I was reading in Wikipedia that the origins of European surnames can be classified into categories like patronymics, occupational, toponymics and nicknames. If this classification is old or incomplete please do correct me --- I know quite little about linguistics.

What I am wondering is whether any kind of study has been conducted on the geographic and cultural distribution of these different origins: for example, it seems to me (qualitatively --- not sure at all if it is actually the case) that medieval Anglo-Saxon names tend to be more patronymic-focused, while medieval Italian names are more toponymic-focused.

This example is about medieval surnames but I am interested in modern surnames as well, I generally would like to know more about whether there are measurable "cultural trends" in (sur-)naming conventions.

The Wikipedia article extensivey quotes "A Dictionary of Surnames" by Hanks, unfortunately I could not find a copy but it seems from what I have seen that it does not contain this kind of analysis and it is more of a compendium of origins and names. I have done a few Google Scholar searches but cannot seem to find any article doing the kind of broad analysis I am interested in.

1 Answer 1


Your question is too broad to be easily answered. Different regions of Europe began to use surnames at different times, often as a result of government policy. England, for example, began the process in the 1400s, whereas most Icelanders still use patronymics. The government of Prussia imposed a specified set of surnames on its Jewish inhabitants in the early 1800s, and the Russian government did so even later. The nobility tended to distinguish itself by surnames much earlier than the lower classes, partly because they usually had wider circles of acquaintance and partly because they liked to boast about their ancestry, kinship, and possessions.

Surnames (like addresses, ages, marital status, and occupations) are an example of how governments like to impose "legibility" on the people under their control, initially for taxes and conscription, then for the identification and pursuit of criminals, and eventually to gather information for policy purposes. There is a huge literature on legibility, e.g. how governments set about identifying and controlling their subjects.

In short, there are definitely patterns in surnames, but adding them up across countries and periods does not produce meaningful answers. Your question is best asked about individual countries in specific periods.

  • I see, thank you! Are these kinds of more localized analyses typically done by looking at the statistics of the etymologies or the surnames from a certain time and place? Commented Aug 16, 2020 at 8:07
  • This is not my field, but I have been told that most studies are based on etymology (i.e. diachronic) because the volume of data needed for synchronic studies has only been available since governments started keeping detailed records a couple of hundred years ago. (China may be different.)
    – yutu
    Commented Aug 17, 2020 at 4:34

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