23 February, 2012

Old English personal names

Old English personal names look unfamiliar to modern eyes, because only a few examples remain in common use today, mostly in their Middle English spellings (for example, Edward, Edmund, Alfred, Edith). However, Old English personal names follow a fairly straightforward pattern.

Two-element names

Old English seems to have had a stock of words that were considered suitable for forming names, often words that had positive connotations such as happiness, riches, strength, courage, power, wisdom, security, nobility and so on. Perhaps the idea was to bring good fortune to the recipient, or perhaps it was just more appealing to call a baby something nice.

Old English personal names are commonly formed by combining two components from this stock of name-words.

  • Some name elements were used only for the first part of a name, e.g. Aethel- (noble, royal), Ead- (happy, rich, fortunate)

  • Some name elements were only used for the second part of a name, e.g. –weard (guardian, protector)

  • Some name elements could be used in either position, e.g. ric (strong), swith (strong), wine (friend), wald (power), here (army), hild (battle), burh/burg (stronghold), raed (counsel, wisdom)

The second element was usually a word of masculine gender in men’s names and feminine gender in women’s names, but not always.

Single-element names

Single-element names are based on a single word, rather than a combination of two. Masculine names commonly end with –a, e.g. Penda, Adda, Imma. This can be confusing to speakers of modern English, as we are used to the Latin convention of –a denoting a feminine ending. This confusion is reinforced by later Latinised forms of Old English women’s names such as Hilda (from Old English Hild). In Old English a single-element name ending in –a is more likely to be a man’s name.

Some two-element names can be shortened to single-element names, e.g. names such as Cuthbert or Cuthwulf could be shortened to Cutha. Hild may be a shortened form of a two-element name (see below).

Single-element names tend to be less common in the written sources than two-element names. Two-element names may have been more popular among the upper classes, and to have become more common over time (although caution is in order, given the scarcity of early sources).

Family connections – alliteration

There were no surnames in Old English. People were identified by a single personal name. Family connections could be signalled by alliteration, i.e. by choosing names within a family that all began with the same letter. Several examples of this can be seen in royal genealogies:

  • The seventh-century king of Mercia, Penda, had a father called Pubba or Pybba (Historia Brittonum ch. 60) and a son called Peada (Bede Book III ch. 21);

  • The seventh-century Northumbrian prince Hereric had two daughters called Hild and Hereswith (Bede Book IV ch. 23);

  • The genealogy of the West Saxon kings in the Anglian Collection lists a succession of eight kings with names beginning with C-, Cerdic, Creoda, Cynric, Caewlin, Cuthwine, Cuthwulf, Ceolwald, Cenred;

  • In the ninth and tenth centuries, the West Saxon king Aethelwulf had sons called Aethelbald, Aethelbert, Aethelred and Alfred (later The Great); Aethelred had sons called Aethelwold and Aethelhem; Alfred had sons called Edward and Aethelweard and daughters called Aethelflaed, Aelfthryth and Aethelgifu; Aethelflaed had a daughter called Aelfwyn (Asser, Life of Alfred Part II; Anglo-Saxon Chronicle 919 AD).

Family connections – common name element

Another way to indicate family connections was by using one of the elements of the father’s and/or mother’s name as an element in the child’s name. Where the shared name element was the first one, it would automatically produce alliteration as well. Again, several examples can be seen in royal genealogies:

  • The seventh-century Northumbrian prince Hereric was married to a lady named Breguswith. They had two daughters called Hild and Hereswith (Bede Book IV ch. 23). Hereswith has a name combining the second element of her mother’s name (-swith) and the first element of her father’s name (Here-). It is quite possible that Hild was originally called Hildiswith (taking the second element of her mother’s name and a first element that alliterated with her father’s name), which was shortened to Hild for some reason;

  • The seventh-century kings of Northumbria were (successively) the brothers Oswald and Oswy, who also had other brothers called Oswine, Oswudu, Oslac and Offa (Historia Brittonum ch. 57). Oswy had a daughter called Osthryth (Bede Book III ch. 11);

  • The seventh-century king of East Anglia, Raedwald, had a son called Eorpwald (Bede Book II ch. 15), whose name contains the same second element as his father’s name (-wald);

Some name elements were extremely widespread over a long period of time. For example, Aethel- names appear in the royal family of Kent in the sixth century (Aethelbert, Aethelburh) (Bede Book II ch. 9), Northumbria in the seventh century (Aethelferth) (Bede Book I ch. 34), Mercia in the seventh century (Aethelred) (Bede Book III ch. 11), Wessex in the ninth and tenth centuries (see above), and East Anglia in the seventh century (Aethelwald, Aethelthryth) (Bede Book III ch. 22; Book IV ch. 19). It is perhaps not surprising that a name element meaning ‘noble, royal’ was so popular among families who claimed royal status.

Sometimes both alliteration and common name elements seem to be in use in the same family. For example, the seventh-century king of East Anglia, Raedwald, had one son called Eorpwald (Bede Book II ch. 15), who has the same second name-element as his father, and another son called Raegenhere (Bede Book II ch.12), whose name alliterates with that of his father. If we did not have Bede’s History to tell us that both Raegenhere and Eorpwald were the sons of Raedwald, there would be nothing in their names to connect them with each other. Whether the different name patterns reflected different family connections (for example, perhaps Raegenhere and Eorpwald were the children of two different marriages), family traditions (Raedwald had a brother called Eni; perhaps there was a tradition of having names in R- and E- in each generation), or just resulted from idiosyncrasy, is open to interpretation.

In Paths of Exile, I sometimes used alliteration and common name elements when choosing names for the fictional characters to signal family relationships (obviously, I retained the names of historical figures). For example, Eadwine’s name is recorded, and the name of his nephew Hereric is recorded, but Hereric’s parents are unknown. I chose the name Eadric for the fictional character of Hereric’s father, Eadwine’s elder brother in the novel, because the two name elements in Eadric link to the two known names (Ead- shared with Eadwine, and –ric shared with Hereric). I chose the name Heledd for Hereric’s mother, a fictional princess of the neighbouring Brittonic kingdom of Elmet, because it alliterated with Hereric’s name. Hereric’s name is thus imagined as alliterating with his mother’s name and sharing a second name-element with his father’s name. (It is, of course, entirely possible that Hereric was the son of a sister of Eadwine and a man called H-something or Here-something. I picked the first combination for storytelling reasons).

Anglian Collection, available online
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, available online
Asser, Life of Alfred, available online
Bede, Ecclesiastical history of the English people. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Historia Brittonum, available online


Beth said...

Fascinating post, Carla. Would you say that some intitial vowels were considered interchangeable? Just thinking about Eadwine's lineage, really, and the move from 'W' through 'Y' and 'Ae' to 'Ea'. (I don't know enough about Old English to know how similar they are in pronunciation, I have to admit.)
Hmm....after reading this, I sense that I'm going to have a bit of name juggling to do... ;)

Carla said...

Hello Beth and welcome. I have the impression from alliterative poetry like Beowulf that initial vowels were interchangeable, e.g. lines like 'eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas' (approximately, trolls and elves and monsters) or 'aethele ordfruma, Ecgtheow haten' (approximately, a noble fighter called Ecgtheow), where 'eo', 'y', 'o', 'ae' 'o' 'e' seem to be happily used as alliterative with each other. 'W' was originally 'uu' (hence the name of the letter), so I would guess that 'w' was treated as another vowel. Historia Brittonum spells Wuscfrea's name as 'Ulfrea', which would be consistent with that.

Although alliteration and shared name-elements seem reasonably common, at least among the aristocracy (who tend to be the names we see in source material), it doesn't necessarily follow that all families used it or all the time. Bede mentions two brothers called Tunna and Imma (Book IV ch 22), and while it's possible that their names were connected through their father's or mother's names (as with Eorpwald and Raegenhere), it is also possible that their family didn't go in for connected names and just picked names they liked the sound of, or chose names from a pool of male relatives/ friends who happened to have names that weren't related to each other. So you could choose to have unrelated names if you prefer (and cite Imma and Tunna in Bede as evidence in support).

Gabriele C. said...

Carla, on a different note, could you perhaps send me the code of your blog template? Yours is one of the very rare blogs with an old template that also uses the Older Posts / Newer Posts feature. I've tried to get that bit via the Display source code-function, but it doesn't work correctly on mine, it either counts posts double or skips some. So I'd need the original code, not the one from an already filled in blog page. The new code Blogger offers doesn't work on my template, unfortunatley.

Gabriele C. said...

BTW, the Old English naming conventions remind me a lot of the Old Norse and probably also Gothic ones.

Beth said...

Ah, yes, those lines from Beowulf illustrate the vowel interchangeability nicely. (There's no escaping from those pesky trolls, though, is there?) That's a really interesting snippet from Bede, too; thank you for that. As far as naming characters goes, I'm mostly dealing with the aristocracy so will probably follow the common patterns as a rule, but it's interesting to know that there may have been exceptions. :)

Carla said...

Gabriele - yes, all the Germanic languages seem to use the same naming conventions. It evidently has very deep roots.

I'm sorry I don't know how to send you the code of a template. If you want to email me with more details, I can see if I can find someone to help.

Beth - the nice thing about the Beowulf lines is that they were written by someone who knew Old English and how it worked, so if they use vowels interchangeably I think that's pretty definitive.
Re trolls, that's a matter of how one chooses to translate 'eoten'. I like 'troll', even though it has a Norse origin, but it can also be rendered as 'ogre', 'giant' and no doubt others. I wrote a post on eotens last year here.
Imma and Tunna were evidently reasonably well up the social hierarchy, because Imma tried to pretend he was a peasant and was detected more or less immediately. So in 680-ish single-element names (or short form names) were in use in at least one reasonably upper-class family in Northumbria. I haven't tried to do a survey of the names in Bede, so there may well be more.

Constance Brewer said...

Interesting post. :) I didn't go through quite that much naming my kids, but a lot of the same ideas came into play.

Carla said...

Constance - thank you. Some things don't change :-)

Doug said...

This is a subject I find interesting. I have always been struck by the number of women's names which end in -a or have a strong resemblance to one ending in -a, such as "Ann" being close to "Anna", and was never sure why this was. Oddly, my wife and daughter have four names between them none ending in -a or any other vowel except one silent -e, so I suppose there were always rebels. On the matter of double element names being popular with the upper classes, I wonder about Eadwine's queen Aethelburg also being called Tate - maybe that was her real name and Aethelburg her queen name, similar to King Edward VIII "really" being David but David not being a common king's name in this country.

Beth said...

I really must read Bede this summer... I thought I vaguely recalled Imma - the one who was detected in part because of his non-peasant 'speech', which in itself is really interesting. I do like the idea of the Anglo-Saxons having short form names, too. :)
Thanks for the link to the 'eoten' post; I'll have a read of that later. I have to admit to being embarrassingly ignorant when it comes to the Anglo-Saxons (I've always been more focused on the Brittonic stuff), so I'm very grateful for information like this. Somewhere or other we have a copy of Kathleen Herbert's 'Looking for the Lost Gods of England', actually, so I think that's going to be another read for the summer...

Annis said...

Charles Barnitz has fun with the alliterative naming convention in his tongue-in-cheek historical adventure, "The Deepest Sea", when his hero Bran Snorrison takes shelter from outlaws at Ælfholm, steading of Æthelwulf and his sons Æthelstein, Æthelstan, Æthelwold, Æthelbald, Æthelheard, Æthelberht, Æthelred, Æthelhere, Æthelric and… Wulfgar.

I’m pretty sure most of these are valid Anglo-Saxon names, though I have my doubts about Æthelstein, which was probably thrown in as a bit of a joke to keep the reader on his toes :)

Carla said...

Doug - many names have lots of variations, some from shortened forms and some from different forms of the same name in different languages or with different spelling conventions. E.g Nan, Nancy, Annie (diminutives), Anne, Annette (French), Anna (Latin), Anita (Spanish), Nina (Russian) all variant forms of Ann or Hannah. You sometimes see feminine names invented from masculine ones by adding a terminal -a in the Latin convention (e.g. Nigella from Nigel). Other languages have different conventions (French-derived names often end in -e, for example, e.g. Charlotte), and modern English names are drawn from a wide variety of sources so there are many forms other than the Latin terminal -a.

I wish Bede had devoted half a sentence to explaining 'known as Tate'. Tat- was evidently a known name element, because Bede mentions a couple of bishops called Tatfrid and Tatwine, and it turns up in the place name Tadcaster ('Tata's (Roman) fort'). Possibly Aethelburh had originally had a name Tat-something as you suggest, although Aethelburh seems a likely name for the daughter of a man called Aethelbert and a lady called Berthe. Possibly it was an affectionate family nickname - I do wonder if the plethora of Aethel- names in some families (see Annis's comment!) meant that people resorted to nicknames for identification. The Viking Guthrum took a baptismal name Aethelstan when Alfred the Great arm-twisted him into conversion; I can't immediately think of an example of someone taking a regnal name in the seventh century, but it could have happened. It seems unlikely to have been a rude or scurrilous name since Bede recorded it.

Beth - Bede is quite a pleasant read in modern translation (I like the Leo Sherley-Price Penguin Classics translation), and is full of all sorts of interesting incidental information. Kathleen Herbert's Looking for the Lost Gods of England has a lot of information packed into a small space. If you want more information on Old English religion, The Elder Gods by Stephen Pollington is a comprehensive survey.

Annis - Alfred the Great's family must have been a bit like that :-) I sometimes wonder how family life worked in one of those Aethel-something families - when the mother or nanny yelled "Aethel-", did all the kids temporarily freeze while waiting for the second syllable to see who was in trouble this time? Yes, I'm not sure about Aethelstein either. There's a Danish name Thorstein, so the -stein suffix might have arrived with the Norse and been regarded as independent of -stan.

Beth said...

By great good luck, the copy of Bede I have is the Sherley-Price one. Thanks for the other recommendation, too, Carla, I'll bear that one in mind. :)

Rick said...

I like 'troll', even though it has a Norse origin, but it can also be rendered as 'ogre', 'giant' and no doubt others

I imagine that making fine distinctions between trolls, ogres, and giants may be modern literary convention, not rigidly fixed in the source tradition.

Does 'orcneas' have some connection to Tolkien's orcs?

Speaking of Tolkien, somewhere in the appendices to LOTR he notes that Frodo was 'really' Froda, jiggered to avoid gender confusion. I have to say that if I didn't know otherwise, I'd take a name like Lilla as female.

(I think this came up in some earlier comment thread.)

Carla said...

I think it probably is, e.g. Beowulf uses 'eoten' and 'thyrs' for Grendel to fit the alliteration pattern, implying the terms were broadly interchangeable.

For Orcs and orcneas see the discussion thread on the post about Eotens, linked in my reply to Beth above.

Yes, Tolkien does say that, and for just that reason. We did discuss this a while back (maybe in the context of Lilla Howe?), and I reckon 'Lillo' sounds even worse, so I stayed with the original form. Names are part of a culture, and unfamiliar names can help to signal that this is a different setting. Which I guess is why fantasy tends to make up its own names, it's part of the world-building.

Dellitt said...

I'm a bit of a name fanatic so I loved reading your essay on Old English names. Seems like even the Old English names still in use still have an 'old' feeling to them: Alfred, Edith, etc. I love them though.

Carla said...

Delitt - hello and welcome! I'm glad you found the post interesting.