A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Category: ardagraphy (Page 2 of 2)

Surname Mapping

An annotated bibliography of surname mapping. Research by James Cheshire and his collaborators underlies this ardagraphic study.  Dr. Cheshire has a blog in addition to his university site linked above.

Oliver O’Brien, Suprageography

O’Brien’s data visualization blog post got this project started.  The public-access web portal provided the qualitative data for classification of family names.  If you don’t have an English name, the latter site hosts a world-wide version (at a much lower resolution).

Cheshire, James A., Paul A. Longley, and Alex D. Singleton. “The surname regions of Great Britain.” Journal of Maps 6.1 (2010): 401-409.

The map of surname regions in Great Britain shows that distributions of names track well with the administrative regions.  The map itself, available for download at the link (17 MB) is gorgeous.

Paul A. Longley, James A. Cheshire, Pablo Mateos, “Creating a regional geography of Britain through the spatial analysis of surnames”, Geoforum, 42, 4, July 2011, Pages 506-516.

Mapping names in the 21st century is valid for this practice because Longley, Cheshire, and Mateos’s techniques make it possible to identify “combinations of location specific surnames that date back 700 or more years”.   Figure 5 shows that the  “Lasker distances” between Census Area Statistics Wards in a region cluster into a tight grouping, and each region is unlike other regions in England.  In fact, some geographic resemblances are visible through the multidimensional clustering:  wards in the West Midlands look like they feel a gravitational pull from Wales, as names originating in the Welsh language diffuse across the English border.

The Lasker Distance is elegantly simple. If we write the fraction of people in a small area i who have the name n as p(i,n), then the distance between areas i and j is -ln(Σ p(i,n)×p(j,n)) where the summation is over all names.  Names that don’t exist in one of the areas don’t contribute to the sum.

Once the distance in “name-space” between population points is established, the next step is to cluster the points in that space, and set the cluster sizes so that the result is interpretable in geographic terms.  The method used here is “k-means” clustering, and I hope I’m not being uncharitable if I describe it as “try every possibility and keep those that work”.  That’s unfair, of course — independent consistency checks are applied at each step; the choice isn’t arbitrary.

Cheshire, James, Pablo Mateos, and Paul A. Longley. “Delineating Europe’s cultural regions: Population structure and surname clustering.” Human Biology 83.5 (2011): 573-598.

Figure 7 in this paper shows the relationship between physical distance and Lasker distance for the countries they studied in Europe.  Culturally homogenous places like Poland and Luxembourg show a tight cluster of points, lying on a line that’s almost horizontal.  That is, you find the same names, no matter where in the country you go.

Scatter plot of Lasker and Geographical distance

Some aspects of cultural history are visible in this figure copied from Cheshire, et al.

Countries unified by language, such as France, Italy, and Germany, show a slanted line (on a log-log plot), with a moderate upward slope.  The further apart two villages are, the more likely you are to find different names in them.  (France has a small Alsatian tail.) Norway and Denmark are fascinating exceptions:  the line slopes downward! I’m just guessing here, but it could be due to the fact that until recently you didn’t get from one place to another by land.  By sea, travel times depend on wind and currents as well, so genetics and patronymics can have a more complicated relationship with distance.  (There might be a follow-on project, there, if I could only find family names in the Sagas.)

Spain has two distinct parts:  One for the mainland and and one for the islands.  They’re identical with respect to names.  The mainland isn’t a long, thin shape, it’s an incoherent blob, caused by mixed Catalan, Spanish, Arabic, and possibly a Basque scattering off to the side.

The United Kingdom is a dense horizontal sprawl of English, with oddly-shaped protuberances of Welsh, Scottish, and Irish that make drawing a best-fit line through the points an exercise in graphical uniformity, not statistical rigor.

are always interested in technical
details when the main question is
whether the stuff is
literature or not

Beyond Good and Evil

The criticism of The Lord of the Rings that annoys me the most, and I think I share this opinion with most fans, is when people say the characters are black and white; bad guys are wholly bad and good guys are wholly good, and never the twain shall meet.  These criticisms are made by people who’ve never tried to classify the characters into those groups.

In the post that started this ardagraphic quest, I used the term “bad guys” because I was joking.  Now that I’m seriously trying to make something of that work, I need to replace it with something relevant to the text.  The utility of the good guy/bad guy distinction fell apart for me when I tried to classify Lobelia.  She’s built up as a villain all through the first three chapters, but you have to love an elderly lady, two feet tall, attacking a six-foot oppressor with her umbrella. In any case her repentance at the end, which leads her to give Bag End back to Frodo, ought to disqualify her from the “bad guy” label. “Bad guy” is only useful when talking about Uruk-hai or Bill Ferny.  I hereby abandon it.

A better classification comes from my own experience living in Virginia.[1]  It’s not so much good and bad people, as there are the people you keep close to you, and those about whom you always find yourself saying, “Bless his heart,” (if you’re a woman) or “That’s just Joe” (if you’re a man). They’re not bad guys, per se, but they frequently seem to act in a way that interferes with other folks getting on with their lives. It’s good practice to keep them at arm’s length.

Separation, then, is the classification I’ll use.  The hobbits themselves talk in those terms, and the narrator reinforces it.  I’ll use the terms “close” and “arms-length” to describe the two types of characters above.  Bagginses, Tooks, and Gamgees are “close”; Sandymans and Sackville-Bagginses are “arms-length”.

I see two other kinds of hobbits, besides these Hobbiton types.  First are the fringe elements, who are perceived as being a bit strange and often uncanny. “They still had many peculiar names and strange words not found elsewhere,” the narrator says about the Brandybucks.  (Prologue, i) Likewise the Hornblowers, from ‘way off in the Southfarthing, who “had hardly ever been in Hobbiton before”. (I, i) Since this is a scholarly work, I won’t call them “fringe”.  I’ll say “liminal”.

The last category are the “distant” hobbit-names.  Hobbits in Bree have them.  Frodo uses the name “Underhill” when he’s in Bree because Gandalf (who’s been everywhere) knows that someone who hears it won’t think of the bearer as living anywhere near the Shire.

graph of names and importance

Fig. 1. Classification of Hobbit family names

The counts work out to 13 Close families, 5 Arms-length families, 4 Liminal, and 5 Distant.  These numbers are big enough to be just at the threshold where it doesn’t look silly to put them on a histogram. In Figure 1, the blue bars are the counts of families, and the red line is the sum of the importance of each family in the group.  The distribution of importance is also reasonable; distant characters are less important to a hobbit (and to a story), and the weighting shows that effect.  Families in the Liminal category are slightly more important to the story than those in the Arms-length category because of the presence in the former of Merry Brandybuck.


[1] This is not crazy, as the original post hints.  My (English) ancestors, like other long-time Virginians, originated in the West Midlands near Tolkien’s boyhood home, but they left to come here between 1619 and 1750.  They missed out on the birth of the Industrial Revolution in Birmingham, and kept an agrarian lifestyle until recently.  It’s reasonable to conclude that they’re exactly the kind of peasants JRRT had in mind when he imagined the Shire.[back]

Taking the Plunge

The post on using a British GIS to learn things about hobbits attracted so much positive attention (42 inbound links!) that I’ve decided to turn it into a serious paper.  I’m stunned – given the obscure topic, my expectations for the whole blog were more like “42 page views”.

One drawback is that I don’t yet know what the paper will be about. But Idiosophers are nothing if not data-driven, so I shall start collecting correlations, and we shall go where the numbers take us.

Things I’ll keep my eye on, in case one turns into the topic:

  • From the definition of “subcreation” [1], Middle-Earth is dependent on the real Earth.  Therefore, studies of the created world can cast light on the subcreated world.
  • A teenager picking up LotR today bears the same chronological relationship to it that I bore to Sherlock Holmes.  In 15 years, it’ll be like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Some things that were obvious to JRRT’s intended readership are going to need footnotes, before long.
  • Did hobbit names convey meaning?  Some of them are obvious short-jokes, and others are bragging about living in holes.  What are the rest?  Names are definitely important to JRRT.  Can we tease out the implications this way?

To-do list:

  1. Figure out how to assess the importance of a character to the story.
  2. Separate the good guys from the bad guys.  Or, rather, come up with a sensible categorization.
  3. Define a relationship between the Shire and Britain.
  4. Pick out from the data particular stories to tell.

Once that is done, we can identify the topic.  Statistical methods will not be required, since I’m going to use every hobbit I can find.  As statisticians say, “n=all”.

[1] Ordinarily I would include a link here, but none is available.  Sub-sacroiliac pain from copyright law is Tolkien’s wyrd, even beyond the grave. [back]

Relative Importance of Hobbit Families

Since it got such a positive response, I’m trying to turn the GIS distribution of names in Britain into a piece of real scholarship.  The first step is collecting and classifying Hobbit names.

Shortly after I started doing that, I was forcibly reminded that some characters just aren’t as important as others. Names that get mentioned a single time won’t be as carefully managed as those of more-important characters (even by JRRT), so they should carry less weight.  I’ll need some kind of quantitative measure for the concept of “importance”.  Searching about the Web for an hour produced nothing.  I see plenty of syllabuses from digital-humanities courses that ought to use such a thing, but no explicit references.  Perhaps it’s too trivial for them to mention. That’s an opportunity: What could be more appropriate for this blog than something too trivial for professors?  Onward!

Principles for quantitative importance of a character:

  1. A character must have a positive number of mentions in the story.  In most books, this would be a trivial requirement, but not in LotR.  There are lots of hobbits who are mentioned only in family trees in the Appendices.  I don’t know enough about them to say anything, so they get dropped.
  2. The difference between being mentioned on one page and being mentioned on ten is a big deal.  The difference between being mentioned on 10 pages and 11 is not so big.  The difference between 10 pages of mentions and 100 is a big deal, comparable to that between 1 and 10.

These two principles are just the definition of a multiplicative scale, like we use for sound.  It would be funny to express importance of characters in units of dBfrodo, but a proper solemnity dictates that we use a more information-theoretic definition:  the importance of a character will be the log2 of the number of pages on which that character is mentioned.  The page mentions are from the index of the 2002 single-volume edition of LotR from Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt.

Hobbit families by importance: histogram

Fig. 1:Distribution of importance of hobbit families

For hobbit families in The Lord of the Rings, the distribution of importance looks like Figure 1. There are 28 family names mentioned in the story. Four are mentioned much more frequently than the others, which is reassuring.

There is a group of families that are mentioned only once. A larger group is mentioned thrice.  This is due to the repetition for comic effect of the list of Bilbo’s relatives at the Long-Expected Party.  Then there is a smaller group of hobbits who appear on dozens of pages.  These can be good guys or bad guys. [1]

Log plot of importance of families

Fig. 2 Family names ranked by mentions

On the far right are Baggins, Gamgee, Took, and Brandybuck, as expected.  Figure 2 is an attempt to reconcile my desire for a density graph like Figure 1 with the fact that logarithms don’t really mesh well with histograms.  The left-right position is the number of pages, the vertical position of the name is that family’s position in the bin in Figure 1.

I think this measure of importance will work.  It emphasizes the right things:  Farmer Cotton is “the chief person around here”, and his family duly shows up near the top.  It de-emphasizes the right things: Merry gets mentioned about 40% less than Pippin, but that washes out if importance is quoted with no fractional part.  Hobbits who barely exist at all, such as a few families in Bree whose only significance is that there are similar names in the Shire, have zero importance.

[1] Sauron is mentioned on 273 pages, which makes him two notches worse than the Sackville-Bagginses.[back]

Another Kind of Digital Humanities

They can do amazing things with geographic information systems, these days.  My local county government lets you look up all kinds of useful geographic information on line.  This one came across the Twitter feed this morning:  look up your family name, and find out where they live on a map of the UK.  Obviously it’s intended for real people, not fictional ones, so let’s start with reality.  Here’s my maternal grandfather’s name:

He told me he was Scotch-Irish!

Tracking my British ancestry.

I see two hot-spots.  One is in Manchester, the other in Birmingham. Family lore says we’re Scottish, but family lore says lots of things and believing them is not always advisable.  (That castle in Toulouse turned out not to exist, dommage.)

Enough reality.  From what I know of Professor Tolkien’s biography, there’s an intriguing overlap here. His old stomping grounds were near Birmingham, and he wrote it into his tales. That got me to looking up hobbit names.  Surprise, it worked!  Took, Burrows, Bolger, Baggins, Underhill … Lots of them have hot-spots around Birmingham. Maybe my grandfather comes from good Hobbiton stock.  The Cottons are a bit to the north, like us.

There had always been a Baggins at Bag End.

There had always been a Baggins in the middle.

Lots of other hobbits aren’t there. Sandyman and Brandybuck can’t be found in the modern UK at all.  All the Grubbs are over in Lincolnshire, on business of their own that doesn’t concern me.  Sackvilles are in Gloucester and Leicester, which makes me wonder if I ought to be skipping the pronunciation of some letters in the middle of their name.

So, nearby hobbits have Birmingham names.  Strange half-foreign types like Bucklanders are completely fabricated.  The bad guys are from “far-away” places. All this makes perfect sense, if we imagine that JRRT was trying to create an idealized version of his childhood surroundings in the Shire.  Except for one glaring exception.

Service of the Baggins family may have involved commuting.

No Bagginses here. You’re in the wrong part of the Shire!

Samwise and his Gaffer seem to be Londoners.  In Tolkien’s day they could have taken the train (making a noise like a firework dragon) but how the family ended up with jobs in the Shire is a mystery to me.

In any case, I love maps as much as old Bilbo did.  Even if they don’t immediately open up new vistas for the digital humanities, they give me things to ponder.  It’s not impossible to imagine a study of subcreated worlds that draws on maps of this one, but I can’t see it yet.

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