The Language of Naming

In many cultures around the world, the process of naming a child is an important and sometimes grand affair. Parents and other family members take great care in selecting a name for their child, because they hope and feel that it will reflect in the child’s life. When learning a language, it is inevitable that you will encounter such carefully-picked names, and part of appreciating the language can take the form of learning about these names. However, because I can’t possibly cover all the naming traditions in the world, I will go over the three I am most familiar with.

For some cultures, the picking of a name is a deeply religious affair, and must align exactly with what a priest/astrologer tells the parents. For example, many Hindu parents hold a naming ceremony for their children. As you can imagine, there is a slight logistic problem: many hospitals do not release children until there is a name on the birth certificate. It is for this reason that the names of many Hindus as they appear on official paperwork may not be the full name given to them during the ceremony, especially considering that it takes a great deal of paperwork and time to get one’s name changed. But back to the ceremony. Leaving aside the ritual, the actual naming or namkarna of the child varies from region to region. In South India, names are often long, adhering to longstanding traditions, and are given according to various criteria, such as the day/time of birth, the area of birth, star alignments, and the lineages of the parents. North Indians don’t have long names as often, in my experience, anyway. It is important to understand that people in South India may use different names in the workplace, at home, and with friends for any number of reasons. Furthermore, in South India, it is not common for people to actually have last names, and for official paperwork, people will, for all intents and purposes, make up last names.

In China, as this video by Off the Great Wall explains, surnames are a relatively recent introduction into Chinese society. (Warning: Apologies for any discrepancies/misunderstandings; I’m only writing what I’ve read and heard.) The very concept of a surname was originally reserved for the emperor and his family, and later on, the nobility. It was only after the unification of the states that surnames began to extend beyond the upper classes. People often took on the last name of the ruler of their region, or took on last names based on the names of the area itself. Given, or first names, are a different matter. First names are given based on qualities that parents believe are good, but it is considered bad practice to name children after relatives and famous people. Siblings may have radicals or whole characters in their names that are related, such as a brother and sister having the characters for “sun,” and, “moon” in their names, respectively. (Note: this does not hold true for all Chinese people, as some may have their own traditions, and fortune-telling is prevalent among some families, but I couldn’t find much on other traditions.)

Across Europe, the process of naming children is a relatively simple affair compared to those in Asia. In Europe, where Christianity is prevalent, it is very common to name children after people in the Bible, save for people like Methusaleh or Judas. However, due to the pagan roots of Europe, many names of Celtic, Roman, and Gothic origin continue to be given today. In Western Europe, children are frequently named after grandparents or other relatives (which may or may not be departed), either through first or middle names. Spain, along with the Latin American countries, has a very rigid naming tradition in which the first names of grandparents and last names of parents are incorporated into a child’s name.

I hope you found this article interesting, and inspire you to learn about your own name, which should tell you more about where you come from as well! Feel free to share this with your friends on Facebook and Tumblr!

Do You Know All Your Relatives? Maybe Not.

I recently watched two videos by Off The Great Wall, a YouTube channel that makes videos concerning the Chinese culture and also things about Mandarin and Cantonese. It’s an excellent channel, and I highly recommend that you subscribe to it and watch their videos. But back to the videos I was talking about. These videos talk about the immensely complicated and detailed family tree in Mandarin and Cantonese. You can see the videos at (Mandarin) and at If you’re a Mandarin or Cantonese speaker, see if you can recognize all the words!

So, let’s get down to business. The kinship systems in Mandarin and Cantonese are essentially the Indian kinship systems on steroids, with names for extremely specific members of the family across several generations. I find that this says something about the cultures in question. I have noticed that in countries where specific terms exist for certain members of the family, there often are joint-family households or families living in close proximity. In India, grandparents, and even great-grandparents live in a main house with the children and grandchildren. Even aunts and uncles may live with them. From what I have heard from my Chinese friends, it is similar in China.

There is a great sense of familial togetherness, honor, and respect for the elders in both Chinese and Indian culture. I’m not saying that this is not the case in Western cultures, but in many European countries, families are typically nuclear families, with only parents and children living in the house. Grandparents may live with them, but it is considerably rarer than in India and China. In the US, parents often make a point of children moving out and living on their own with their own families, with a stress on the independence factor. I have a feeling that this has something to do with the kinship terminology.

In Spanish, Portuguese, and other Romance languages, there are few terms that extend beyond great-grandparents, cousins, and uncles and aunts. In Chinese, in contrast, according to the video, relatives can be distinguished by the side of the family they’re on in relation to you, who they’re married to, and their age. In the Chinese culture, there is a great stress on knowing your family very well, and it is considered poor upbringing (from what I have been told) to not know the correct terms or use them incorrectly.

Terms that extend beyond great-grandparents in Romance languages are often technical terms for genealogical purposes, whereas in Mandarin and Cantonese, the equivalent terms are used often, even if the relative in question is no longer living or not present. In Indian languages, there is more emphasis on terminology that concerns in-laws, and people insist on using them correctly. While you certainly would never call your mother-in-law saas to her face, but you would use that word to call her indirectly. With all these things in mind, it would be very easy to say that Western cultures are not as close with their families.

However, there is a counterargument to all of this: Latin American and Southern Italian families. These cultures are well known for their tight-knit extended family households, but Spanish and Italian lack the specificity of the Indian languages and Mandarin and Cantonese. However, this could be a result of societies that are historically agrarian, include village communities, and have tribal divisions, in which all members of the family would participate in daily matters and create the community. These are factors that are common to Latin America, Southern Italy, India, and China, though the American South is a notable exception due to the whole US’ rapid industrialization and technological advancement in 19th and 20th centuries.

So, you have something to think about. Please leave your comments and like the page on Facebook, at! Like and share/reblog this post if you liked it!