Getting the most from a surname study: semantics, DNA and computer modelling

Plant, Dr John S and Plant, Prof Richard E (2012) Getting the most from a surname study: semantics, DNA and computer modelling.

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We here address such questions as: what does a surname mean; is it single origin; and, why do some surnames grow abnormally large? Though most surnames are rare, most people have populous surnames. In 1881 for example, 90% of the population of England and Wales had the most populous 4% of surnames; and, in 1998, 80% had the 1% most populous. In this paper, we consider the evidence that some frequent surnames could be single source; this would imply that a single family has grown abnormally large. For some populous surnames, they have a geographical distribution that might be thought to be consistent with a single origin though, as yet, such supposition generally lacks support from adequate DNA evidence. With the onset of DNA testing, some scientists are becoming more active in surname studies and they might be more reluctant than some traditionalists to infer too much from categories of surname meaning. Instead, they are likely to maintain that statistical analyses of the data should be properly performed. For example, King and Jobling (2009) considered forty English surnames and found no statistically significant correlation between the supposed semantic category of a surname and its degree of DNA matching into single male-line families. As a specific example that we here describe in some detail, little can be deduced about the inter-relatedness of those called Plant from the assumption of a semantic category, such as by arguing that it is locative and hence single-origin, or occupational and hence multi-origin. By comparison, more surely, we discuss the DNA evidence that this name’s main family grew unusually. Though motivated initially by the evidence of unusual growth for Plant, we extend our deliberations more generally to other surnames. Guided by the empirical evidence, our computer simulations identify various reasons for a surname family’s prolific growth. In particular, chance is a main factor, along with favourable conditions during the Industrial Age when overall population growth took off, evidently earlier in some regions than in others. Also, the modelling suggests that some additional factor such as polygyny or resilience to plague or favourable economic circumstance, after an early start to a hereditary surname, is beneficial in seeing a family through initial precarious times, sustaining its survival through to a small but real chance of subsequent proliferation in favourable Industrial Age conditions.

Item Type:Other
Keywords:Surname-studies, DNA, onomastics
Subjects:Biology > Population Biology
Computer Science > Statistical Models
Linguistics > Computational Linguistics
Linguistics > Semantics
ID Code:8267
Deposited By: Plant, Dr John S
Deposited On:09 Nov 2012 19:41
Last Modified:09 Nov 2012 19:41


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