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!

Published by

I'm a student studying at NYU, hoping to pursue a career in diplomatic services, and I'm obsessed with learning and teaching foreign languages. I like to practice Taekwondo, enjoy Square Enix video games, and engage in Asian-American social activism and international political activism.