On Kevin, Elizabeth, Dieter and Emma – anthroponyms in linguistics

By Jonas Schreiber
FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg & contributor to Brill’s Linguistic Bibliography

Names are something very special and fascinating from a linguistic point of view: they refer ideally only to one single entity, are therefore inherent definite – i.e. names don’t necessarily have to carry an article –, are mostly characterized by formal salience compared to other words in language, and matter enormously concerning cultural and sociological issues such as cultural identity or sociolinguistic attitudes towards some individuals with certain names. For instance, Kevin, a rather common boys’ name, was in German media discussed to be more like a diagnosis for a so called ‘problem child’ than an actual name. This discussion started in 2012 after Julia Kube handed in her sensation causing master thesis at the Carl von Ossietzky Universität, Oldenburg, on first names and teachers’ attitudes or prejudices regarding those.

With that, rather unsurprisingly, linguists are obviously still and constantly busy to explore the nature of names and the functions they have in languages of the world, as you will see in the following graphic on ‘Anthroponymy’ in Linguistic Bibliography Online (LBO). Over 7.500 records are labelled with this classification subject:

As already mentioned above, the study of anthroponyms can reveal a lot about ongoing cultural developments within a society. One aspect of names seems to be prominent there: names carry information about gender, mostly there is each a set of typical girls’ or boys’ names and a certain difference of structure between those sets tell us, whether a name belongs to a boy or to a girl.

However, Nübling (2012) for instance found out that first names in Germany since 1945 have developed to a more commonly approximated androgynous sound pattern. This is particularly evident in the phonological and prosodic difference between German male and female names, which seems to have diminished over time. Frequencies of names like Elizabeth or Dieter have been decreasing, numbers for names like Emma or Leon have increased.

Long story short: The study shows, that since 1945 an onymic weakening of names concerning explicit gender marking – especially in the 70s and 90s – has taken place. There is thus a strong suspicion that cultural developments like emancipation or gender equality movements in Germany in the 70s and 90s went along with structural harmonization for both, boys’ or girls’ names, towards a common androgynous sound pattern.

I took this as a reason to have also a quick look at the lists of linguists’ names in the LBO database. The list contains 24.462 different names from countries all over the world. Though rather evenly distributed I made a top 50 ranking to share with you and here is what we have: the trends in first names of all linguists in LBO:



Dahm-Brey, Corinna: Ungleiche Bildungschancen schon durch Vornamen? – Studie zu Vorurteilen und Vorannahmen von Lehrern

Kaiser, Astrid: Vornamenstudien http://astrid-kaiser.de/forschung/projekte/vornamensstudien.php

Nübling, Damaris: Von Elisabeth zu Lilly, von Klaus zu Nico : Zur Androgynisierung und Infantilisierung der Rufnamen von 1945 bis 2008. In: Genderlinguistik : Sprachliche Konstruktionen von Geschlechtsidentität / Hrsg. von Susanne Günthner ; Dagmar Hüpper ; Constanze Spieß. – Berlin : De Gruyter, 2012. – viii, 450 p. – (Linguistik – Impulse & Tendenzen ; 45), p. 319-358.

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