Surnames, Genes and Genealogy

BBC - Surnames, Genes and Genealogy - 4. Going through the 1800 barrier
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Programme 4: Going through the 1800 barrier

There had been 'second' names even among the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, although they were usually content with just a personal name for these were sufficiently varied to distinguish one person from another. Historians and linguists, however, still debate the exact times of the origins of surnames introduced by the Norman barons. No one knows exactly why they became hereditary, and the circumstances in which individuals chose their name - or had it chosen for them by their neighbours - are seldom explicit. In fact most ordinary people did not acquire a fixed, hereditary surname until the thirteenth or fourteenth century, as the fashion spread gradually down the social scale, and some names were not formed until much later. The Welsh had their own naming system until they turned to English methods after the Act of Union in 1536. The Lowland Scots shared northern English practices, but the Gaelic tradition in Ireland and Highland Scotland was very different.

We need the special skills of linguists to see how surnames were formed and how they have changed over the centuries. Only they can identify the Anglo-Saxon and Viking personal names that became surnames or the pet forms of names that were formed from Norman French and Middle English. They can also tell us which words changed their meaning over time, so that we know that Daft meant 'meek', not 'silly', when the surname was formed and that Freelove was an Anglo-Saxon personal name, not a nickname for a philanderer.

The traditional approach of the linguist was to find the earliest recorded examples of names so as to explain their meaning, and that remains a valid principle. Unfortunately no attempt was made to establish a direct link between those early forms and modern surnames, and no account was taken of the Black Death, which had a huge impact on the stock of English family names, destroying many and confining others to just one family. Distribution maps can demonstrate how unlikely it is that many of those early references have any connection at all with the surnames they are said to explain. It is often painstaking genealogical work which reveals how names have changed over the centuries: Smallbehind became the more acceptable Smallbent, Vavasour was transformed into Bavister, and Gotobed was exchanged for Godfrey. But genealogists are often frustrated by the lack of adequate records before the reign of Queen Victoria in their search for ancestors. Those gaps in our knowledge may now be filled by DNA tests, which offer a new approach - one which can be used along with more traditional methods in our search for the origin of a family name and so help in the tracing of a family tree.

Programme 5: DNA - the final frontier? >>

Origins of surnames | The Black Death | The distribution of surnames | Tracing your family tree | DNA
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