Czech artist and linguist Jakub Marian researched just how frequent European surnames are and created a colourful map. We were surprised to see so many Newman’s listed!
Onomastics is a fascinating area of linguistics concerned with the study of the history and origin of proper names. Today’s map is of onomastic character: We are going to take a look at the most common surnames in European countries and their meanings.
The colouring of the map below is based on the following scheme:
- red – names based on properties, such as being big or new
- brown – names based on a profession (usually of the father)
- blue – names originally based on the father’s first name
- cyan – names based on the place of origin
- green – names based on a natural object
Of course, nobody can understand all of the languages the names come from, which is why I have created a second map, now with a translation of the names above into English:
There are several things to note: Family names are uncommon in Iceland; instead, its citizens still use an ancient Nordic system, in which a child inherits the first name of its father as its last name (the last name of a son of an Icelandic man called Jón would be Jónsson, literally Jón’s son).
We can still see remnants of this system in other Nordic countries, where names ending with -son are common but are now proper family names, inherited by the children no matter what the first names of their parents are.
Note also that when there are two vastly different linguistic communities within a country, I included the top names for both whenever I was able to find the necessary data. This was the case of Belgium (the two names are for the Dutch- and French-speaking parts), Estonia (with Russian and Estonian names), and Switzerland, where I was only able to find data for the German- and Italian-speaking parts, not for the French-speaking part. I wasn’t able to find any statistics at all for Kosovo and Cyprus.