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Reviewed by:
  • Theory and typology of proper names
  • John Algeo
Theory and typology of proper names. By Willy van Langendonck. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2007. Pp. xvi, 378. ISBN 9783110190861. $132.30 (Hb).

This book is a recent and comprehensive survey of theoretical approaches to the study of proper names. As such, anyone engaged in that endeavor must take account of what Willy van [End Page 670] Langendonck has done here because his overview of the field is extensive, detailed, and critical. This is a book to contend with. The author is a Dutch linguist and onomatologist at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven noted for his extensive work in onomastic theory and studies.

The book has four long chapters bookended by a short 'General introduction' (1–5) and an equally short 'General summary and conclusions' (321–25), followed by notes (326–41), references (342–69), and a subject index (370–78). The first two chapters deal with the definition and description of proper names: 'Nominal and referential-semantic status of proper names' (6–118) and 'Formal characteristics of proper names' (119–82). The third chapter, 'Typology of proper names' (183–255), surveys the subtypes of such names. The fourth chapter, 'Dialinguistic aspects of Flemish personal names' (256–320), is an extended case study of one sort of names in one language.

The most challenging and potentially useful part of the book is Ch. 1, which surveys and critiques earlier efforts to define and characterize the category of proper names and which posits L's own definition of the category. Approaches to defining any category are of two types: realist or nominalist. Realism is, in a definition from Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate Dictionary, 'the conception that an abstract term names an independent and unitary reality'. Nominalism is similarly defined as 'a theory. . . that the mind can frame no single concept or image corresponding to any universal or general term'. Realism proposes that a category has logical (and perhaps ontological) priority over the constituent members of that category. Nominalism proposes that a category is an empirical concept derived from the observation of specific facts, which therefore have ontological priority and could have been classified and conceptualized in other ways just as well.

In the study of proper names, realism entails the view that in any language, and indeed perhaps in language universally, there exists a unified class of proper-name lexemes with semantic, grammatical, and perhaps other systematic features in common. That proper names are in some sense universals is widely recognized. What is moot is whether they are a unified class across languages or even within a single language. Realistic onomastic theory holds that they are. If they are, the question 'What is a proper name?' ought to have a single correct answer. Although L does not deal explicitly with the question of realism versus nominalism, his approach to proper names is based on a realist assumption. Thus he says that his presentation 'leads us to a unified theory of proper names in which a pragmatic, a semantic and a syntactic account are integrated' (87).

Nominalism in name study, by contrast, supposes that the concept 'proper name' can be defined differently, not only in different languages, but also even within a single language, depending on the particular aspects of the language (semantics, syntax, morphology, phonology, or orthography) that the definer chooses to focus upon (Algeo 1973, 1985).

It seems unlikely that there is any objective way to choose between a realist and a nominalist approach to name study—or to anything else for that matter. One may recall Sir William Gilbert's lyrics in Iolanthe: 'I often think it's comical—Fal, lal, la! / How Nature always does contrive—Fal, lal, la! / That every boy and every gal / That's born into the world alive / Is either a little Liberal / Or else a little Conservative! / Fal, lal, la!'. It seems that we are also born either a little nominalist or else a little realist. De gustibus non disputandum, and similarly with genes.

L's own definition of proper name is 'a noun that denotes a unique entity at the level of established linguistic convention to make it psychosocially salient within a...


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