Anglo-Saxon names

When it came to selecting names for their children, the Anglo-Saxons did not have the Old English equivalent of a 'baby naming book'. Which is to say, that they did not have a predefined list of names, rather they constructed names out of a stock of specific 'naming words' deemed suitable for the purpose, that described particular admirable qualities. This may well have been a survival of pre-Christian ideas when it was believed that an individual's name somehow contained the spirit or essence of a person's soul.

Because the names were personal to each individual, there does not appear to be any tradition of family names, and hence the king lists for many of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, show little in the way of duplication of names - there are two Osrics, two Aelfwalds and two Aethelreds in Northumbria, two Ceolwulfs and another two Aethelreds for Mercia; but they were all separated by a number of generations and often only distantly related to one another. This is in marked contrast to the later Norman tradition when families adopted certain personal names with a vengeance, so that generation after generation of children were all named from a very limited stock of names. Hence in many families the same personal name reiterates down the generations. It is not until the tenth century, and with the Royal House of Wessex, that certain names seem to have been adopted as family names, so that we see a recurrence of names such as 'Alfred/Aelfraed', Athelstan/Aethelstan', 'Edmund/Eadmund' and 'Edward/Eadweard'.

Anglo-Saxon Name Construction

Anglo-Saxon names were constructed by selecting a suitable combination of prefix and suffix to produce an appropriate appellation; hence os - 'god' and ric - 'ruler' would be combined to give Osric which should probably be understood to mean something like 'holy king'. Set out below are lists of the most common naming words used;

Prefix

  • aelf - elf
  • aethel - noble
  • blith - cheerful
  • ceol - keel, ship
  • coen - fierce
  • cuth - renowned
  • cwic - alive
  • ead - rich
  • eald - old
  • earn - eagle
  • ecg - sword
  • fri - free
  • gold - gold
  • grim - savage, fierce
  • haem - home
  • haeth - heath
  • heah - illustrious
  • hreth - victory
  • hroth - fame
  • hyg - couragous
  • iaru - prepared
  • leof - desirable, friendly
  • os - god
  • rath - clever
  • saex - sword

Suffix

  • bald - bold
  • berht - bright
  • beorn - warrior
  • ferth - mind, soul, life, person
  • flaed - beauty
  • frith - peace
  • gar - spear
  • gifu - gift
  • gyth - war
  • helm - protector
  • hild - war
  • hun - young bear
  • lid - gentle
  • maer - famous
  • mund - hand, protection
  • raed - counsel, wisdom
  • ric - ruler
  • sig - victory
  • stan - stone
  • swith - strong
  • thryth - force
  • walh - foreigner cf Welsh
  • weald - power
  • weard - guardian
  • wine - friend
  • wulf - wolf
  • wyn - joy

Rendering 'Old English' into 'New English'

As it happens, when the seventh century English adopted Christianity and thereby became 'literate' they discovered that the existing Latin alphabet wasn't sufficient for their purposes, and therefore imported or adapted a number of runic characters to supplement the standard Roman alphabet. Old English therefore includes such additional letters as thorn 'þ' and eth 'ð' and the ligature 'æ'.

As these letters were later abandoned when Old English changed into Middle English and then Modern English, this gives rise to a problem when rendering Anglo-Saxon names into the English of the present day. Various historians and scholars have adopted a variety of solutions over the years, no doubt prompted by differing opinions over how Old English really should be pronounced. (To further complicate matters, Old English sources are not necessarily consistent in their spelling of names in the first place and there exist variations between the different dialects of Mercia, Wessex and Northumbria.) Therefore the name 'Æþelred' may appear in Modern English texts in a variety of guises such as 'Ethelred' as in Ethelred the Unready, or indeed as Aethelred, Athelred, Ethelred or Æthelred.

The current fashion is to be as 'authentic' as possible when rendering foreign names into English and hence Peking has become Beijing and Boadicea has become Boudicca. Since to all practical intents and purposes Old English is a foreign language as far as Modern English is concerned, the same principles apply. Therefore, more modern works of history tend to talk of Ecgberht rather than Egbert, but much is down to the individual prejudices and opinions of the author.

There are however limits to how far even the most devoted Anglo-Saxonist will go in pursuing the cause of authentic names; which is to say that as far as some names are concerned, their modern equivalents are so well entrenched within the popular consciousness that there appears little point in confusing everybody by seeking to introduce are more 'correct' alternative. Hence, even though his name was really 'Aelfraed' (that is elf-counsel), it is always Alfred the Great, and similarly names such as 'Eadweard' and 'Eadmund' continue to be rendered as Edward and Edmund.

In terms of deciding how Anglo-Saxon names should be recorded I have simply adopted the rule of following whatever the version of the name that appears in the A Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age Britain, Ann Williams, Alfred P. Smyth and D. P. Kirby (Seaby, 1991). With the exception that whereas this source adopts the modern fashion of retaining the "ae" ligature wherever that appears, I do not. This is because, firstly whereas that I can see an argument for displaying a name using the full Old English character set as 'Æþelred', but rendering it as Æthelred seems to be to be something of a mongrel concoction; why change one runic character and not the other? (Presumably this is because the ae character looks like a joined up a and e, and therefore seems vaguely intelligible to the modern eye whilst still conveying a suitably 'authentic' old world charm.) For consistency's sake it seems more sensible simply to use 26 letters of the current alphabet. Secondly it just seems more practical, as it avoids having to type 'alt+0198 thelfrith' into the Search Box.


SOURCES

  • Englisce Naman (Old English Names) at http://crh.choate.edu/English/deaston/de_engliscenaman.htm and http://www.erda.ws/oldenglish.html
  • Etymological Elements in First Names - Elements in Germanic Names http://www.behindthename.com/elements.html
  • Anglo-Saxon Names http://www.behindthename.com/nmc/eng-anci.html

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.