the spelling, that was emphasized.

Identity: The second contributing factor is the close relationship between cultural and personal identity that many people have today. When you are introduced to someone, quite often one of the first questions you are asked is “Where are you from?” And if the answer you give conflicts with other evidence present in the conversation – for example, someone with an overt American answer giving her origin as the north of England, or someone with an obviously Polish surname giving his origin as southern France – then this usually immediately triggers further questions to explain the apparent clash between name, location, and origin. On a view of personhood and identity where where you are from and where your ancestors were from play an important role, then you expect that at least some of this information is indicated by a person’s name. And it is true that you see this sort of information encoded in (some) medieval names, specifically bynames which are locative in origin or which are ethnic descriptives such as ‘English’, ‘German’, ‘French’; these are quite common medievally and show that, similarly to us, medieval people were cognizant of cultural background and origin and deemed it important enough to codify in people’s names. But whereas modern people of mixed cultural backgrounds often have names which display multiple aspects of this mixed cultural (think for example of two people whose surnames are clearly tied to a specific language or culture who give their child the hyphenated form of their names), the combination of multiple languages into a single name is not something that was done, medievally. Though this cultural background is important and relevant, it was not inflexibly encoded into the name. Instead – and this ties back to the idea that variation in spelling does not necessarily indicate variation in name – the form of the name would depend on the linguistic context in which it was being used. A magnate from the Low Countries writing letters in the 14th C will say “Ego Lodevicus”, “Wij Lodewijk”, or “Nous Loys” depending on whether he is writing in Latin, Middle Dutch, or Middle French. John Hawkwood, notorious English mercenary, was known as Giovanni Acuto amongst his Italian friends. Other examples are easily found.

Having discussed the mismatch and some of its causes, it’s worth concluding by briefly considering the question “What can we do about it?” The most straightforward way to minimize the mismatch between what we think happened in the Middle Ages and what actually happen is through the dissemination of information, which goal was one of the original motivations for creating the Dictionary.


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