Mainstream linguistics has been interested in proper names mainly in terms of language philosophy, and the position of proper names in language has not been particularly well explained or clarified. Onomastics is the branch of linguistics specialized in the study of proper names. However, the focus of onomastics has been more on description of separate name data, on etymologizing certain names and on solving general onomastic problems than on linking proper names to the wider system of language and its use. This may partly be due to the efforts of strengthening the disciplinary identity of onomastics, but one reason for this might also have been the fact that the formal linguistic models have not given suitable tools for the study of proper names. This presentation deals with the question how the cognitive viewpoint might help us to create new methods to study proper nouns as symbolic units equal to other expressions of language.
In my view, one problem of onomastic studies is the general assumption that proper names have no meaning, or that the meaning of a proper name is just to refer to an entity (e.g. Mill 1906; Kripke 1972). However, it is easy to find examples how the meaning of a proper name can be quite important in practice: e.g. a ”wrong” meaning can lead to a need to change a company name. Meaning needs to be taken into account also in the socio-onomastic study of many personal name systems.
In a cognitive perspective, name formation can be linked up with the formation of other expressions in a language. This perspective will help in understanding the relation between the elements included in the name and the meaning of the name. The elements of a name show how the person who has formed the expression has wanted to perceive the entity and which parts of the network of meanings he/she has chosen to express linguistically.
Transparent names (High Street, Jimmy’s Pizza etc) have a direct meaning link with the words that are elements (forms) in that name, even though they are not important for the individualizing function of the name. Instead, for other potential expressive functions of the name these meanings are crucial: if, in addition to individualizing, the function of a name is for instance to guide, to mock, to tempt to buy or to entertain, the associations that come from the phonological form are not at all insignificant.
The meaning content of completely opaque names (Pisa, Ikea) is built solely on the associations the referent creates. In the area between transparent and opaque names there remains however a group of names that do not consist simply of existing symbolic units, but nevertheless contain identifiable parts of conventionalized words or names. This possibility of connecting several meanings into a name that is short in its form has been utilized especially in commercial names (Wellaflex, Biomed).
From a cognitive perspective proper nouns are a solid part of language that provides meanings. It is because of their individualizing character that they can easily be conveyed from one language to another. However, this does not mean that proper nouns have no meaning. On the contrary, proper nouns have a place in the network of meanings that exists in our minds.
KRIPKE, SAUL A.1972: Naming and necessity. Semantics of natural language, p. 253–355. Eds. Davidson & Harman. D. Reidel, Dordrecht – Boston.
MILL, JOHN STUART 1906: A system of logic: ratiocinative and inductive. Longmans, Green & co, London.