On Ralphs and Rafes

Q: I’ve read that the British don’t pronounce the “l” of Ralph because it was originally silent in Old English. Is that true?

A: No, the “l” was pronounced in the Old English predecessors of the name Ralph, and it’s usually pronounced now in both Britain and the US. However, some Ralphs in the UK, like the actor Ralph Fiennes and the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, have pronounced their name as if it were spelled “Rafe.”

Words were pronounced as they were spelled in Old English, which was spoken from roughly 450 to 1100. There were no silent letters. So the “l” was vocalized in Radulf, Radolf, Raulf and Raulfus—the Old English predecessors of Ralph.

The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland (2016), by Patrick Hanks, Richard Coates, and Peter McClure, says Radulf and Radolf first appeared in the Domesday Book (1086), a survey of taxpayers in England and Wales that was ordered by William I, known as William the Conqueror.

The authors add that the other two names, Raulf and Raulfus clericus (Latin for Raulf the clerk), showed up soon afterward in the 1095 feudal records of the abbey of Bury Saint Edmunds. The four Old English names are all derived from the Old Norse Raðulfr (“counsel wolf” or “wise wolf”).

The dictionary, now considered the definitive authority on British and Irish family names, is a four-volume, 2,992-page work that was 20 years in the making.

Some other family-name references cite Raedwulf (“red wolf” in Old English) as the original Anglo-Saxon ancestor of Ralph. However, the Oxford authors don’t include it and apparently don’t consider Raedwulf, the name of an obscure king of Northumbria, an early form of Ralph.

The ancestors of the name Ralph in Middle English, which was spoken from roughly 1100 to 1500, include Radulfus (1140), Raulf (1296), Rolf (1308), Ralf (1327), and Rolffe (1410), according to the Oxford authors.

The earliest “l”-less version, Radufus, appeared around 1200 in a Danelaw document from Lincolnshire. Danelaw, or Danish law, held sway in parts of northern and eastern England that had been occupied by the Danes and other Norse invaders.

Additional early “l”-less versions cited in the Oxford reference were Raffe and Rauf, which were recorded in 1273 in the Hundred Rolls, a census in England and part of what is now Wales.

The “Rafe” pronunciation of Rauf and Raulf emerged as the articulation of vowels underwent a vast upheaval in late Middle English and early Modern English (from roughly 1350 to 1550). Linguists refer to this as the Great Vowel Shift.

As the Oxford authors explain, “In late Middle English the diphthong -au- was sometimes simplified to long -a-, later pronounced ‘ay’ as in modern English day, which accounts for Rafe. This pronunciation of the personal name Ralph is still occasionally found in modern times.”

The “Ralph” spelling of Raulf and Rauf became common in the 16th century, according to the family-name dictionary. Printing, which had been introduced into England the century before, helped standardize that spelling, but some Ralphs have continued to pronounce their name without the “l,” as “Rafe.”

One of those Rafes, the British philosopher Ralph Wedgwood, says, “My name has always been pronounced in this way by my family and close friends. (I was named after my great-grandfather Ralph L. Wedgwood (1874–1956), who always pronounced it in this way as well.)”

In a page entitled Ralph on his website, Wedgwood says he doesn’t object when strangers pronounce his first name the usual way, but he doesn’t feel this pronunciation “is really my name at all.”

“I love my name,” he writes. “To me, it somehow seems to sum up the quirky historical contingency and poetry of language, all in one sonorous monosyllable.” (His full name is Sir Ralph Nicholas Wedgwood, 4th Baronet, though he doesn’t mention the title on his website.)

We’ll end with a passage from Gilbert and Sullivan’s H. M. S. Pinafore, in which Little Buttercup rhymes the first name of Ralph Rackstraw with “waif”:

In time each little waif
Forsook his foster-mother,
The well-born babe was Ralph––
Your captain was the other!

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On Ralphs and Rafes