Tuesday May 16, 2006

On of Nazareth

I just wanted to amplify a bit on a point in two recent Language Log posts by Mark Liberman and Bill Poser about the use of geographical epithets as surnames, inspired in particular by Poser's comment about James Van Allen's surname.  To those who object to the use of da Vinci since it's a prepositional phrase, I have an example for you to consider that might convince you to soften your position.  Ready?

The name is D'Artagnan.  Artagnan is a real location in south-western France, so d'Artagnan is just as much a prepositional phrase as da Vinci.  Dumas's famous fictional character, based on a real guy by the same name (who together share a Wikipedia entry) is the Count of that place.  He is never referred to as Artagnan or even Comte d'Artagnan—according to my cursory grep through the text, at least—even though the latter is an important plot point in the first novel.  He is simply d'Artagnan all through the text, to the extent that I doubt most people could tell you what his first name was.

I think we have to accept that surnames, epithets, noms de guerre, etc. have all come from somewhere, sometimes through processes of grammaticalization that defy our intuitions about just how, properly, they should be formed.  Think of it as descriptivism in action.

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There is a rather simple rule in French about the geographical surnames : we keep the preposition if the location name is monosyllabic or begins with a vowel, otherwise we drop it. So De Thou and D'Artagnan, but Tocqueville, Chateaubriand, Villepin. Euphony seems to be the main reason, maybe also the fact that French words tended to be originally rather short and there were risks of confusion between a proper name and a common word without the preposition. The tendency is now to always keep the preposition, but that is still perceived as a fault by educated French speakers. Pardon my English.

Posted by: D Filippi at May 17, 2006 12:29:22 AM

The retention of the preposition in surnames based on place may just be a French practice. If I recall correctly, in The Island of the Day Before the main character, Roberto della Griva, is generally referred to as "La Griva," except to the French characters, who call him "de la Grive."

So the question is, "What's the English practice?"

Posted by: includedmiddle at May 17, 2006 4:45:25 AM

I doubt most people could tell you what his first name was

There's a good reason for that. Dumas never provided a first name according to the Wikipedia article. From what I recall, this is accurate.

The story goes that Dumas was going to use the name Nicholas but disliked. At the urging of his publisher, he removed the first name completely, so the hero is always referred to as d'Artagnan.

Posted by: sigg at May 17, 2006 5:59:48 AM

There's no doubt that "van Gogh" and "de Villepin" are surnames pure and simple; what's at issue is that with mediaeval Italians the toponymic isn't considered a surname even though they're well into the period when other countries have developed surnames, and other artists like Raffaelle Sanzio and Carlo Crivelli had them.

Posted by: nw at May 17, 2006 7:15:49 AM

LL are too good for comments, so I'll say it here. A surname is a surname if it is passed through generations, whether or not it has the sense of "of {place}". "Van Gogh" and "van Beethoven" seem to fit in this category. Alexis was count of Tocqueville; that (nobility) is yet another category. Don't even get me started on "Jesus of Nazareth".

Posted by: komfo,amonan at May 17, 2006 7:33:42 AM

My gosh, you're hard-coding in an extra space after each of your sentences. I've never seen anyone be so unnecessarily stubborn.

There's a reason HTML ignores consecutive spaces: They're obsolete. Sure, they taught us to type two spaces after each sentence when we were in high-school typing class—but that's because our typewriters had fixed-width characters, and extra spaces were necessary to distinguish the ends of sentences.

People who design modern proportional fonts go to a lot of trouble to include precise kerning (spacing) tables for all possible character combinations—including punctuation. This allows characters to "nest" according to their shapes and obviates the need to double-space. Forcing extra spaces actually creates an odd "pitted" effect that makes text less legible.

Open some books and magazines, find examples of left-aligned text, and see how many spaces there are between sentences. Do you have trouble figuring out where one sentence ends and another begins? Maybe it's time for those reading glasses.

Cheers, Ander

Posted by: Ander at May 17, 2006 11:41:37 PM

My gosh, you're hard-coding in an extra space after each of your sentences.

Actually, that's done automatically when I save from TypePad's blog post editor. Typing two spaces after a period is built into my hands—too late to change now.

For a good time, see if you can puzzle out when I type two spaces after a colon, and when I type one. There is a pattern, and I believe I'm pretty consistent.

I've never seen anyone be so unnecessarily stubborn.

<blush>Well, thank you!</blush>

There's a reason HTML ignores consecutive spaces: They're obsolete.

Actually, HTML ignores spaces because that's what the SGML standard says. The only rationale I can find in the text is:

White space functions are used in separator strings to make the document markup more readable. They are either discarded when the markup is parsed, or they are "normalized" into a single space so that markup strings can be compared without regard to record boundaries, spaces, etc. (The SGML Handbook, Charles F. Goldfarb, 1990)

Posted by: The Tensor at May 18, 2006 2:38:23 AM

Ander, you seem unnecessarily combative. Some of us prefer two spaces after periods, for whatever reason, and that's our right, even if you and the SGML standard-makers disagree. Try to accept differences of opinion without resorting to insults.

As for Bill Poser, I wrote him pointing out the difference between locative expressions like "da Vinci" and family names, but he has neither modified his post nor responded. Maybe he's out of town.

Posted by: language hat at May 18, 2006 7:01:16 AM

People with French and Italian prepositional surnames are known with the preposition because contained within their names is an implicit "the one" (from Vinci, from Artagnan, etc.) that can't really be translated into English.

The preposition doesn't only proceed a place name in some European languages, but also represents a patronymic ("the son born of", like "mac" and "o'" in Gaelic).

Incidentally, Leonardo da Vinci is so famous in Italy that he, like Cher, is known by his first name only.

Posted by: Katy at May 22, 2006 2:17:23 PM

nw: that (nobility) is yet another category.

In British English, the name of a noble's seat is used as a familiar form of address. Anyone with a modest recollection of Shakespear will remember his kings addressing other nobles as 'Gloucester', 'Hastings' etc.
I have a patchy recollection of one member of the current British royal family referring to Prince Andrew as 'York'.

However, this is definitely a familiar form, not available to commoners like me.

Posted by: at May 23, 2006 12:26:02 AM

Leonardo da Vinci is so famous in Italy that he, like Cher, is known by his first name only.

I'm sure you know this, but he only had a first name -- he didn't have a family name, being illegitimate.

Incidentally, I've heard back from Bill Poser; he's been busy moving but will revisit the locative-name issue.

Posted by: language hat at May 23, 2006 6:39:22 AM

You seem to use two spaces after a colon when quoting someone, and one space when giving an explanation for something.

Posted by: david at Jun 21, 2006 3:12:49 PM

What's been confusing me lately is names of people from various Arabic-speaking countries -- I often can't tell if the second part of their name is a surname or not. It's often obviously a patronymic or a toponymic, or some other sort of epithet, but that doesn't necessarily prevent it from being a surname. As a random example, the musician Omar El Maghribi is "Omar from the Maghreb" (he's from Morocco), but is El Maghribi his surname or just an epithet?

Posted by: Vasha at Jun 22, 2006 12:44:40 PM