Old Norse Nicknames
Master’s Thesis, University of Iceland, 2012
Introduction: One of the richest sources of linguistic and cultural data past and present lies in the field of onomastics, the study of names. This field owes its roots to traditional philology, which sought to explain the connections of language families by historical comparison of texts and attested linguistic data. This investigation is far from complete, and philology has itself branched out into numerous sub-fields, several of which could now be considered fields of their own (such as historical linguistics and material philology). Philology remains particularly strong in its ability to interpret the linguistic data of languages both ancient and modern, as well as to provide a better understanding of literature from which the linguistic data were drawn. I would be remiss to claim that onomastics, a sub-field primarily of linguistics and philology, has not seen its share of attention since its academic inception in the 19th century, but much of the work remains undone. After all, names play an integral part in language itself as a means to identify persons and places and how they are connected to and differentiated from one another. Similarly, names can also be used as evidence of linguistic forms not attested otherwise, all the while enriching and preserving a language’s stock of words.
Nicknames, which occur in all cultures and across all time periods, play a vital role in understanding and highlighting identity. They also provide a unique window into slang and popular culture less accessible through personal names alone. Their study encompasses wide-ranging interdisciplinary scholarship, including onomastics (name studies), historical linguistics, anthropology, history, and narratology. Old Norse nicknames themselves represent diverse forms of cultural expression from the lower levels of discourse, history, religion, and popular entertainment. They have left remnants across Northern Europe in place names, runic inscriptions, and the names of individuals in the saga corpus.
One simply cannot read a saga without encountering dozens of nicknames throughout the text, and recurring nicknames from saga to saga are common and thus provide a hitherto unexplored tool for studying saga transmission and intertextuality in Old Icelandic literature ‒ topics which have received only mild attention in saga scholarship of the last century. The largest word bank of medieval Scandinavian nicknames lies in the realm of medieval Icelandic literature, and the overall approach of my thesis will be to describe the use of nicknames across the Icelandic literary corpus in light of their Germanic origins, etymology, and role in the literature and its production. I will investigate the uses of nicknames in the family sagas within a cultural, anthropological, and narratological framework. I will seek to answer the questions: What role do nicknames play in expressing cultural sensitivities and ambiguities in medieval Icelandic and Scandinavian society? How did they develop and become so common especially during the medieval period? What role do they play in the literature and what do they tell about the culture?