Search This Blog

Friday, 16 September 2011

The Mutability of Medieval names with regard to changing pronunciation

The Mutability of Medieval names with regard to changing pronunciation

Let us begin with the Anglo-Saxon letters Eth [ð] Thorn [þ ] and Yogh [ which looks like a handwritten z with a tail]
In most Saxon manuscripts, eth and thorn are used fairly interchangeably to indicate a ‘th’ sound.  However, the pronunciation of various groups of Saxon people was different and there were shades of pronunciation between th and d  and th and t; which, especially with the similarity of eth to a d led to such name changes as Aelfnoth to Ailnod.  Equally, a lightly aspirated th sound readily becomes t, leading Thorkel [already diminished from its Old Norse form Thorketel, Thor’s cauldron] to Torkel and ultimately to its modern form, usually found only in Scotland, Torquil.
In the same way, the prefix Aethel- meaning noble became Adhel-, as is still found in some German names and a few English ones [Adelaide for example, originally Aethelheid] and in some cases was entirely truncated, so that Aethelstan for example became Aston. 

All right, how many of you made the semiotic mental link to Aston-Martin? Only the ones who did not immediately think of Quincy ME’s boss Robert Aston I bet. 

Going back to Ailnod, when the Normans landed they brought a lot of their linguistic peculiarities including a nasal confusion between n, m, and b [they bust hab had co’ds id the dose id our Briddich clibate]; and Ailnod also sometimes becomes Ailbod.
The n sometimes just disappears; another Old Norse name, Ansketel becomes Asketil.
Yogh has even more linguistic peculiarities because not only does its resemblance to z give rise to name spelling changes like Menzies [pronounced Mingies] and Dalziel [pronounced Dayell] but as those two examples show, its own pronunciation varied.  It depended on which linguistic group settled…. Now this gets a lot more complex than Bede’s description of Angles, Saxons and Jutes so I’m not going to go there, but roughly, if you draw a line from The Wash to The Severn Estuary, south of it, yogh was pronounced y, and north it was pronounced g.  To further complicate matters it was often written as ‘g’ as well.  Take the town of Ipswich, founded in the seventh century on the orders of King Raedwald [the one who was probably buried in Sutton Hoo] by one of his followers, one Gippe.  Gippeswyk, Gippe’s town, may have been uninspired in its lack of original nomenclature then, but Gippe is long since forgotten.  Especially as his name written down doesn’t sound in the least like Ipswich.  Except he was pronounced Yippy.

The singing of that Scouting and Guiding camp fire song is hereby forbidden. 

Such also meant that some deliberate hard g sounds underwent transformation so that a name like Hagni, which started out with a deliberate g sound became Hagan and then Hayne. Hugo becomes Hugh. Leofwig becomes Lefwy, Ulfsig stops being victory wolf and becomes Wulfsi and then Wulsi, incidentally giving rise to the notorious surname Woolsey.  It has given us, by moving the other way, the hard pronunciation of Agnes, which as it gave rise to the variant Annis was almost certainly pronounced Aynes.

And then we have the Normans.  Norman French is not synonymous with modern French but there are some similarities to be drawn; the use of Gui for the W sound for example as in Guillaume the Conqueror. However, G and W were used so interchangeably to begin names that whole new names appear.  Guy is also Wido [think about Guido, its continental form]. Wayland, a name used occasionally to commemorate that supernatural smith, fetched up as Gallant.
There is also a confusion between l and r; this is a confusion to be found in the Far East where the sound is considered the same, but apparently the Normans had the same palatal confusion.  This has led to the well known phenomenon in pet names such as Mary-Molly, Sarah-Sally, Terence-Tel and so on.  The tendency is for r to become l rather than the other way round.
The Normans also brought the soft G with a j sound, and some names were spelled with one and some with another. Goscelin is identical to Joscelyn in pronunciation, and both were used for both male and female, being diminutives of Josce.  This led to the simplification of names such as Gervase to Jarvis for example.
It is a common enough thing to find B and V  to be interchangeable, Basil is Vasili in Russian; but this was the case in medieval England too.  Vivian was also Bibian, and thence became Ninian; the female form, Viviana was often Bibiana.

Add in the tendency to skip the middles of names that were too long so that Augustine became Austin, Constantine became Costin and Benedict became Bennet, and not only are the origins of modern surnames beginning to show up but it is becoming clearer that sorting out which name is actually which can be a piece of detective work in its own right.  I find it quite exciting detective work and when I post a comparative list of popular names, I’ll be trying to give the form of the name most appropriate to the time in which it was used.  I’ll also give a breakdown of the pet names of a selection of names, which can add to the confusion.
Diminutives were –el, -ot [sometimes but not always –ota for females] and –in.  Take the name Lance; it takes a double diminutive to make it Lancelot.  Then there are those names which are shortened and a diminutive applied; the name Isabel became Ibb, which then became Ibbot.  Or Ibelot.
The Norman insistence on record keeping also led to the use of Latin endings, mostly giving rise to new female names.  Although Julian, generally pronounced Gillian, was happy not to take any account of being Juliana for several centuries, Sybil moved towards being Sibilla. Old names were Latinised, and Hildgyth became Hilda. Fanciful names from Latin sources sprang up, like Diamanda and Argentina and Presciosa, all short-lived. 
And of course a girl christened Maria by the priest might go through her entire life having no idea of this, being Meriet, or Pol, Mally, Marcella or one of a number of pet names for Mary translated by the village priest solemnly as Maria.  It is the custom of many Hispanic families to christen every girl Maria and use a second name by which to call her; but it was entirely possible for every girl in a medieval English family to be officially named Maria and to be known each one by an individual name.
I have done this with a family in one of my Renaissance mystery stories…..

One more note on the influences on names; forms began to become more settled with the advent of the printing press, a gradual increase in literacy and a wider spread distribution of names set down on a page.  It is entirely probable that the peasants continued to rear Poll, Moll, Mariota, Meryot, Malina, Marieta, Polina and Marcella in blissful ignorance that they were all named Mary, but the emerging powerful merchant class, whose names are the ones which tend to be recorded, were taking account of this.  They were also finding new names in such romances as Malory’s ‘Morte d’Arthur’ and indeed the fifteenth century does show an increase in such names as Percival, Lancelot, Gawaine and for the females, Guinevere, often – especially into the sixteenth century – in the Cornish form of the name Jenefer.
Some of the pet names have since become names in their own right, some – notably those of the most common names – have stayed as pet names, some have an existence of both. And some, such as Gilota, a pet name of Egidia, became absorbed into Gillian, once a pet name of Julian[a] and subsequently so common that a girl was a jill, and was likely to jilt her man.


  1. Very interesting. This has also answered a question. A friend has just discovered she has an ancestor named "Wilmot" (female). We hadn't heard of it before but guessed it was perhaps derived from William. A bit of research revealed the name was most common in Devonshire and had perhaps come out of Cornwall. I presume that "Isett" and variants was a diminutive of Isabel with an s instead of a b as quoted above?

  2. Very interesting. This has also answered a question. A friend has just discovered she has an ancestor named "Wilmot" (female). We hadn't heard of it before but guessed it was perhaps derived from William. A bit of research revealed the name was most common in Devonshire and had perhaps come out of Cornwall. I presume that "Isett" and variants was a diminutive of Isabel with an s instead of a b as quoted above?

  3. Devon and Cornwall are a bit of a law unto themselves, but Isot[a] was a common diminutive of Iselda/Iseult, a good Cornish name, rather than Isabel. Wilmot may be supposed to derive from a diminutive of Willemin, the anglicised version of Wilhelmina or Guillemin. -ot is a diminutive for either sex [viz Lancelot, a double diminutive of Lanzo]. I would not, however, rule out a diminutive of Gilda, or of Gilota/Julian/Gillian with the transposition of G and W. However, I should think that a variant of William is most likely. As you say, Cornwall's chosen diminutive for William was Wilmot, and it remained popular as a boy's given name into the 18th century. Of course the name might also have been given by a father who wanted a boy, as in Emily Bronte's 'Shirley' the eponymous book precipitating that male name into female usage... I have to assume it was generally male since the high instance of it appearing would be unlikely in an era where women do not often appear on written records and digging out names can be challenging.