Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Discarded in translation

The mysterious wonder that is Elberry posted this piece of speculative reasoning about naming. As I related in the comments, this reminded me of how Welsh names developed as they have:

'In the middle ages there were very few male first names and people very rarely possessed surnames. This was fine as individuals were told apart by being named ’son of’ (in Welsh ‘ap’ or ‘ab’), working back through the generations to distinguish individuals as required.

However, when the English state started writing down the names of its Welsh subjects in the early modern period only the father’s name appeared as a surname, it being too long-winded to differentiate individuals by citing more than the immediately preceding generation (Price being derived from ‘ap rhys’ for example).

Of course, this new reliance on surnames derived from the patronym led to an immediate problem of differentiation. The lack of first names necessarily meant there was a lack of surnames.

This problem was addressed through the subsequent proliferation in Welsh of first names: I read somewhere that there were more in Welsh than in most other languages. But this hasn’t been sufficient. Occupations are brought into play: Jones the Steam, Evans the Garage.

Nevertheless, the problem to a degree remains: try Googling your typical Welshman and you’ll come up with a horde of others with the same name. As for the women, I’m not sure how they fit into this history.'


(I believe this to be true but I'm unable to cite any authority to confirm it. I can't even remember how I got to know it).

So colonial caprice, or more probably bureaucratic insensitivity, turned Wales from somewhere with very few first names to one with very many. An unintended consequence.

Some other instances of where the insensitivity, ignorance or carelessness of a colonial power resulted in nomenclatural SNAFUs:

River Avon:  Avon is from 'afon', Welsh for river. So it's River River. I can imagine a swarthy, crafty-eyed, little Silurian being asked 'What's that?' by some Saes and answering in his native tongue, 'It's a river, you silly bugger'. 'What?'. 'River!'. 'Very well, my good man. Now fuck off. Sergeant, mark it on the map: River "Avon"'.

Kangaroo: similar situation, really, as I understand it means 'Sorry, haven't a clue' in an Aboriginal dialect.

Frunze: the capital of Kyrghizstan was re-named after a Bolshevik revolutionary who happened to have been born there. This was in 1926 shortly after said-revolutionary had almost certainly been murdered on the orders of Comrade Stalin. Of relevance here as there is no letter 'f' in the Kyrghiz language.

I suppose the subject peoples could get very angry about this sort of thing.

Should we worry about these little memorials to the usually unknown and always rather confused bureaucrat? They are certainly testament to the fact that adventurers in all fields often don't know what the fuck they're doing.

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