Name-based text analysis

Dr. Evgeny Shokhenmayer, Associate Researcher, Lab. MoDyCo, Paris West University Nanterre La Défense


My approach to proper names’ analysis in texts, titled the “name-based text analysis”, is to be incorporated within the framework of textual linguistics. This term, with “text” defined as broadly as possible, seems to be more technical, specific and more understandable in comparison to that of textual onomastics which does not have a universally accepted definition. The area of its research is to be found at the confluence of discourse analysis and literary onomastics. The latter is concerned with the linguistic and philological aspects of proper names in dramatic, narrative and verse texts. It is also linked with romantic and fictional onomastics in linguistic traditions of French onomastique romanesque (for example, see Y. Baudelle, 2008[1]) and fictionnelle (for example, see Y. Baudelle, 1996[2]), with narrative onomastics of David Suchoff (1994:42[3]) and with poetic onomastics of the wide range of Russian-speaking scholars who by “poetic” mean all fictive or real names employed in the narrative spaces and examined from the rhetoric viewpoint (Kalinkin, 2000[4] and others). However, the name-based text analysis is to be more text- than just name-oriented method from qualitative as well as quantitative perspectives. By its means, we can define the mechanisms to comprehend texts with proper names in their entire variety.


In my conception, I start by considering proprial units in terms of logical antinomies, namely, the principle when two contradictory statements about the same object can be both true (Grier, 2006[5]). These oppositions allow to present each distinctive realisation of one proper name in accordance with notional links that join them all together.

According to the famous theoretical treatise “The Philosophy of the Name”, published in 1927 by Russian philosopher Aleksei Losev, where the “dialectics of name” occupies a central place in his philosophy of language (Ioffe, 2007:26-27[6]), a name can be considered as crucial point of all life spheres of its bearer: physiological, psychological, phenomenological, logical, dialectical and ontological. In this case, a personal name is the lemma which individualises all objects of the same kind. So, the proper name is to be subject to the dialectical law of opposites: each occurrence expresses the mutual determining of the moments of distinction that characterise any given manifestation of the object’s nature. It’s what gets summed up in a proper name, i.e. the sequence of reality isolated from the continuum of empirical reality, both ‘as existence and as experience’, in its individuality and its generality, in order to grasp its meaning, that is to say the relationships between its innermost centre and its outermost periphery in which the world and life are circumscribed by our concepts.

Discourse-analytic semantics of proper names

The versatility of proper name in texts, which is shown through realisations of its various discourse-analytic meanings (pragmatic, connotative, associative, expressive, suggestive, pre-suppositional, etc.), is a result of semantic community joining all concrete meanings. Such diversity corresponds to one prototype (read: “lemma”!) comprising all real and potential manifestations. The prototype remains virtually identical to itself in all those individual manifestations without being identical to any concrete individual realisation.

The “bilaterality” of a proper name, namely the unity of its linguistic form and extralinguistic sense, is to be proved by the functioning of the language itself. The common property of the linguistic sign realised in the discourse (fission of the meaning into generalised and individualised components) is also being revealed by proper names whose discursive element solely relates to a given utterance while the generalised element reoccurs many times in various communicative acts. That general component is to be emphasised in the determiner usages of proprial units: it’s essential for definiteness that the referent belongs to a certain “shared set”. For Christophersen (1939:70-73[7]), the definite article associates the referent with previous experience. In the same manner, I argue here that it is not uniqueness, but non-ambiguity which is essential for proprial definiteness. In my opinion, the definites before proper nouns are unambiguous functional expressions, assigning the proper name a quite different conceptual role than that of a sortal concept[8].

The lexicalisation process of proper names can make a leading contribution to the discussions on the onomastic semantics. The widespread usage of onomata with varying degrees of transition from proper name to common name presents evidence of the appearing linguistic meaning.

As for proper names, their meaning, failing to have a conceptual nature, corresponds to the concrete representations which can be associated with a semantic component. If so, I may conclude that semantics of proprial units is far from being assertive and linguistic but associative and extralinguistic. Therefore, I point out that proper names in the discourse may acquire reflective semantics. The latter can be decomposed and described in terms of componential analysis. Such reiterative components as “bearer of name”, “human being” (for anthroponyms), “named entity”, “named place” (for toponyms), “gender”, “ethnic”, “social characteristics”, “evaluation”, “emotivity”, etc. sometimes predetermine their participation as linguistic means of expressions in the discursive realisations of recognisable proper names. The assembly of those elements enable proprial units to play the “spokesperson’s role” of any concrete sense under the given situational conditions.

By analysing proper names’ function, one may ascertain that their meanings, either deictic (indexical) or predicative (descriptive), represent different semic arrangements: on the one side, they are solely the basic semes (classifying concepts) but on the other, they may correspond to the composition of basic semes and idiolectal variables. The last-mentioned component may reflect both linguistic and extralinguistic manifestations of the individual knowledge (or attitude). The majority of onomastic idiolectal occurrences happen to be short-lived and often deviate from the prescriptive norms. Idiolectal variables are to be distinguished by the high degree of subjectivity. In terms of interpretative semantics (Rastier, 1987[9]), basic semes correspond to generic and/or inherent ones, while idiolectal variables may be equated with specific and/or afferent semes that open the way to the semantics of evaluation. However, I tend to distinguish between the semes that an occurrence inherits from its type and the semes that are activated in context. The type of an onomastic occurrence depends on the type of name bearer it refers to.

The role, which the individual knowledge plays in the function of proper names, is regularly to be excluded because of the complexity of all differing perceptions, personal interpretations and individual attitudes towards onomastic referents. Nevertheless, without considering personalised meanings of proper name in the discourse, it cannot be guaranteed that neither onomastic “diversity” revealed in various occurrences nor variability in case of homonymy are properly understood. The individual knowledge on a proper name’s bearer is to be demonstrated by means of idiolectal variables that may be recorded in the idiolectal sememes, which go into speakers’ idiosyncrasies for a time frame. If idiolectal sememes reflecting non-coincident features of the same referent in various idiolects enter into cooperative relationships of dialectical identity, the mutual understanding of interlocutors does not fail. In this case, various idiolects should form one common conceptual space within a given communicative act.

So, I may conclude that the specifics of discourse-analytic semantics of proper names proposes to take into account the following positions:

  • functioning as unity of idiolect (Zalevskaya, 1988[10]);
  • semic decomposition (Vaxelaire, 2005[11]);
  • indicating an uninterrupted identity of a referent whence ensue the discourse-organising and causal functions.

The subjective factor of perceiving proprial units increases and intensifies pragmatic components of the onomastic meaning. Clarifying activated senses in a idiolect represents multistage process which is set up on the basis of textual reciprocal links: retrospective and prospective ones. By doing so, proper names can be considered as one of the effective methods for realisation of the textual and thematic integrity. The onomastic meaning idiolectally fixed by recipient contributes considerably to the textual cohesion providing presuppositions that are necessary for the progressive development of text et for its adequate perception.

Idiolectal variable semes play the leading role for the text analysis because their activation determines responsiveness, agility, variability and emotivity of corresponding actualised meanings of proprial unit without infringing the continuous identity of referent. It’s very probable that such a dialectical balance between referential stability and informative instability is a result of human memory processing (faculty to perceive the same object from different perspectives, to put into perspective one part of that object, to change one’s point of view, etc.). That is why I argue here that onomastic meaning in discourse represents both object and process at the same time.

Case study on the example of “Forsyte Saga”

Let’s give an example of the name-based text analysis. As this feature has been written for a UK-based website, for illustrative purposes I would like to cite from “Forsyte Saga” of John Galsworthy, namely from “The Man of Property”, that became the highest point of Galsworthy’s creativity. This is a well-known work where the author investigates the phenomenon of “Forsyteism” in details. Galsworthy created quite a new phenomenon in literature – a “complex of Forsyteism” – that is described as a complex of social and psychological matter.

The very first occurrence of the name Forsyte is to be found in the first line of the book:

Those privileged to be present at a family festival of the Forsytes have seen that charming and instructive sight — an upper middle-class family in full plumage. (J. Galsworthy, The Man of Property, 2001, p. 3)

where it occurs in plural form and then it refers to groups of entities considered as unique. It’s a collective proper noun that is usually an “umbrella name” for families. Galsworthy anticipates the progressive evolution of the surname by pointing out:

… evidence of that mysterious concrete tenacity which renders a family so formidable a unit of society, so clear a reproduction of society in miniature. (ibid.)

Such a statement allows one to hint, insinuate and suggest ideas of the future generalisation. But, it’s an “onomastic” way to go step-by-step. The author starts with mono-referential usage of the given surname:

On June 15, 1886, about four of the afternoon, the observer who chanced to be present at the house of old Jolyon Forsyte in Stanhope Gate, might have seen the highest efflorescence of the Forsytes. (ibid.)

This occurrence fulfils its “normal” nominative function of individualisation. The surname is tabula rasa as we meet it for the first time. Its onomastic situational and contextual meaning is solely built up from essential basic concepts “human being” (as a reciprocal reflection in the semantics of “observer”, “who”, “see” and because of the socially admitted formula of forename and surname, which is especially suitable for people) and “male” (due to male forename Jolyon) as well as from one facultative component “English”. The name is used without any article because every additional meaning that a modifier provides would be inevitably redundant from the informational viewpoint.

By contrast, on the same page another usage with article is to be found:

When a Forsyte was engaged, married, or born, the Forsytes were present; when a Forsyte died — but no Forsyte had as yet died; they did not die; … (ibid.)

Galsworthy could actually use an adjective numeral “one” instead of “a”, but he preferred the indefinite article, which provides the categorical meaning of indeterminacy. In spite of the etymological connection between “a” and “one” (from Old English an c.1200), the indefinite article doesn’t always express unicity. That perfectly goes together with the semantics of hypothetical scenarios.

A closer look at the next occurrences of the same name represent a beam of associations (read: “connotations”) gathered like a snowball as the story unfolds. If the primary meaning is merely formed of basic semes plus some occasional facultative semes, the forthcoming meanings of the proper name that is used lots of times along the path of the book will comprise a changeable combination of the first and last ones in contextual balance. As a consequence, associative modifications implicate semantic transformation of proper name. It enables the recategorisation of proprial units that provides various transpositional processes like

  • adjectivation:

He (Timothy) had become almost a myth — a kind of incarnation of security haunting the background of the Forsyte universe. (ibid., p. 9)

  • countabilization (though proper names tend to be mass or uncountable nouns):

Amongst the throng of people by the door, the well-dressed throng drawn from the families of lawyers and doctors, from the Stock Exchange, and all the innumerable avocations of the upper-middle class — there were only some twenty percent of Forsytes; but to Aunt Ann they seemed all Forsytes — and certainly there was not much difference — she saw only her own flesh and blood. (ibid., p. 11)

  • being determined by attributes or epithets:

Down this hollow, with their feet deep in the mud and their faces towards the sea, it appeared that the primeval Forsytes had been content to walk Sunday after Sunday for hundreds of years. (ibid., p. 14)

  • being determined by demonstratives:

They had all done so well for themselves, these Forsytes, that they were all what is called ‘of a certain position.’  (ibid.)

  • and derivation:

The outward relations between James and his son were marked by a lack of sentiment peculiarly Forsytean, but for all that the two were by no means unattached. (ibid., p. 55)

An extra, if subdued, sparkle, an added touch of the best gloss or varnish characterized this vehicle, and seemed to distinguish it from all the others, as though by some happy extravagance — like that which marks out the real ‘work of art’ from the ordinary ‘picture’— it were designated as the typical car, the very throne of Forsytedom. (ibid., p. 127)

On hearing June’s name, she went hurriedly to her bedroom, and, taking two large bracelets from a red morocco case in a locked drawer, put them on her white wrists — for she possessed in a remarkable degree that ‘sense of property,’ which, as we know, is the touchstone of Forsyteism, and the foundation of good morality. (ibid., p. 167)

This iterative net of onomastic units creates the virtual base of the real class as an attributive space that marks out and reinforces some salient features of surname bearers. The derivative process displays the very last phase when associative representations take place of the semantic core. The writer demonstrated in that way attitude to the property defined Forsytes’ cost of mind, their interests.

The history of Forsyte family transforms into the “history of Forsyteism” as a social phenomenon. To Galsworthy’s mind, every person who has psychology of property and lives according to its rules is a real Forsyte. The proper name doesn’t matter at all; such person can have quite other name. The writer wrote: “Hundreds of Forsytes are walking in the street. They are met everywhere”.

The surname’s semantic modification is very illustrative in this novel – the name evolved considerably over the pages. The author started with a ‘simple’ name and came to its antonomasia. He began by a meaningless onomastic sign and finished with a meaningful concept.


The detailed name-based text analysis can shed light on the onomastic transformation of any proprial unit within the limits of one or more works. In this case, I call such names intertextual.

I only want to emphasize that the extra-linguistic is always present in proper names and that we therefore – through names – have access to reality. However, the question of referentiality can be taken a step further. It does not only concern the way referents are named in language, but also the ways in which the author manages their connotations. Within this pragmatic view of language, the focus is on the onomastic traces of the communicative context. Here I argue that names can speak. The written texts contain traces that the onomastician will use to reconstruct the communicative situation for a given name.

Still, referentiality and traces of communication are notions that belong to textual linguistic approach which is mainly interested in looking at the outside from the point of view of the language. I shall not try to reverse the point of view completely, but rather to introduce a more nuanced view upon the proper names. A further way of paving the way for a more contextual view of the names is to let their meanings be dependent on an act of interpretation.


Seme is  the smallest unit of meaning recognized in semantics, refers to a single characteristic of a sememe. It is the result produced when determining the minimal elements of meaning, which enables one to describe words multilingually. Such elements provide a bridge to component analysis and the initial work of ontologies.

Sememe is a semantic language unit of meaning, correlative to a morpheme. The concept is relevant in structural semiotics. A sememe is a proposed unit of transmitted or intended meaning; it is atomic or indivisible.

Proprial unit is the general term for both proper names and proper nouns. It’s a synonym for proprial entity. It was introduced by Prof. W. Van Langendock in “Theory and Typology of Proper Names” (2007) on the basis of proprial lemma (i.e. onymic dictionary entry) as the concept behind both proprial and appellative uses of such categories as place names and personal names.

Idiolect is an individual’s distinctive and unique use of language, including speech. This unique usage encompasses vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. Idiolect is the variety of language unique to an individual. This differs from a dialect, a common set of linguistic characteristics shared among some group of people. (See: J. Higginbotham (2006) “Languages and Idiolects: Their Language and Ours”, in E. Lepore and B.C. Smith (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Language, Oxford: Oxford University Press.)

[1] Y. Baudelle (2008) Onomastique romanesque, in Narratologie № 9, L’Harmattan.

[2] Y. Baudelle (1996) Sémantique de l’onomastique fictionnelle : esquisse d’une topique, pp 25-40, in Le Texte et le Nom, Actes du colloque de Montréal, avril 1995, édités par Martine Léonard.

[3] D. Suchoff (1994) Critical Theory and the Novel: Mass Society and Cultural Criticism in Dickens, Melville and Kafka, The University of Wisconsin Press.

[4] V. Kalinkin (2000) Fundamental theory of poetic onomastics. Thesis for the degree of the Doctor of philological sciences. The Kiev National University, Kiev.

[5]  M. Grier (2006) The Logic of Illusion and the Antinomies, in Bird (ed.), Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 192-207.

[6] D. Ioffe (2007) Alternative Language Theory Under Stalin: Philosophy and Religion at the Crossroads in the Nascent Soviet Union, in Studies in Slavic Cultures, № 6, pp.25-65.

[7] P. Christophersen (1939) The Articles: A Study of their Theory and Use in English. Copenhagen: Einar Munksgaard.

[8] A concept that provides principles of individuation and principles of identity. Although the notion originated in metaphysics, importing it into the cognitive sciences has bridged a gap between philosophical and linguistic discussions of concepts and has generated a fruitful and productive research enterprise. See, for example: H. Freund (2000) “A complete and consistent formal system for sortals”, Studia Logica, 65: 367-81; P. Mackie (1994) “Sortal concepts and essential properties”, Philosophical Quarterly, 44: 311-33;

[9] F. Rastier (1987) Sémantique interprétative, Paris: Presses universitaires de France.

[10] A. Zalevskaya (1988) Ponimanie texta: psikholingvistichesky podkhod (Text understanding: psycholinguistic approach). Kalinin: KGU, p. 215 (in Russian).

[11] J.-L. Vaxelaire (2005) Les noms propres — Une analyse lexicologique et historique, Paris, Honoré Champion.

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