Model Languages

The newsletter discussing newly imagined words for newly imagined worlds

Volume I, Issue 3 (1/2) -- July 1, 1995

Table of contents

More gymnastics with onomastics

Where the last issue of Model Languages described in detail how to create model languages for generating names, this issue specifically elaborates on how different languages and cultures form names.

Here are some useful terms to describe the study of names:

Structure of names

There are many different ways a culture can structure a name, and the people who speak your language may use any of the following, or a different way besides:

This list is in no means exhaustive, with the possibility of variations even within a tradition. My friend Steve and his wife recently named their baby Joshua Patrick Lewis LaFrance Weissman: Joshua Patrick because they liked the Old and New Testament ring, Lewis after Steve's grandfather, LaFrance after his wife's surname, and Weissman because ... well, because!

Throughout much of history, when most people never traveled far from home, a given name sufficed, with use of a nickname in case there were two Davids in the village, for instance. As people were exposed to more and more people, the family name was added to differentiate people, then the middle name was added for the same purpose. As mass communications and the Internet expose people to that many more individuals, it would not be surprising if people begin making more prominent use of their middle names and begin adding extra middle names, like my friend Steve did for his son.

In Britain and the U.S., the first name, the given name, is the one the person regularly goes by. This is not so in Germany, where many people go by their middle names, so that Helmut Michael Schneid is likely to be called Michael by his friends, not Helmut.

Of course, many Oriental languages put the family name before the given name, reversing the regular order of Occidental names. Thus, Mao Ze Dong is known as Chairman Mao, not Chairman Ze Dong. (Hungarian is another language that puts the family name first.)

English names are unique in one respect -- no other language has a construct similar to the Jr. ("Junior") that gets appended to the names of boys who have the same names as their father's, so that Carl Glenn Henning's eponymous son is known as Carl Glenn Henning, Jr.

Some languages, such as Russian, add gender endings to the family name, so that it is Mr. Molotov, but Mrs. Molotova. The Japanese routinely append an honorific to a person's name, such as -san; or -sama, a superhonorific; or -kun, for someone familiar or subordinate; or -chan, a term of endearment reserved for children.

Patronymics: in the name of the father

One of the more common elements of names is a patronymic, a reference to a person's father.

ScotsMac-, Mc-MacDougal
WelshApAp Gwilym

Related to this, Fitz- (as in Fitzgerald) is Old French for "son of", though it was typically used to mean "illegitimate son of". (So the next time you're angry with some idiot, but your kids are listening, call him a "son of a Fitz".)

Amharic (which is a language of Ethiopia) no longer has a separate word for its patronymic, so a name is simply formed from the child's given name plus the father's given name (as if Robert Stevenson was just Robert Steven).

While English has fossilized its patronymic, so that for all we know Robert Louis Stevenson's father may have been named Joe, many languages -- including Arabic, Hebrew and Icelandic -- give a new patronymic to each generation. In such a culture, Robert Louis Stevenson's son Jeffery would be known as Jeffery Robertson and his son Thomas would be known as Thomas Jefferyson, and so on, with each son give a different last name than his father.

The Russians use patronymics in such a way that children still have the same family name as their parents. In Russian, the patronymic is the middle name, so Ivan's son has the middle name of Ivanovich, while Ivan's daughter has the middle name of Ivanovna.

The Spanish and Portuguese are more fair to the people who carry these children for nine months. Both languages form last names from the family names of both the mother and father. In Brazilian, the name of the mother precedes the father's, so that the mother of Eliana Marcia Villela Gomes Soares has a surname of Villela, while Eliana's father had the surname of Gomes Soares (Gomes being the family name of his mother). Spanish reverses the order, putting the name of the father first.

Related to patronymics, but different altogether, is teknonymy, where the parent is named after the child. In Arabic, the parent would be known as "father of" or "mother of" the eldest son.

Constructing names

Forming first names first

The story is told, perhaps apocryphally, of a tribe in Nyassaland, Africa, that took its names from a publisher's book catalog that had found its way into their hands. The chief christened himself Oxford University Press.

Ox, as his friends may have called him, had chosen his name in one of the more unusual ways. Typically, first names are formed from compounds, from saints' names, from places, from personal traits -- in fact, from many things other than publisher's book catalogs.

German and Celtic frequently formed compounds (and served as the basis for the naming vocabulary described in the June issue). Examples of this style of first names include Baldwin, "bold friend", and Gilbert, "shining pledge".

The first name is often, especially in Britain, called the Christian name, because after the Norman Conquest the first name was frequently taken from that of a Christian saint (Matthew, Mark, Luke and others). Other traditions would name children after places (Norton, "from the northern village"; Glenna, "from the glen"), personal characteristics (Joy; Kent, "handsome"; Kevin, "kind") and even animals (I'm not going to mention "Dances With Wolves" again).

Arabic and Semitic, and many other languages, feature theophoric names, names referring to God, such as Arabic Abd Alla-'h, "slave of Allah", or Hebrew Daniel, "God is the judge", and Michael, "God-like". Anglo-Saxon names also referred to God, as in Godfrey referring to "God's peace" (and surviving in the more common name descended from Godfrey, Jeffrey). The Anglo-Saxons had not always been Christian, and older names made frequent use of Alf-, "elf", the elves being divine spirits, so that Alfreda meant "counselled by elves" and Elvira meant "elf-like" (making it a suitable name for the host of a horror-movie theater).

Since the elves, if not appeased, might take a baby and leave a changling in its place, it was hoped that a child named after elves would be left alone by them. Other cultures take the fear of evil spirits further. If a mother had already lost a child to disease, she might be likely to name her next child after something vile, to keep evil spirits away. So her baby might be given an apotropaic name like "Ugly" or "Misshapen".

A name like "Ugly" would not be accepted in many European countries. France, Germany and Scandinavia all have lists of approved first names; a baby must be given an approved name, or the child will not be legally recognized. (Perhaps a superstitious Norwegian will name his child "Illegal" in the hopes of keeping those modern evil spirits, lawyers, away.)

Incidentally, many languages do not have separate names for men and women, as if all names were like the English neuter names of Chris, Alex, Lee and Kelly. Other languages often use regular inflections for grammatical gender to indicate the gender of names, so that John and Jane, for instance, which are both from the same Hebrew name, are represented as Johann and Johanna in German, Giovanna and Giovanni in Italian and Juana and Juan in Spanish.

Forming family names

In America, melting pot of the world, there are over 1.2 million last names, according to an analysis of the Social Security rolls. In an analysis of my own business address book, consisting of 4,240 U.S. computer professionals, I found 2,936 unique names, ranging from Abate to Zytniak. Choosing any individual at random revealed a 48% chance that no one else in the address book had the same last name as them -- this is simply an amazing diversity, representing the hundreds of cultures who have seen citizens migrate to the United States.

Koreans, in contrast, have just a few principal last names, such as Kim, Pak and Yi, though they have different spelling variations (Yi is also spelled Li, Lee, I and Rhee). Because ancestry is so important to Koreans, they have been culturally adverse to changing their last names; in fact, family names are so important that women do not change their family names upon getting married. As a result, Koreans have preserved the last names of the three major families that first settled the present-day Korean peninsula.

Like the Koreans, the Welsh also have few family names. So to tell apart all the people named Jones, Price or Evans, the Welsh tend to distinguish people with 'by-names', so that Welsh Mark Jones-the- petrol is distinguished from Mark Jones-the-gardener.

Many family names derived from such a casual use of referring to people by their occupations: farmer, weaver (e.g., Webster), baker. One of the most prestigious occupations in ancient times was that of the blacksmith, who forged swords into ploughshares in time of peace, and pikes into pole-arms in time of war. In fact, blacksmiths were among the most influential members of community, which is why the most common family name in many cultures is "Smith":

EnglishSmith, Smythe, et. al.
FrenchLa Fèvre, La Forge
SpanishFernández, Hernández

Besides occupations and patronymics, other sources of family names include places (Henning, for instances, means "the meadow filled with larks"), colors (White, Brown, Green) and virtues (Good).

Forming names of nations

Many groups of people (races and nations) see themselves as "the people" of the world. If they are isolated from other tribes or realms, they are even more likely to name themselves "the people", as the Innuit (Eskimos), the Bantu (an African tribe) and the Illeni Indians (for whom Illinois is named) did. The Chinese were chauvinistic about it; their name is derived from the dynasty of Chin, with Chin being the word for "man".

The more different realms a group of people are aware of the more likely they are to name themselves after the place where they live: the Canadians live in Canada, the English live in England, the Germans live in Germany. But the Jews live in Israel (the name of one of their greatest ancestors).

If your imaginary people are imaginative enough to call themselves something besides "the people" or "the people of [place]", they will nonetheless give themselves a flattering name, something like "the people of God" or "the blessed people" or "the people of [person]", where the person is any suitably noble patriarch or matriarch.

So how did the English get to be called the English? Well, in the fifth and sixth centuries AD, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes migrated from northern Germany to southern Britain. The Angles' name was related to their word angel, "hook", and is assumed to refer to hook-shaped stretches of the German coast. By the ninth century, Englaland was used to describe the island all three tribes had settled, and the form of the name was quickly shortened (not by happenstance, but by haplology) to England.

Cultural attitudes towards names

No one knows a man's true name but himself and his namer. He may choose at length to tell it to his brother, or his wife, or his friend, yet even those few will never use it where any third person may hear it. In front of other people, they will, like other people, call him by his use-name, his nickname -- such a name as Sparrowhawk, and Vetch, and Ogion which means 'fir-cone'. If plain men hide their true name from all but a few they love and trust utterly, so much more must wizardly men, being more dangerous, and more endangered. Who knows a man's name, holds that man's life in his keeping.

"A Wizard of Earthsea", Ursula K. Le Guin

Names are invested with a power. Many cultures have private names, or true names, that are only to be used by family and close friends, with a public name used regularly instead. The fear is that a wizard or witch will learn their true name and so be able to cast a spell over them.

In Múharafic, the model language spoken by desert nomads in an exceptionally dry science fiction novel a friend and I once wrote, each person's name exerts power over them. The most powerful person in the clan is the watersinger, who names each child upon ascension to adulthood, and therefore knows the names of everyone in the clan. The watersinger can declare a person outcast by announcing his true name to everyone. Alternatively, a person can gnomifesi, "confide one's true name to another", to give themselves in marriage to their partner.

The Todas of India are not afraid to have their names known, but they will not themselves pronounce their own names. When an individual is introduced to someone new, she asks a companion to say her name.

As David Crystal writes in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, "People in the 20th century may find it easy to dismiss such attitudes, but things have not greatly changed. It is unlikely that popular opinion would ever allow a new ship to be named Titanic."

Contents copyright 1995 Jeffrey Henning. All rights reserved.
Last updated: March 1996
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