Monday, February 15, 2010

Naming System in Celtic, Gaelic, Scottish, Irish & Welsh

Celtic languages are a branch of the Indo-European languages once spoken across Europe. While there aren't any Celtic surnames, many modern surnames that now exist came from Celtic bynames, which are descriptive nicknames used before the existence of surnames to distinguish between people with the same given name. Some of these bynames are according to one's particular trade, skill, physical trait, or characteristic. 

In western Britian and Ireland, the Celtic language developed into Irish and Scottish Gaelic. The letters J, K, Q, V, W, X, Y, and Z do not exist in the Gaelic alphabet, therefore, names with these letters are anglicized, but were still used in these regions. Keep in mind that surnames did not develop in Ireland and Scotland until after the 10th century. If additional names were needed, people created a byname as mentioned above.

Surnames became very popular in the 10th and 11th centuries. By the 12th century, the use of surnames was widespread throughout Ireland. Many common prefixes were used with names. Women were never referred to by the prefixes O or M or Mc or Mac. Their names were always referred to as ni if unmarried and ban if married. For example, a woman who is unmarried would be called Deirdre ni Hannigan, but when she marries she could be called Deirdre ban Connor.

Common Prefixes
M', Mc, Mac - Son of
O - grandson or descendant of 
ni - daughter of (unmarried)
ban - wife of
giolla - follower of 
moal - servant of

Many of the Scottish surnames begin with prefixes such as Mack, Mac, Ap, and P, which means son of. Other Scottish surnames are based on place names, occupations, or a byname. In the Highlands, clans formed from large family groups with a common male ancestor. Many in a clan would share the same surname, but others accepted and protected by the clan may have other surnames, but were related by blood through marriages. 

Scottish children were named after their relatives according to birth order. For instance, the firstborn son would be named after the paternal grandfather, the second would be named after the maternal grandfather, the third would be named for the father. Daughters were named likewise, the first born daughter would be named for the paternal grandmother, the second would be named for the maternal grandmother, and the third after the mother. Additional children were named after aunts and uncles, respectively.

One fact I elected not to reflect in my novel, Highland Blessings, is that women usually had different surnames from their husbands. It wasn't until the late 19th century that it became common practice for a woman to take her husband's surname. I thought this would be too much of a shocker for people who are not familiar with the clan naming system and it would have caused confusion among lots of readers. I've never read a highland based novel that showed this custom as it really was and thought it best not to rock the boat with a debut novel. 

Female lines and unrelated families with recongized surnames protected by a clan are called septs. Lowland surnames tend to sound and reflect English descriptions and place names more than Highland surnames, which developed separately.

People in Wales typically named their children after family members in birth order according to the same system as Scottish families. Wales was one of the last countries in Europe to adopt the surname system. While records show that some families used hereditary surnames as far back as the 12th century, it wasn't until the 16th century that it became common practice among the nobility and those who dealt directly with the English in business and trade.

In my next post, I'll list common Scottish, Irish, and Welsh surnames.

"Character Naming Sourcebook" by Sherrilyn Kenyon, second edition, 2005, by Writer's Digest.
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  1. That was very interesting. Thanks for sharing the info. :-)

  2. VERY interesting! I really enjoy this kind of History! My married name is Gaelic/Scottish...after Nairn but misspelled now.

  3. You're welcome! I'm glad it was helpful and enjoyable.