Saturday, May 7, 2011

What's In A Name?

Back in March I blogged about genealogy in relation to writing and other things, well a little about it. Genealogy is one of my interests, and in the course of researching family ties from all over the globe - okay, so mainly Europe, because no one wants to talk about the other stuff - go figure - I learned about naming traditions. Well, not just for genealogy - it was also research for a book I was writing at the time. While it is important to understand those traditions in genealogy, it is also important in writing. Every culture has their own naming traditions, nearby cultures or cultures that routinely interact are more likely to have similar cultures than those cultures who have never interacted. Those traditions change with time also.

I'm a History Channel and National Geographic Channel junkie and the DVR feature is one of my favorites - my recorded shows are always on those - well with the exception of Criminal Minds and CSI: NY. It was on a show on History Channel where I learned of a tribe in the Amazon Jungle that when a person dies that person's name is no longer allowed to be said, and while it is most certainly a death ritual, it is also a naming tradition. Because the name can no longer be said they may choose names like middle nail on a three-toed sloth in the rainy season, because it's a word not commonly used and will therefore not be missed as much.

Conversely, in Western Europe, Great Britain, and Ireland for the more recent past - I did not dig really far back, but it works through a good portion of the history after the Renaissance period so far - use a very similar naming system. Names are meant to honor people, so the first born son is named for the baby's paternal grandfather, the second son is named for his maternal grandfather, the third son is named for his father, the fourth son could be named for a close brother or friend. Daughters are named in a similar tradition - the first daughter is named for her paternal grandmother, the second one is named for her maternal grandmother, the third for her mother, and then a close sister or aunt or friend. Now, it gets more complicated when say the first son dies, because the next son born will be named the same name as the first son. Same with daughters. Which may not seem like a big deal until you realize that families were huge. If a couple (lets say John and Mary Smith) had 5 sons and 3 daughters that all got married and had children, the first son from each of the boys would be named John Smith. Now, if the first John Smith was named for either his father or paternal grandfather there are potential for several dozen John Smith's to be running around the same village at about the same time. A bit complicated.

However, in China it is considered disrespectful to speak the name of an older parent or grandparent and therefore children are never named after family members. In Japan, girls are often named for virtues their parents wish for them to have, similar to early American History, and boys are given names that are inventive or reflective of their position. In some Asian countries the first name is actually the family name or surname.

Back in North America, American Indians can have multiple names in addition to the American one that is listed on their birth certificate and other official documents. Those names and how they are given and earned will vary by tribe and nation. Where as African-Americans create a name for their child, Latin-Americans name children for special relatives.

In Iceland, they still don't use last names, but are the child of their father. They can trace their families back 13+ generations. In some Scandinavian countries it was typical that the child's surname was their father's name plus gender. So if Erik had two kids a girl and a boy you would get Jan Eriksen and Mary Eriksdatter.

Also among naming traditions is not naming a child until between 7 and 10 days after birth, receiving a different name at puberty, public and private names. Humans name everything, and the names given to children/people reflect on the values of the culture.

So, aside from genealogical importance what difference does it make?

If you are building a world or just a sub culture in the contemporary one, names will help characters identify the people they meet and not only let the reader know who belongs where, but also makes the culture more vibrant and believable. It also can add another layer of intrigue to the story. If an entire village has their first name starting with s' and one person doesn't, that tells the reader immediately that something is wrong. Names can be given or stripped from characters depending on what is important in their culture. A name can be an integral part of the plot or just part of the hidden back story, known fully to the author, but picked up on by readers.

Humans name pretty much everything, which makes the character's name possibly more than just a name from a baby book.

Simone.

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