The role of onomastics for diachronic sociolinguistics
A case study on language shift in late medieval Sicily
The article focuses on the roles of Greek, Latin/Romance and Arabic in the onomastics of Northeastern Sicily between the 11th and 13th centuries. The first part deals with landless peasants from four villages at the turn of the 11th and 12th centuries. I argue that the role played by Arabic in the nomenclature of these communities was more important than has previously been suggested and the role of Romance speakers may have been minimal. The important role of Arabic is interpreted as a consequence of a situation of linguistic dominance and borrowing of word-forms. In the second part, I analyze the onomastics of the free population of northeastern Sicily attested in charters during the 12th and 13th centuries. I argue that the 13th century was the crucial period when Greek lost its initially high prestige. This is visible in both first names and second name elements. In first names, Greek speakers started to accommodate their nomenclature to their surroundings, dominated by Romance languages and the church of Rome, which meant that both language shift and religious conversion played a role. The second name elements in Greek were seldom transferred to the name stock of the Romance-speaking population. I argue that the role of the city of Messina, in which monolingual Romance communities were evidently formed, was important in this process. When such a community was formed in Messina, the Greek language was marginalized fairly rapidly even in northeastern Sicily, where it had had an important position. However, some surnames with a Greek or Arabic etymology survived in the local name stock until the present. I explain this by referring to the role of the de-semanticization of such name elements. This consists both of the semantic bleaching of the original significance of the names and of the neutralization of their linguistic connotations.