Socio-onomastics is defined as the sociolinguistic study of names. It examines the use and variety of names through methods that demonstrate the social, cultural, and situational conditions in name usage. It focuses on name use in human interaction, i.e. topics such as variation in name use, why some names are avoided, which consequences a name can cause for the name bearer, how the name users themselves perceive their own name use, as well as attitudes toward names and name use.
Researchers in the network examine how the analysis of names in the present and in historical time
can provide important perspectives on structural problems, challenges and cultural developments such as globalization, migration, cultural diversity, urbanization, different groups’ inclusion or exclusion in society, majorities vs. minorities, and digitalization.
Names are important parts of society because they are linked to human, place and commercial identities and thus may affect ambient notions of identities and relationships – also at the macro level in a society. Examples include research on names’ implications for school improvement,
job applications, etc. Names can reflect important social structures and help to the understanding of structural problems, and through the study of historical material, we can better understand what’s going on at the present.
History of the research field
The interest in socio-onomastics began in the 1970s, and since then there has been conducted research on the topic with varied intensity within the Nordic region. In recent years, however, a renewed interest in the research area has shown: A publication as Carole Hough (ed.) “The Oxford Handbook of Names and Naming” (2016) has a separate chapter on socio-onomastics and Terhi Ainiala & Jan-Ola Östman (eds.) “Socioonomastics. The pragmatics of names” (2017) is a monograph on socio-onomastics and
pragmatics. Recently, there have also emerged several new theories and methods in related research areas that have the potential to contribute to a new development in the field of socio-onomastics.
The social variation in place names is a main topic in the study of toponymic competence. When we study people’s toponymic competence, we try to find out how many and what types of place names people of different ages, professions, and genders know in their home districts. Or we may examine which names or name variants people of different (place-)origin (i.e. natives and non-natives) use for specific places. So far, studies have mostly focused on rural villages rather than on towns or cities.
Socio-onomastic research into personal names also comprises the study of variation in the popularity of names. Especially the distribution of first name innovations (i.e., the name fashion) has been studied, but also name variation in different social classes and ethnic minorities, emphasizing issues of power and status. In addition, name-giving grounds as well as naming practices are also regarded as falling within the sphere of socioonomastic study. Situational variation is also prominent in the field of personal names: various names and name variants are used in different situations.
When it comes to studies of contemporary material, socio-onomastics use both qualitative methods, often interviews, and quantitative methods, often questionnaires. In socio-onomastic studies on personal names, statistical data of names and name bearers is often used. Data regarding naming motivations, name usage and attitudes toward names are also collected through surveys and interviews. However, methods such as observations and recordings of authentic interaction has been much less used, giving less possibility to study situated usage and meanings. Neither has the possibilities of digital data collection and crowd sourcing been used to any great extent. It is also possible to develop new methods for statistical analyses in accordance with existing tools that are used within other fields of research.
Despite the multifaceted research in socio-onomastics thus far, many areas have still hardly been touched upon. In the socio-onomastic study of place names, rural names have already been in focus for decades, but urban names still lack comprehensive research: in what ways are place names – both official and unofficial – used in multi-layered and often multilingual urban environments? How are places and companies named and modified to suit various groups in such urban environments? Similar questions apply to the study of personal names: how are they used in multilingual contexts? For example, studies on naming and name use in two- and multi-lingual families and the use of place names in multilingual environments are highly relevant and can help us to understand and analyze different groups’ and people’s identification with an area and with a society.
Commerce, inclusion, exclusion
Research into commercial names is still rather scarce due to the young age of the field, and socio-onomastic studies in this field are few. One of the most interesting questions is the study of the attitudes and stances people have toward commercial names and how people talk about commercial products and businesses in actual language use.
Another area of development is how the use of names may reflect different social groups, including minority inclusion or exclusion in society. Furthermore, digitalization brought new opportunities for people to create their own name and thus affect how they want to be identified by others which could potentially have far-reaching consequences for human relations and approaches to names, but this is still a relatively unexplored topic in socio-onomastics.
By combining historical and contemporary materials we can understand contemporary issues in a larger perspective, allow for a more problematized understanding of the phenomenon by diachronic perspectives, gain new insights to which name pattern that has historically led to which consequences and thereby perceive a better understanding of the present.