Proper noun (contact)

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nome proprio | nom propre | Eigenname


In contact scenarios, proper names represent a special subset of nominals that exhibit special behaviors when compared to the open class of nouns. Proper nouns, with special reference to ancient languages, can be divided in a few main categories:

  • geographical names, or toponyms, including names of towns, regions, polities, landscape markers;
  • personal names, or anthoponyms;
  • divine names, or theonyms

Their peculiarity depends on the possible conservative resistance towards sound change (especially for toponyms and theonyms) and on their general resistance towards translation, which triggers processes that help highlight the tendencies for adaptation of foreign phonetics.

The opposite scenario is however also well represented: when toponyms do undergo sound changes after a change in the endemic or official language, the original etymology may be concealed and, when unearthed, it may reveal a palimpsest of codes that replaced one another in a given location.

Furthermore, variations in proper nouns is a precious tool for the study of the historical and linguistic evolution or regions. Changes in toponymy, for instance, are strongly conducive to the identification of changes either in the official language or in the linguistic demography of an area, while people bearing different names in multilingual inscriptions clearly indicate some degree of true or political diglossia.


In the bilingual Greek-Phoenician KAI I, 42, a figure called Ba‘alšillem in Phoenician bears the name ΠΡΑΞIΔHMOΣ in the Greek version of the text. In spite of former attempts at explaining the correspondence as a form of calque or translation, the rendering is, in all likelihood, the result of phonetic adaptation, possibly with an attempt at folk-etymologically employing Greek morphs (Giusfredi 2018). This process indicates not only that there was an adstratal relationship of Greek and Phoenician in Cyprus, but also that the prestige of Greek was increasing during the age of the Ptolemaic domination, which is confirmed by the historical data we possess.

As for toponymy, the morphology of Hattian toponyms in Old Assyrian texts represents a very interesting indicator of the rising prestige of Hittite during the final stage of the Middle Bronze Age, when toponyms such as Hattuš start being thematized as vocalic stems already in some Akkadian texts (e.g. in the Mari Letter M.8426+9046, cf. Klinger 1996, 88), resulting in the form Hattuša. This happened roughly during the age in which the kingdom of Hatti was becoming a significant polity in Central Anatolia.


Giusfredi, F. 2018. ON PHOENICIANS IN PTOLEMAIC CYPRUS: A NOTE ON CIS I 95. Vicino Oriente XXII, 111-120. Klinger, J. 1996. Untersuchungen zur Rekonstruktion der hattischen Kultschicht, Wiesbaden.