How to teach advanced level onomastics to students with little or no prior knowledge of the subject?

by Alexandra Petrulevich

Onomastics as a teaching subject in the Nordic countries

Onomastics as an academic teaching subject has seen major cuts in the number of available courses and generally teaching hours in the Nordics in the past two decades. According to the 2002 ICOS report on the availability of onomastics courses in Universities and other institutions of higher education in selected countries (Helleland & Gerritzen 2002), courses in name studies were offered at both bachelor’s and master’s levels in most of the larger public universities in Norway (Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim and Tromsø) and Sweden (Göteborg, Lund, Stockholm, Umeå and Uppsala). (No overview of the situation in Denmark, Finland or Iceland is provided in the report.)

The situation twenty years later is completely the opposite. In the Språkstatus 2021 report, the Norwegian Språkrådet states that there are no courses in name studies offered on regular basis in Norway despite the obvious need for onomastician skills in state administration and broadly the governmental sector. The situation is somewhat different in Sweden, but the general tendency is the same: onomastics as an academic teaching subject is being slowly dismantled. In Stockholm and Umeå, there are bachelor’s courses focusing on particular branches of onomastics, above all place-names, but also personal names (Stockholm). Halmstad University and Halmstad Municipality offered a collaborative course Namn i språk och samhälle (‘Names in language and society’) 2019. As a rule, these courses are not offered on a regular basis. Onomastics survives in many more places through dedicated teaching hours within the frame of other courses such as language history. At master’s level, there are currently two courses offered in Sweden, in Stockholm and Uppsala, but only Uppsala offers the course on a regular basis, every second year.

Onomastics as a teaching subject at Uppsala University, Sweden

In Uppsala, more specifically, at the Department of Scandinavian languages, there are no compulsory or optional onomastics courses at the bachelor’s level. Some onomastic material is however included into at least two bachelor’s courses such as The Emergence of the Swedish Language and Language Policy. Interested students can also take a popular summer course in onomastics, Place-names and Personal Names.

In general, the teaching situation implies that students can complete a bachelor’s degree in Swedish, Swedish as a Second Language or Scandinavian Languages with little to zero points in onomastics. Consequently, the dedicated course at the master’s level, Onomastics, has to cover the advanced level material such as a variety of theoretical and methodological approaches to different types of empirical name data as well as basic terminology. This obviously poses a major challenge to the teacher, especially considering that the advanced level courses include fewer teaching hours (18 hours or 9 classes á 2 teaching hours) compared to the bachelor’s courses. The main question of this blog entry is thus how to teach onomastics at advanced level to students with little or no prior knowledge of the subject?

In the following, I present the four main steps I have taken to overcome the challenge described above.

1. Pre-recorded lectures

The first step was to include pre-recorded lectures into the teaching design. The lectures in question were divided into two groups. The first group included the lectures introducing the seven themes of the course: 1) what a name is; 2) names, variation and language change; 3) names and linguistic landscapes; 4) commercial names and name commodification; 5) etymological analysis of place-names; 6) personal names and social history; and 7) personal names and identity. One more lecture introducing the field work assignment and the final examination assignment of the course was also included into this group.

In the lectures, I covered basic terminology relevant to the topic as well as topic-specific material included into the course literature. Additional literature was introduced in each lecture to offer more niched, specialized content to those students who already had or could develop a special interest in a theme. The lecture slides published separately always included references where appropriate and a literature list at the end.

The second group included optional introductory lectures of the bachelor’s level. The lectures in question, one general one, two on place-names and two more on personal names, introduced the basic terminology and other basic material usually covered at a beginner’s course in names studies. The general length of the lectures was about an hour, from 50 to 75 minutes.

Figure 1. One of the introductory pre-recorded lecture slides explaining the concept of propriality.

The pre-recorded lectures have several advantages. They allow to introduce more complex literature to, essentially, beginners because these can include thorough reviews and explanations of the course literature, also connecting the different items on the reading list to each other – a task that otherwise can cause difficulties in the classroom.

The compulsory pre-recorded lectures extend the available teaching time. They also introduce all the key items or points to be made in class and thus allow the teacher to give proper attention to any questions the students still might have after watching the lectures and reading the literature – and of course to in-class discussion, practical assignments and other elements of training.

Finally, the lectures can be consulted at any time and any difficult passage can be re-watched multiple times. I have received positive feedback on the lectures from the students, especially second language speakers, because of the possibility to “go back” and listen again and again.

2. Tie up basics to the more advanced theoretical and methodological overviews

There is no way a piece of advanced research literature can be understood without the basics. The current teaching situation in Uppsala implies the students of advanced level onomastics have little opportunity to encounter basic onomastic terminology at the bachelor’s level.

For this reason, the teacher cannot expect the students to make connections between the basics and the more advanced features of a research article and thus for instance to see how the definition of a name, or rather of names vs. non-names, affects the research design and ultimately the results of the research. This type of analysis and reasoning needs to be consciously introduced by the teacher – and to be supported by practical training throughout the course.

In the Onomastics course in Uppsala, such introduction was taken care of in the pre-recorded lectures as well as in guided in-class discussions. The supporting elements included take-home assignments to analyse research articles in accordance with a pre-formulated schema: a) objectives and research questions; b) data collection and methods for data collection; c) theoretical framework; d) analysis methods; e) results and conclusions as well as any explicit or implicit links between a), b), c), d), and e). Additionally, the pre-recorded lectures included elements of re-cap in order to capitalize on the basic knowledge received in previous lectures and to build further on this foundation, see Figure 2.

Figure 2. Follow-up pre-recorded lecture slide on propriality and language change.

3. Straightforward links to what the students already know/are expected to know

Another important aspect to actively take advantage of in the classroom situation of beginners learning advanced content is to establish links to other concepts, theoretical frameworks and methods the students are expected to know or to be acquainted with from previous generalist or specialized courses on e.g. grammar, dialectology, language variation, sociolinguistics, semantic theory, multimodal discourse analysis etc.

In such a way, the “onomastically specific” application of theoretical concepts or methods can hook into the already existing knowledge framework to speed up the learning process – and once again to build further on the general knowledge the students already possess. One such example outlined the main challenges of the linguistic landscapes research field in relation to the four generally accepted concepts of good research practice, i.e. replicability, reliability, representativity, and validity, see Figure 3.

Although the concepts in question were assumed to be known to students, the introductory lecture included short definitions. Once again, the introduction made in the dedicated pre-recorded lecture was supported by an in-class discussion as well as by a field work class that included a reflection assignment prompting the students to reflect on their own data collection work in relation to the abovementioned concepts.

Figure 3. Pre-recorded lecture slide on the main challenges of the linguistic landscapes field

4. Extracurricular teaching through collaboration with workplaces

Finally, the optional extracurricular teaching through workplace visits and workplace presentations is another way to enhance the student’s knowledge building as well as to further support their knowledge processing. In the Onomastics course, two optional workplace visits and one optional workplace presentation were included that most of the students chose to attend.

In the workplace visits to the Place-name archives at the Institute for language and folklore, Uppsala, and to Lantmäteriet, the Swedish National Mapping, Cadastre and Land Registry Authority, Gävle, the students had an opportunity to learn how professional onomasticians use the taught skills in practice when they carry out basic research or background research for any type of place- or personal-name related issues.

These sessions proved valuable and gave insight into the actual work processes in situ as well into the practical value of the acquired onomastic skills. In both cases, the presentations held by the staff at the governmental authorities complemented the discussions and the skills training conducted within the course.

Concluding remarks

To sum up, the current minimal entry requirements and broad design of the master’s level course in onomastics at Uppsala University pose challenges – but this set-up undoubtedly also has a number of advantages. The main challenge introduced in the beginning of this entry concerns the lack of previously acquired basic onomastics skills including terminological acquaintance on behalf of the students.

Essentially, one has to teach advanced materials to beginners. Additionally, the specific course design can be perceived as unfocused and somewhat “unruly” reminding of the Swedish buffet-style meal, smorgasbord, because multiple, different perspectives and onomastic sub-disciplines are introduced. At the same time, these are underpinned e.g. by the concept of propriality that constitutes a recurring common denominator and appears in many shapes throughout the course.

On the positive side, the generous entry requirements combined with an extensive course design have the advantage of attracting heterogeneous cohorts of students. It is important to offer broad courses in order to keep onomastics going as an academic discipline and as an academic teaching subject.

Onomastics is an extremely broad international field of studies. However, traditional forms of teaching within the context of Scandinavian studies in the Nordics used to lean heavily on the aspects of Nordic language history leaving “the rest” unvoiced and unattended. A broad onomastic portfolio implies there is place for emerging or maturing sub-fields such as commercial name studies or linguistic landscapes – as well as for traditional branches of onomastics such as historical toponomastics.

Finally, the advantage of teaching master’s students lies in their ability to quickly grasp the general patterns and to apply the introduced methods or lines of argumentation independently in new contexts. The teaching progression at the advanced level can thus be quicker compared to a bachelor’s course – despite little or no prior knowledge of the subject.


  • Helleland, B., & Gerritzen, D. (2002). Academic courses on onomastics. I A. A. Boullón Agrelo (Red.), Actas do XX Congreso Internacional de Ciencias Onomásticas: Santiago, 1999 (s. 55-81). Fundación Pedro Barrié de la Maza.
  • Språkstatus (2021). Høgare utdanning. Språkrådet.

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