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Name games

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I’m writing a book at the moment on how Oscan-speakers spelled their language when it was written in the Greek alphabet, and one of the side-effects of this is that I needed to know how women’s names worked in Oscan. Men’s names are easy, and work much like in Latin (and a bit like in English): everyone has a praenomen (which is like our first name), and a gentilicium (like our surname, passed down in families); usually we’re also told what their father’s praenomen was too, in the genitive (in Latin this is followed by f. for filius ‘son’, but there’s no equivalent abbreviation in Oscan). In Classical times, Roman men also had a cognomen, which started off as a kind of nickname, but later became part of the official part of the name. Sometimes Oscan men have cognomina too, but it seems to have been quite rare. So, a typical Oscan man’s name would be Vibis Púpidiis Vibieis “Vibis Popidiis, son of Vibis”.

So what are women called? You might assume that women’s names would work much the same, with a praenomen and gentilicium. But that’s not the case in Latin, at least by Classical times, where women just get one official name, the gentilicium. Clearly, if there was more than one daughter in the family, there must have been some way for people to distinguish them, and indeed once the cognomen began to take off for men, we also find women with cognomina. So, women have one less name than men: either just a gentilicium (e.g. Quinctilia) to a man’s praenomen + gentilicium , or a gentilicium + cognomen (e.g. Appuleia Varilla) to a man’s praenomen + gentilicium + cognomen. Just as the men’s names can be followed by the father’s names in the genitive, so the women’s names can be followed by their father’s names, or by their husband’s names. As I say, this is the way that things work in the Classical period, but there’s a small number of examples of female names from Praeneste, near Rome, in the third century BC, which seem to imply that at this stage women could have a praenomen, like men: was this later dropped, or did they just have different naming habits in Praeneste?

Since the system of men’s names is so similar in Oscan and Latin (and, with minor differences, in Umbrian and Etruscan), we might expect that the same is true for women’s names. But is this in fact the case, and even if so, did Oscan women’s names work like those in Praeneste or in the same way as in Classical times? It turns out that it’s very difficult to know for sure.

One reason for this is that, unlike men’s names, which we find in inscriptions all over the place, there are hardly any women’s names written down, so we don’t have much evidence. The other, is that it’s often quite hard to know how to analyse the evidence. Some of our examples are just single names. Should we take these as praenomina or gentilicia? One way to tell is to look at the name and see whether the male equivalent is used as a praenomen or a gentilicium. But this isn’t as easy as it sounds. Most gentilicia are originally derived from praenomina (that is, they probably started off as a patronymic, before becoming fixed as a family name, just as the English surname Jackson originally meant Jack’s son). This is done by adding is to the name (so next to the praenomen Heirens there is a gentilicium Heirennis). But some praenomina already end in -is, and then the result is a gentilicium in -iis (for example, praenomen Dekis, gentilicium Dekiis). The equivalent for women is praenomina or gentilicia in –, gentilicia in –iiú.

This means it’s not always easy to tell whether a name ending in –is or –iú is a praenomen or a gentilicium unless you have definite cases of that name being used in a male name written out in the full sequence praenomen + gentilicium + father’s name, where you can tell by the position of the names. There’s also a further complication: normally, at least if you find a spelling -iiú, you can be sure that you’re dealing with a gentilicium. But at some point there was a rule in Oscan that changed a single –i– after a –v– into a double -ii- (we can see this in words like menereviius ‘belonging to Minerva’, which we know for etymological reasons should be menerevius). So in the case of the single name Úviiú ‘Ovia’, we’ve no way of knowing whether it’s a praenomen or a gentilicium. And things are even more difficult in the Greek alphabet, where no distinction is made in writing between -iú and –iiú: they’re both spelt -ιο. Unfortunately, by far the majority of our examples of female names are written in the Greek alphabet…

We may not be able to tell from the single names. But when we have two names together, it’s a fair bet that thεy’re a praenomen + gentilicium sequence, right? Well, not necessarily. Some scholars have suggested that in cases like siviiú magiú, what we have are two gentilicia, one that of the woman’s father, one that of the husband. I think that this is wrong, and that Oscan women did have a praenomen of their own, as well as a gentilicium. But in the end, this comes down to a single piece of evidence, the name ahvdiú ni(umsieís) ‘Audia daughter/wife of Numsis’. We’ve got an example of the male equivalent of this name as a gentilicium, and it’s spelt ahvdiis, so the female gentilicium ought to be ahvdiiú, and ahvdiú ought to be a praenomen.

So it looks as though Oscan women, like the women of Praeneste, were better off than most of their Roman equivalents in the way of names, having two, just like their menfolk. But it would be nice to have more evidence, so if you find any, let me know!

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One thought on “Name games

  1. Pingback: From Teano to Bacoli | Greek in Italy

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