As someone who knows how hard it can be to choose a character name for your fantasy novel, I came across some interesting discussions on Quora (here and here). They concerned the letter Æ and the evolution of old Anglo-Saxon names. I hope you find it as interesting as I did!
What does Ælf mean?
You may have noticed how many old Anglo-Saxon names start with Æ, and Ælf in particular. This is pretty popular with fantasy, as it automatically conveys an Old English feeling.
Some translate ælf as elf, while others argue it is, in fact, connected etymologically to “Aelfe” via the proto-Indo-European root “albho-“ which means pale, white, or high (perhaps both).
The former often forget that “elf” is also derived from “white”, while our modern interpretation of “elf” or “elves” was formed by plays by Spencer for example, or in fairy-tales which were medieval or pre-medieval in origin.
Prior to these manifestations, “elfin” referred to the mischievous actions of certain “white spirits,” which seemed to busy themselves by inflicting minor misfortunes on country-folk such as knots in hair, “Elf Lock”, which were not to be untangled for fear of attracting further more serious inconveniences on the inflicted person. There’s a lot of speculation as to how it came to mean a “mischievous spirit.” It is plausible that pallor, being associated with death, was commonly associated with ghosts (Ælfadl is a nightmare in Middle English).
However, it’s entirely possible that elf/ælf has no relation whatsoever to Ælf~ as a name prefix.
Consider The Alps. The origin of the name of the white mountains is unknown; we just know it’s terribly old. But the close associations with albus (white) and altus (high) can’t be ignored.
In the names of Anglo-Saxons, it seems to denote some sort of distinguishing feature that raises a person above others. A sound that seems to mean both “fair/pale” and “high” seems like a good choice.
A spiritual Ælf
Ultimately, which makes more sense? “Ælfric” meaning “elf ruler” or “white ruler”?
Maybe both. Old English was a relatively small language, and words bore a range of meanings. An ælf was a spirit, and it has been suggested that in those names, a good translation for it is ‘spirit’ or ‘spiritual.’ Ælfred, then, would mean ‘spiritual counsel.’
This theory suggests that Ælfred, for example, was the fifth son of a king, and so might have been expected to go into the Church. He was the one his father Æthelwulf (‘noble wolf’) chose to take with him on his pilgrimages to Rome, so the name ‘spiritual counsel’ seems oddly apt.
Ælf is also related to Albio. This is another notable component of many names.
Throughout the medieval Germanic languages, ælf was one of the nouns that were used in personal names, almost invariably as a first element. These names may have been influenced by Celtic names beginning in Albio- such as Albiorix.
For example, consider the name Albina. This name accounts for German words: elven,elf-woman, alb, elf. In Middle English, the word is albe, while in Old English and Medieval Latin it is alba. The word means white, and is the feminine of albus, meaning white. Several modern English words are derived from it, including albino, elf, oaf, albino, album, auburn, and possibly even Albion itself – the earliest name for Britain (it should be noted that some argue that Albion is actually related to Welsh elfydd, “world”).
Interestingly, many of those names still survive today, although most of them had their spelling changed through various transformations over the centuries (most of it due to Norman influence and later Huguenot printers):
- Ælfræd (literally ‘elf-counsel’) became Alfred.
- Æthelberht (‘Noble-bright) became Albert.
- Ælfwine (‘Elf-friend’) became Alvin.
- Ædgifu became Edith.
- Æthel, which means noble or gem, became Ethel.
- Æthelberht became Albert.
- Godgifu became Godiva.
- Ædward, Ædgard, and Ædmund are still here, as are some others like Hilda, Oswald, or Wilfrid.
What helped a name survive was if there was a saint by that name or a sufficiently famous person to be named after. Some names were restricted to the Saxon royal family, like those starting with Æthel- and these ones disappeared with the House of Wessex.
Other lost letters
That conjoined ‘æ’ letter is called an ash, and it is how the Anglo-Saxons transliterated the ansuz or æsc rune (ᚨ) when they switched from the Anglo-Saxon futhorc to the Latin alphabet. It’s a diphthong, representing a long ‘a’ sound with a falling ‘e’ sound at the end.
It was used a lot in Anglo-Saxon names but once we lost the letter we had to find other ways to represent the sound.
The ash isn’t the only letter we lost, either.
The Thorn (Þ) made a ‘th’ sound.
Ethel (Œ) was another diphthong, but this one made an elongated ‘o’ sound with a falling ‘e’ at the end.
Wynn (ƿ) made a ‘W’ sound. This was a necessary addition when the Anglo-Saxons adopted the Latin Alphabet, because the Latin language did not have a ‘w’ sound, whereas Old English made extensive use of it. It was replaced in Middle English with ‘uu’, from where we developed the single letter ‘w’- literally, a double ‘U’.
Isn’t linguistics fun?