Conrad Gessner (1516–1565) als Pionier der Namenkunde


  • Luzius Thöny



Conrad Gessner, Porträt , Namenskunde


A resident of 16th century Zurich, the versatile Swiss physician,
naturalist and polymath Conrad Gessner (1516–1565) was at the forefront of
the knowledge production of his time. Best known as a botanist and zoologist,
his achievements in linguistics are also noteworthy. A major focus of Gessner’s
work on languages was the study of the names of plants and animals, individuals,
peoples and places. His writings contain hundreds of comments on and
explanations of names. Many of them are to be found in the Onomasticon propriorum
nominum (1544), in the Bibliotheca universalis (1545) and in the Mithridates
(1555). Unfortunately, his work on German personal names, Germanica
nomina propria, has been lost. Gessner follows ancient and medieval tradition
when explaining names mainly by associating them with other words with a
similar sound. As an avid compiler of existing knowledge, he adopts many etymological
explanations from other authors. The selection of etymologies from
Gessner’s work presented here shows that while he did not always have the
right answers to his etymological questions (in fact, he often did not), he was
asking the right kinds of questions - although his interpretation of names was
limited by a lack of linguistic groundwork so that he was unable to go back far
beyond ancient and medieval etymologists. His greatest achievements in this
field are perhaps the realization of the importance of names for the comparative
study of languages and a recognition of the need for any study of names to
start from a comprehensive collection of the material. His work goes far beyond
that of his predecessors in terms of his ambition to collect onomastic
materials and to analyse them in detail, e.g. regarding compound names. As
such, it helped to prepare the ground for what later became the scholarly study
of names.