Mainz linguists publish the first modern introduction to onomastics for both experts and the broader public

Names are omnipresent, yet little-studied


Cows and hurricanes, inns and distant celestial bodies – as different as they seem to be, they do have something in common: They all bear names, whether it be Berta the cow, Hurricane Katrina, the Lion's Inn, or the Pleiades star system. Names are omnipresent and constitute a large part of our vocabulary. Names and the study of names are generally popular as can currently be seen in the numerous radio programs and press reports about the origin and significance of surnames. University courses in onomastics, the study of names, are also extremely popular. However, up to now an extensive, generally comprehensible introduction to the subject based on the latest research has not been available. With their book "Namen" (Names), linguists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) have now produced a modern and comprehensive explanation of the subject for both experts and interested laymen.

A large share of the German language consists of proper names, but nobody really knows their precise number. "The number of names is infinite, since we can theoretically transform each word into a name. Thus, the possibilities are literally endless," says co-author Fabian Fahlbusch of the German Department of Mainz University. "So there is no truly reliable idea how many names potentially exist. However, there is a hypothesis that we know more names than other words." A perusal of the book shows that names occur in almost all domains of life. These range from personal and place names through names for pets and farm and zoo animals to names for goods, companies, and works of art. Names are given to historical events (9/11), political programs (Agenda 2010), cultural movements (Baroque), natural events (Hurricane Katrina), and so forth.

How are names formed and which aspects determine the naming of persons and things? Is it legitimate to call a child Pumuckl, Borussia, or Euro? The book by Damaris Nübling, Fabian Fahlbusch, and Rita Heuser explains it all. The first linguistic section of the introduction concentrates on the theory and grammar of names, while continually relating this to language history. The publication also considers the aspect of names in sign language, so far ignored by most researchers. In the second half of the book the authors focus on the six most important classes of names. They move far beyond what to date have been the standard considerations to look at the various facets of naming and onomastics and also examine names in other languages and cultures.

The book is meant for anybody interested in the study of names. However, it was designed specifically with students at school and university as well as school teachers and university lecturers in mind. Although a basic knowledge of linguistic terminology is needed to understand this introduction, much of the terminology is explained in the book to ensure that its content will appeal to a wider circle of readers. "Our objective was to get onomastics out of its philological niche and make others recognize its relevance to the study of linguistics at universities as well as to hopefully make it more popular in general," the authors write in their foreword. The study of names also provides an ideal introduction to linguistics and language history for schoolchildren. "Names are omnipresent and analyzing them can help to introduce pupils to linguistic terminology and methodology."

The 368-page book published last month by Narr Verlag (as part of the series Narr Studienbücher) offers the tools for doing so. After finishing the book, the newly acquired knowledge can be tested directly using the complementary exercises on the publisher's homepage. However, the authors are hoping for even more: They see the introduction as a springboard and guide for continued study and as an inspiration for individual research. In their view, proper names have up to now received far too little attention.