Advancing Onomastics? A postgraduate perspective

Rebecca Gregory, PhD student, School of English, University of Nottingham

It is the nature of research that as a field develops, so the skills and levels of knowledge required of researchers within that field must increase. As a first-year PhD student in onomastics, the thought of making an original and worthwhile contribution to a subject which is already so full of outstanding research is daunting, to say the least. Nomina is on its 36th volume, this year saw the SNSBI’s twenty-third annual conference, and 2013 saw the publication of Perceptions of Place, which re-assesses English place-name studies for the 21st century (Carroll and Parsons 2013). That’s not to mention the ongoing international scholarship, which many of us will be lucky enough to receive a sample of at the twenty-fifth ICOS conference in Glasgow this August.

We are very fortunate, however, to have a lot of support in our research journeys. This comes from all sources: from the ever-expanding online community of researchers, from other postgraduates and ECRs who know all too well the challenges we face, and also from those many academics who have decided to take us under their wings, to nurture us, and to raise another generation of onomasts to add to the fold. I am perhaps more fortunate than most, in that my own personal research journey began in the same year that the SNSBI first held a postgraduate workshop prior to its annual residential conference. My time in Glasgow was spent simultaneously feeling completely out of my depth as an MA student in a sea of exceptionally knowledgeable people, but also – to my complete astonishment – welcomed. It’s an incredibly disconcerting experience to make conversation over your breakfast beans on toast with people whose articles you have read and re-read, and who genuinely seem to be interested in what you have to say. My primary objective that weekend was not to make a fool out of myself. It is wonderful to be able to say that even now, over a year down the line, I have not yet met an onomast who made me look or feel stupid. I’ve made myself look stupid many times, but that’s a different matter entirely!

The first year of my PhD has also been marked by a “first” in postgraduate events: this time the Copenhagen—Glasgow PhD program’s Advancing Onomastic Research workshop, which took place this June. The dedication of the academics who organised this workshop is incredible, and the discussions it generated between students of multiple nationalities researching varied facets of onomastics were, I am confident in saying, invaluable to all of us, whatever the stage of our research. So, without further ado, I will take you through the two fantastic onomastics workshops I’ve attended this year, the first being the SNSBI’s second postgraduate workshop, and the second Advancing Onomastic Research.

SNSBI Postgraduate Workshop: Gregynog Hall, 2—4 April 2014

The workshop took place immediately before the main conference at Gregynog, and was organised by Emily Pennifold of the Centre for Advanced Welsh & Celtic Studies at the University of Wales, and jointly run by Emily and Dr David Parsons. The workshop built on some of the issues discussed at the 2013 workshop in Glasgow, incorporating sessions on some of the topics suggested by last year’s participants in a discussion about common problems we faced. Many students returned for this year’s workshop, along with some new faces, with researchers at all levels from MA to the late stages of PhD research.

Participants arrived on the afternoon of Wednesday 2nd April, and the remainder of the afternoon was spent introducing ourselves and our research to the rest of the group. This informal session helped to create a friendly and collaborative atmosphere, as well as to clarify the kinds of issues each participant hoped to discuss and the problems they were facing with their research or had faced in the past. Researchers had come to onomastics from different backgrounds, and areas of research were varied, and these differences proved throughout the workshop to be much more of an advantage than a hindrance. Discussion between researchers with different focus and priorities encourages interest in interdisciplinary research and in possible future collaborations, as well as demonstrating that particular research skills are equally important to those working in differing subject areas.


A tour of Gregynog’s amazing library

Databases were an aspect of research which many participants in the Glasgow workshop had requested some assistance with, so on Thursday morning, David Parsons ran a database workshop. We discussed best practice, and looked at some examples of databases in use for different research projects which had been created in a variety of ways by different people. Some students were using existing databases within their research, others had created databases from scratch. Still others had not yet built a database and were interested to know how others had gone about it. Participants were encouraged to ask questions about their own databases, and it became clear that many people shared the same problems and concerns; solutions were suggested by David as well as other students based on their own experience, and it became clear that all of us were very happy to share our experiences and give advice even outside this workshop setting.

Place-name walk

Double-checking the map on the place-name walk

Later on the Thursday, we were treated to a tour of Gregynog’s extensive library (at which point several people expressed a wish to move in permanently), and Emily showed us some fascinating maps of the local countryside, some incorporating field-names from tithe maps. These included copies of some of Foxhall’s hand-drawn reproductions of tithe maps which are being used in the EPNS survey of Shropshire. Emily had devised a place-name walk to take place that afternoon, and showed us some of the interesting names to look out for along the way. The three-mile walk took us from Gregynog to the nearby village of Bettws Cedewain, where we enjoyed a fantastic dinner, plus a drink or two. The walk itself was unfortunately subject to some very Welsh weather, although we stayed in good spirits despite the rain, and managed to spot some interesting signposts along the way, along with a ferocious guard dog whose territory we trespassed onto.

On the Friday morning, Emily and David ran a session about GIS mapping software, incorporating both the kinds of software available and the potential uses for it. Again, participants were encouraged to discuss and demonstrate their own use of GIS, and it was incredibly useful to see the ways in which we were all employing (or hoping to employ) the technology in our own research. The afternoon was spent in further discussion, and we used our newly-improved GIS skills to create a map of our place-name walk to use in our report to the conference that evening.


Advancing Onomastic Research: Copenhagen University, 2—6 June 2014

The course began with a session run by Carole Hough, Professor of Onomastics at the University of Glasgow entitled ‘The many facets of Onomastics’. This session really encapsulated the purpose of the week’s program, which was to help establish “a new, international network between onomastic PhD-students” with a broad range of specialisms within their research. Beginning the week with a session designed to broaden our minds to appreciate both the parallels and contrasts between our different projects was a perfect opening to what would turn out to be a horizon-expanding course, for me at least. This session was appropriately followed by presentations from almost every course participant, each discussing an aspect of the participant’s research, usually with a methodological theme. This allowed us all to learn about the varying areas of study taking place within the onomastic communities in the different countries and universities of which the participants are a part. This included students from England, Wales, Scotland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Estonia. Topics varied from field-names to online usernames, although many of the methodological concerns and problems were remarkably similar across cultures and subject areas. Each presentation was followed by an informal discussion, and again it became clear that many students could help one another with methodological issues, regardless of their content area of expertise. The final session of the day was group feedback on presentation skills, given by Dr Simon Taylor of the University of Glasgow and Peder Gammeltoft, Associate Professor at the University of Copenhagen. Much of the feedback was concerned with how best to adapt your presentation to an international or interdisciplinary audience, with emphasis on geographical as well as cultural location of the research being discussed.

Sessions on the Tuesday included Professor Thomas Clancy’s demonstration of hagiotoponymy and his involvement in the Leverhulme Trust project ‘Commemorations of Saints in Scottish Place-Names; a session by Carole Hough, entitled ‘Names and grammar’; Peder Gammeltoft’s presentation on ‘Names and semantics’; and two workshops run by Simon Taylor, the first on ‘Surveys and sources’, and the second entitled ‘Toponymics in a multilingual setting’; we also heard a paper from Berit Sandnes, on the topic of ‘Onomastics in a monolingual setting’. Informal discussions followed (and even interrupted) these sessions, continuing some of the discussions which had begun on Monday involving terminology and the issues surrounding categorisation, and new facets to the discussion such as the appropriate and effective use of databases; the merits and drawbacks of different theoretical frameworks, and the potential for creating new, project-specific models; and the problems and possibilities with language strata and name survival. Thomas Clancy  used the final session of the day to demonstrate the University of Queensland’s Three Minute Thesis concept (for those of you who have not yet come across the competition, it’s all explained at, and we discussed how useful the process could be in terms of distillation of complex information and the importance of presentation skills. He set each participant the task of adapting their presentation from Monday to fit the 3MT rules, to be presented on Friday; there was the additional stipulation that an element from the week’s workshops should also be included.

Wednesday 4th June was the date of the fantastic Cognitive Toponymy symposium entitled ‘The Geographical and Mental Compass’. The Cognitive Toponymy project investigates the thought processes behind naming, a research avenue which is relevant to any onomastician, and indeed to all the research students present (more information at Well-armed from our previous two days’ discussions, all the participants attended this symposium, which consisted of some fascinating papers, incorporating ample opportunity for discussion which involved both content and methodology. Names were discussed from many countries, cultures, languages and dialects, including Greenland and an obscure dialect of Swedish. The overriding conclusion from the day was that although there are many differences between naming patterns in different areas (for example, Estonian place-names are almost devoid of cardinal directions), there are nevertheless a great number of similarities; discussion between international scholars is, therefore, crucial in producing high-quality research.

Thursday’s presentations on uses of technology within onomastics were given by Thomas Clancy, Simon Taylor, and Bo Nissen Knudsen of the University of Copenhagen. There was much discussion within and around these of the ways in which different students had already employed online resources, as well as the potential for their future use. A further point of interest was the problems and possibilities of presenting our own research data online. Bo Nissen Knudsen then gave the students a tour of the onomastic study section in Copenhagen University, and made us all aware of the resources available to us as visiting students. In addition to primary resources, this also provided some insight into the Danish method of cataloguing and storing onomastic source materials, which contrasts with those methods used by other countries and organisations. To follow on from the morning’s session, Peder Gammeltoft then gave a presentation on ‘How to use technology’ in onomastic research, including information on GIS and online mapping software. Emphasis was on those tools which are either freely available or can be used for a very small charge. Discussion again followed on our own personal experiences of and hopes for technology in our research.


Exploring the University of Copenhagen’s Name Research Section with Bo Nissen Knudsen

The final day began with each student’s 3MT presentation, and each was followed by an informal discussion. Constructive feedback was given, and we evaluated the many alternative approaches which were used. This was a fascinating and highly useful exercise, as it promotes an alternative way of thinking about your own research; perhaps the most interesting aspect was the different elements of the week’s discussions which had been applied to the content of presentations, demonstrating how useful the program has been even on such a small scale. The afternoon was spent in workshops looking to the future; the first was led by Carole Hough, who discussed planning funding applications with a view to successful future research. Following this, the students divided into small groups to plan hypothetical projects, incorporating those aspects which would be necessary when writing a funding application. These ideas were then presented to the whole group, who asked questions and provided feedback. This session promoted collaborative and interdisciplinary work, and students thought about the ways in which their own expertise could be applied to areas outside those they usually work within.

Whither onomastics? (a phrase which I’ve borrowed from Simon Taylor’s forward-thinking workshop session)

Or, more specifically, where does my research go from here? The workshops at Gregynog and in Copenhagen have left me feeling both enlightened and ignorant, enthused and terrified, and with an awful feeling that I will never live up to the standards set by those who came before me and those alongside me: there has never been more truth in the phrase ‘ The more you know, the less you understand’. What I do know, however, is that the quality and complexity of my thought processes, my ideas, and my eventual research output have been improved by these workshops, and continue to improve by the day, as small things click into place and bigger things begin to make sense. Without this kind of input from academics and other postgraduates, yes, I would get there in the end. But would I have the same knowledge and capabilities with which to continue? Would I produce the same quality of work? I very much doubt it. Taught postgraduates love to learn; PhD students even more so. Every day we strive to improve (and I’m confident in making that statement on the behalf of every postgraduate onomast out there), and every day we get a little bit closer to meeting our own expectations. The progress we can make, however, is vastly increased by the input we receive from those who know more than us, are better researchers than us, and are willing to pass on their expertise (and in that category I most definitely include other PhD students as well as career academics). So, at risk of sounding a little Dickensian, please can I have some more?


Alison Burns has blogged about the Glasgow-Copenhagen program at, for those who would like a slightly different perspective.

If you’re interested in knowing about postgraduate and ECR events within the onomastic community, do drop me an email ([email protected]) – at the moment we have no dedicated PG onomastics mailing list, so if you’d like to be kept informed, or if you have any information you’d like to share, let me know, and between us we can make sure nobody in our little community is out of the loop!

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