Tag Archives: Bonomo

On the Intersection of Onomastics and Philosophy in the Middle Ages (lecture)

Our editor in chief, Dr. Sara L. Uckelman, was recently invited to give an online talk in the Shire of Mynydd Gwyn branch of the Society for Creative Anachronism‘s “Tuesday Discourses” series.

The lecture was recorded and is available to watch on youtube (44 minutes):

Below is the script that Dr. Uckelman was speaking from; it’s not a complete transcript, but we provide it here for people who prefer reading to listening, and also for accessibility reasons (we haven’t been able to get the video captioned).

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Thanks to Nik for the invitation to chat about my two major interests in the Middle Ages: Onomastics (the study of names and naming practices, specifically those of people and places) and Philosophy (usually specifically logic; but while I’ll definitely talk about logicians here, I won’t say very much about logic).

My interest in names is a long-standing one, dating back to when I was 10 and discovered a list of the 100 most popular boy’s and girl’s names in the US in the front matter of my parents’ World Book Dictionary. After joining the SCA, my interest got channeled into historical onomastics – specifically pre-1600 Europe and cultures that had contacts with it, with an emphasis on personal names.

For those who are not so familiar with medieval naming practices, let me give you a very brief overview of some history and terminology:

Personal name elements can be classified into two types: given names (sometimes called “Christian names”, but this is problematic when you’re operating outside of Christian contexts!) and bynames. We’re all familiar with given names – we all have one – usually given to us by our parents but sometimes adopted later in life. (I like to joke that the reason why everyone is interested in names is because we all have one!) The process by which modern parents select given names for their children involves many diverse factors – honoring a relative, involving a fandom, incorporating a religious reference (e.g., a saint or Marian name), aesthetics, or picking a name because of its “meaning” (yes, the scare quotes are necessary, we’ll come back to this!).

Bynames, on the other hand, are the medieval pre-cursor to modern day inherited surnames. Our modern surnames such as “Smith”, “Johnson”, “Black”, “Thorpe”, etc., were all originally literal descriptives picking out a specific characteristic of a person and used to distinguish that person from another. (When you live in a village where 2 or 3 out of every 10 men is named “John”, you need to be able to distinguish whom you’re talking about!) These literal nicknames can be roughly divided into four categories or types:

  • Occupational bynames indicate what your occupation was (e.g., Smith, Webster, Baker)
  • Relational bynames indicate your relationship to someone (usually by naming you as your father’s child, e.g., Johnson)
  • Locative bynames indicate where you’re from (whether by city/town/region, or local topographical landmark, e.g., Thorpe).
  • Other descriptives – these include references to color, physical and mental habits, important personal events, etc. This is a “catchall” category, and includes things like “Black”, “Shakespeare”, and one of my favorite German bynames “Spring in die Rosen” – “Jump in the roses”.

(Note, I’m using English examples, but what I have to say holds for pretty much all medieval European cultures).

My onomastic research over the last 20 years has tended to focus on data collection: What names were used in which languages/cultures at which times? Depending on the source of the data, I’ll also often do some statistical/frequency analysis – which names were the most popular, and by how much? Unlike prosopographical research, in general I’m not interested in the people who bore the names, only in the names themselves. Around 5 years ago, this interest in collecting and analysing names culminated in the birth of the Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources, which attempts to answer the broad question “which names were used when and where?” The Dictionary is by no means complete; it currently has 2466 publicly available entries, and another 4990 which are still being researched! (And that latter number grows faster than the former number). But with almost 70,000 different citations of names in the publicly available entries, the Dictionary is the largest, most comprehensive cross-cultural study of medieval European given names out there.

So much about names. Now I want to say something about my other long-standing medieval interest, namely, philosophy, and specifically questions of logic and philosophy of language. When people ask “What is logic?” I like to quote the definition given by Roger Bacon in his Art and Science of Logic, written around 1250 (conveniently, Roger Bacon is someone we will be coming back to):

logic, as a science, is the habit of distinguishing what is true from what is false by means of rules or maxims or dignities by which we can comprehend the truth of a locution through our own efforts or with the help of others. And logic is so-called from ‘logos‘, which means discourse, and ‘lexis‘, which means reason or understanding — as it were, the science either of reason joined to discourse or of discourse joined to reason.

Broadly, it is a (1) rule-governed, (2) joint venture, (3) involving discourse which is (4) aimed at distinguishing truth from falsehood. In the Middle Ages, the study of logic was very closely related to the study of semantics — how sentences get their meaning, and how this meaning is related to truth, and how this meaning changes in different grammatical (syntactical) contexts.

Now, generally my interest in logic, whether medieval or modern, focuses on disputational and argumentative contexts involving shifting commitments on behalf of the participants, changes in their knowledge, issues of necessity and possibility, issues related to do with time — things entirely unrelated to anything onomastic! But regularly throughout my parallel research careers, I’ve asked myself if there isn’t a way that I can combine my two interests. That is — is there anything in the intersection of onomastics and logic in the Middle Ages?

Given what I have said about the close connection between medieval logic and medieval semantics/theories of meaning, there does seem to be one obvious candidate for something falling in the intersection:
The Meaning of (Proper/Personal) Names
Names are linguistic objects, and so any theory of linguistic meaning should account for proper names. But the issue is not as straightforward as that. When we speak of the “meaning” of proper names, there are two distinct things we could be talking about. I’ll take each in turn.

(1) Proper names aren’t like other words, in that they don’t have the same sort of semantic content that other words have — there isn’t any universal form that ties together all people called “Sara” in the same way that there is one that ties together all animals called “dog” (side note: Well, only if you’re a realist — and the realist/nominalist debate on the meaning of nouns was an active one throughout the Middle Ages). Contemporary philosophers of language often say that proper names don’t have any semantic content, they only have “referential” content — they exist only to refer to things, without meaning anything (whereas common nouns like “dog” have semantic content — eliciting the meaning of the word — and, at least in some contexts, referential content — referring to actual dogs). This referential/semantic distinction isn’t one that was available in the Middle Ages, but it is true that much of medieval semantic theory discusses proper names according to what we can non-anachronistically call their referential properties, in the context of theories of supposition. Briefly speaking, and glossing over variants found in different authors, what a term can “supposit” for depends on its grammatical context, with one and the same word having different types of supposition in different contexts. As a brief example, the word ‘human’ has natural supposition when I say ‘human is a species’ — here, the word is taken for what it signifies, namely, a concept; it has material supposition when I say ‘human has two syllables’, because here I’m talking about the matter of the word; and it has personal supposition when I say ‘Some human is running’, because here I’m referring to an individual object that falls under the concept expressed by ‘human’. It also has personal supposition in the sentence ‘Socrates is a human’. Not only that, but ‘Socrates’ also has personal supposition in the sentence ‘Socrates is a human’ – in fact it has what is called discrete supposition, because it picks out one, distinct individual.

Now, I could spend an hour talking about different 13th-century accounts of supposition and where personal names fall into those accounts alone — but I’m not going to. This is because there is a deep sense in which this isn’t what we mean at all when we talk about the “meaning” of a name.

Ordinarily when someone talks about the meaning of a name, they’re talking about the sort of thing that you find in a baby name book – you know, that “Hildefrid” means “battle peace” or that “Electra” means “amber hair” (yes, these glosses both occur in modern baby name books I own), or that “Heather” means a grey-green bushy plant, or even that every “Thomas” is a twin! But as we noted at the beginning of this section, names don’t have semantic content in that sort of sense (it’s one reason why proper names are often entirely omitted from ordinary semantic dictionaries, even ones that are focused on historical languages — a significant lacuna that the DMNES was partly designed to help fill!). What people mean when they talk about the “meaning” of a name is not this sort of semantic meaning but rather…

(2) the etymological origins of the name. Take Hildefrid: Its roots are Germanic words for “battle” and “peace”. The combination together does not mean “battle peace” — that’s nonsense. The combination itself has no meaning, because it is a name, not a word. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t look to the etymological roots of a name to find out interesting things (or that modern parents don’t, rightly or wrongly, often take these roots into account when naming their children!), which is why the Dictionary‘s entries include this etymological origin (and why there are almost 5000 unfinished entries, because there are a lot of names out there whose etymological origins are wholly obscure). The important take-home message here is that we provide this etymological information because it provides insight into language development, particularly into the development of vernacular languages where data may often be obscured by the widespread use of Latin for written documents, and because it helps us to make connections between examples of the same name in different languages, which may have drastically different spellings/forms. But — with rare exceptions — medieval parents did not chose names for their children on the basis of their “meaning” in the same way that modern parents often do. (These exceptions include the class of augurative names found in Italian, where a child was given as its name some particular fortune or desired future, or some description of the circumstances of its birth, e.g., a child born after the death of a previous child. The rise of virtue names amongst 16th C Protestants might also be taken as another exception.)

What this means is that if we want to search for the “meaning” of personal names in the intersection of medieval philosophy and onomastics, we might find ourselves looking for something that doesn’t exist. That being said, I now want to turn to two examples where the “meaning” of personal names was discussed — one medieval example and one which isn’t medieval but ancient, but which I’m going to accept anyway because Aristotle was widely read by medieval philosophers and so they would have been familiar with this example. To take the latter first:

(1) Aristotle actually discusses precisely what we pointed out above, that given names which are compounds of words that individually have meaning do not themselves inherit those meanings, either as isolated parts or in combination. In On Interpretation, Aristotle considers the case of the proper name Κάλλιππος, a compound of Ancient Greek καλός ‘beautiful, fair’ and ἵππος ‘horse’. He points out that:

In fact, in ‘Κάλλιππος’, ‘ἵππος’ indicates nothing by itself, as it does in the phrase ‘καλός ἵππος’.

Thus, “evidently what is indicated by ‘ἵππος’ does not contribute directly to the signification of the word ‘Κάλλιππος’; for, when someone does makes an assertion about ‘Κάλλιππος’, she only has a man — Κάλλιππος — in mind and nothing related to horses or fairness”.

(2) The second example is due to Roger Bacon — I said we’d mention him again! — who has a couple of very interesting asides on some individual proper names in his treatise On Signs (a general treatise on how words, whether mental, spoken, or written, get their ability to function as signs, to signify things apart from themselves, with a lot of discussion about how equivocation arises), written some time before 1267. In the section on “words signifying equivocally as nouns and adjectives”, Bacon points out that there is an equivocation that arises when “the name of something universal is transferred to a person”, which can happen because the same word can have multiple types of supposition (remember we talked about this earlier!). He gives three examples of universal things being transferred to persons: (1) single words, (2) compounds of two words, and (3) entire phrases. For the first, he says:

For the name of something universal is transferred to a person, and this can readily happen because names are at our pleasure (ad placitum). And because of the likeness and agreement of a particular with a universal we can easily transfer the name of a universal to a particular, because all who transfer do so in accord with some sort of likeness, and we see that some name is common and it is transferred to a particular of another species. For example, ‘rose’ is the name of a flower and it is the name of a woman, and the basis for the transference is the beauty of both, in which they agree.

The second and third examples are the names Bonaventure and Bonhomo and the phrase-names ‘Deus te levet’ (God lift you up) and ‘Bene veniatis’ (welcome), which, as he says, “are in use among the Italians”.

There are two interesting things to note about these examples: The compound examples because they are Italian, and hence fall under the exception that I noted above, namely, augurative names; and what he has to say about the origin of the name “Rose”. Because despite what many people think, the etymological origin of the name “Rose” is not the flower. The root of the name is the Old English word hros, ‘horse’! It was only later that the word was conflated with Latin rosa ‘rose’. What is interesting about Bacon’s use of this example here is that it shows that this conflation had already occurred by the 13th century.

Bacon has quite a lot of other interesting things to say in De Signis (especially on the topic of constructed languages, and the origin of Anglo-Saxon!) but we shall have to leave those aside perhaps for another time.

So there it is: What I have found that falls in the intersection of onomastics and logic/philosophy in the Middle Ages, in my 20+ years of searching.

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