Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Naming - intercultural inspirations

We've discussed naming before on the show (various posts are here), but this time we wanted to take a look at different ways that people use names across the world. These might provide valuable inspiration for naming in fictional worlds. Names take lots of forms. Here are a few:

first name-last name (a friend of mine, for example)
first name-middle name-last name (my brother, for example)
first name-more than one middle name-last name (me, for example)
one single name (Indonesia, for example)
family name-personal name (Japan, for example)
differing personal name, same name within a religion (Sikhism, for example)
two given names-paternal surname-maternal surname (Mexico, for example)

British royalty have lots of given names.
Do people have middle names? It depends.
Racehorses, of course, have their lineage in their names, but today we were dealing mostly with how people are named.

In fiction, you will find many examples of "true names" and their importance. We immediately thought of Patricia McKillip's work in fantasy and Ursula K. LeGuin's work in science fiction.

We speculated that one could write a story where bureaucracy was a form of magic, and knowing something's true name would be critical there, as voter ID for example would be a magical thing.

Another very common naming tradition is that of passing the father's name on to the firstborn son. When the names are entirely identical, people often have to engage in nicknaming in order to disambiguate their family members (especially when it's common across more than two generations).

In Ashkenazi Jewish communities, there is a tradition of naming a child after a deceased relative. Sometimes this only means the first letter of the name is in common, rather than the whole name.

There are also traditions in which people take religious names, such as having a Hebrew name, or changing your name when you convert to Islam (or another religion).

We talked about when Chinese people take English names. This tradition was started by missionaries who could not pronounce Chinese and therefore renamed people without consulting them, although these days people tend to choose a name they like.

People have had their names changed in immigration scenarios for years and years. On Ellis Island, tons of people had their names involuntarily changed by immigration officials. The immigrants were likely too tired to advocate with impatient and/or racist officials for using their own names.

Your name is who you are. Disrespect for your name generally means disrespect for you.

Morgan mentioned that in some classroom contexts, kids named Jesus (in this case, the Spanish pronunciation hey-sús) have been punished because their teachers felt it was somehow disrespectful to claim to share a name with an important religious figure.

Religions can definitely have naming rules, sometimes complex ones, and having those names will indicate a person's affiliation to the general population. Morgan mentioned the use of "ben" "bat" and "bar" in Judaism to indicate a person's relationships.

A name often indicates what land you came from, or who your parent is. Stigma can sometimes be associated with this.

Patsy told us that in her family, they used Scandinavian patronymics (naming after the father), and so different generations would alternate the name Ole Halvorson (Ole son of Halvor) and Halvor Oleson (Halvor son of Ole). She explained that this makes it really hard to keep track of the lives of individuals in her family tree! She also says that where she lives, this kind of naming pattern is very common and sometimes leads to mistaken identity.

How many Davids do you know? How many Johns do you know? Sometimes there can be a lot!

In fiction, there is definitely pressure to keep all character names unique, because it helps readers to keep from mixing them up! You might be able to make an exception to this if you establish particular naming traditions within your fictional society.

My Varin society has an old tradition of naming called the "name-line," where different names are associated with personal characteristics (like courage, e.g.), and so you will name your child after someone who used to have the name. Ideally, though, the person whose name-line you choose should be deceased, so there cannot be a lot of any particular given name in the population at a time.

In our world, there are indigenous communities where people have private names specific to their membership in that community.

Names are associated with respect, so it's problematic if you mix up pets' names and humans' names, but it does happen. My husband got his name because one of the other names they had considered for him was given to the dog!

We noted that when you are naming animals, occasionally there are names whose use is exclusive to animals, like "Spot" or "rover." In French, "Milou" is a name given to a dog, while "Minou" is a name given to a cat, and the two are not mixed.

People may be named for virtues, as in the Puritan era in the United States.

Ethnographies are a good research tool for finding names.

Why do names fall out of use? They can be associated with a good or bad person, either on a historical level or on a personal level. They can also become associated with a particular generation.

Sometimes people make up names, while others think that you shouldn't make up names. There was a trend in the hippy era where people made up names. I have also read that the African-American community often creates new names. The nerdy community uses names drawn from literature, and these are often made up.

Some names have literal meanings, like "Ocean," or "Apple." Many names are literal in their origins, as one can learn by doing research on the history of names ("Peter" means "rock," for example). If you look at the names of the elves in J. R. R. Tolkien's books, you find that those names are literal in the elvish languages he invented.

Last names are literal when they are the names of professions like Tanner, Shoemaker, or Fletcher.

Japan went through a period in its history when people who were not of the samurai class took on names, and those names were often associated with where the people lived (Tanaka - middle of the rice fields, Matsushita - under the pine, Kawaguchi - the mouth of the river).

Underhill might be the name of a fae...

Patsy told us she'd invented a society where you got to add a syllable to your name every time you accomplished something, and so your name became like your resume. Humans had short names so these people thought they must be very un-accomplished...

As usual, there is always more we could have discussed. However, we enjoyed this discussion a lot and we hope it provides you with some ideas!