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Observations concerning patronymic naming conventions and customs in East Frisia (Ostfriesland)


[1]Nomenclature in East Frisia

Observations concerning patronymic naming conventions and customs in East Frisia (Ostfriesland). (This paper was given as part of the Athenaeum series of historiographical seminars, inaugurating a project to collate the historical and extant patronyms – both personal and family names - of East Frisia.)


[2]Much historiographical confusion has been sown by the proliferation of naming conventions, and the consequent multiplicity of name-variants applied to the same family, place, or person (over and beyond mere variations in spelling) in Frisia during the middle ages. Suitably, the very names “Frisia”, “Frisia Magna”, of “West-“, “North-“, and “East-Frisia” are attended by a degree of controversy[3].

Of the three main categories of names – toponyms , personal, and family names – the first is largely, although not entirely, beyond the scope of this paper. The preponderance of attention here will accrue around the names of people, rather than places. Having said that, however, we must admit from the start that there is considerable overlap even in this area. Toponyms, clearly, form the basis for many family names, whether it be in the style or titles used by landed individuals and families, or as the sole demonstrable derivation of a commonly-held surname.

Whilst the majority of Frisian surnames recorded during the middle ages are patronymic or toponymic in origin, a fact suggestive of a certain continuity as regards their use by their bearers, an interesting finding arising out of the preliminary research for this paper has been the interchangeability of surnames. This factor is complicated in some instances by the phenomenon of dormant surnames, which is to say, surnames “held” by a family but not always or even mainly used by all that family´s members in their official documentation.

This interchangeability factor was widespread, often but not exclusively happening when a family´s male line died out and the heirs assumed the name of the family whose property they inherited or succeeded to - and, more often than not, whose bloodline they continued in the female line. The second phenomenon, that of dormant surnames, meant that established surnames, having been used by a family for some time, may have lain, unused or “dormant”, sometimes across generations, prior to being revived by a later member of the same family.

Examples of each of these will be given, cursorily, in the paper which follows, with a view to identifying the most “telling” examples, and to helping us to establish guidelines for the working groups which will deepen the inquiry when the project proper gets underway; more detailed lists and references will be collated separately.

(1) This is the short-hand reference to a seminar held by the lecturer together with Dr B. Jones.

[2] ´The seminar was opened by the lecturer, who, to set the ball rolling, remarked, “A name denotes an entity; and the entity is the meaning of its name.”  Some of my fellow students, somewhat taken aback at this curt commencement, fell victim to their nerves and laughed. The lecturer was startled at their laughter and asked to know its cause. When one of them explained it, in an unsatisfactory, hesitating way, the lecturer exclaimed, “To be worthy of the name of student, you must first endeavour to embody the term´s entity. If you cannot do that, my dear, there may soon be no more of you to teach.” ` (Student contribution)

[3] The controversy takes on a number of forms, not necessarily etymological ones. Regarding “Frisia Magna”, for example, the difficulty is not with the name qua  name, but with the geographical entity the name is meant to denote.

The Harlingerland Project