Part one in a series
Most people would agree that the name they carry is the single most important identifier of their individuality. In fact, almost like DNA, names are among the major characteristics that people carry throughout their life. We identify most historical figures by their names long after their departure from earth.
Names people are given are intrinsically linked to the cultural fabric of the community. The naming of a child varies widely across cultures. The one distinctive common denominator to all cultures all over the world is that no one chooses his or her name; all cultures assign names at birth. Do you think you should be free to give your child the name that pleases you? The affirmative answer is limited to some cultures but not to others.
In Iceland – and a few other countries – the government had developed an official “Personal Names Register” that includes all approved Icelandic names (1,712 male names and 1,853 female names) from which all parents are required to pick their children’s names. It is illegal to choose a name that does not exist in the register, or to assign a male name to a female. In fact, a case is currently pending in Icelandic court where a young lady is suing her government for preventing her from using the name it pleased her mother to give her. Because her given name, Blaer, is not an approved name, she is being officially called “Girl.”
Examples abound of names of historical celebrities – such as Washington or Martin Luther King – that are commonly used around the world for people, streets, buildings, monuments and more. Nevertheless, other very famous names such as “God,” “Jesus” or “Satan” are not given to children as a standalone names in the vast majority of cultures, unless they are part of a person’s name (i.e. Godlove). The reason why Spanish and Portuguese cultures use the name “Jesus” as male first name remains unknown today although other European Catholic cultures do not use them.
Chinese people always attach great importance to the choice of names. In the old days, when elders named a new born baby, they took several factors into full consideration: the astrological principles, the date of birth, the array of other factors such as five elements important in the Chinese culture (metal, wood, water, fire and earth), the form, pronunciation, and meaning of a name. Nowadays with superstition being lessened and traditional constraints reduced, to have a good name, one needs to consider a name as a whole, its sound, shape and length.
Part two of this column deals with African Cultures and their rich traditions of names and the naming ceremonies across the continent. The main naming characteristic of traditional African cultures is that every name has a meaning. It is believed that when a name is attached to a child, certain specific forces are stimulated and combined to create the complete person he or she can identify with. That is why in many traditional African cultures, “family names” or last names are not transmitted from one generation to the next because these cultures do not expect two persons to have the same identity or to live the same type of life.
Emmanuel Ngomsi, Ph.D. is President of All World Languages and Cultures, Inc. He consults and coaches on cultures, cultural diversity and languages. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.