Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

The cultural and linguistic relevance of naming practices

The cultural and linguistic relevance of naming practices


The category of proper nouns comprised of names is a linguistic and cultural universal. The connection between nouns and names is so deep that, in some languages, the two words are synonymous. In a survey of naming practices in genetically and geographically diverse languages and associated cultures, all groups used names, though the origin, function, meaning, number, and form of names varied dramatically. A correlation between type of name or name order was not established with any linguistic variable, and a hypothesized pattern in name order between Western versus Eastern cultures could not be found. The only consistency was the presence of one or more personal names. The Western notion of a name as a semantically void label leads to a metalinguistic expectation that names will look and function similarly in other societies. This study establishes the erroneous nature of such an expectation, specifically, with the cross-culturally uncommon dominance of surnames in Western naming tradition. In many cultures, surnames not only failed to provide information about the genealogical or ethnic origin of the person, but were unimportant or nonexistent. Naming practices reviewed included traditions so varied as taboos against speaking a person’s name, instead using kinship terms, honorifics, or titles as a means of address and reference. This study revisits the philosophical question of defining a name, and invites further research in the areas of inherited surname practices and the connections between culture, location, language, and naming.

April 16, 2011 - Posted by | abstract


  1. In reading this I am not sure what the paper is about. An example of proper nouns comprised of names would clarify it for the reader.

    Comment by Peter Chrisomalis | April 20, 2011 | Reply

  2. Sounds good to me, though there is one sentence I would adjust. ‘speaking a person’s name, instead using kinship terms,’ could instead be, ‘speaking a person’s name instead of using kinship terms,’

    Comment by Bonnie | June 9, 2011 | Reply

  3. strike that.. I just re-read the passage.

    Comment by Bonnie | June 9, 2011 | Reply

  4. Re: the “…Western notion of a name as a semantically void label….”

    Perhaps I am missing the point here, but many “Western” names do carry various degrees of meaning. Sometimes it relates to a traditon of having a particular name in the family (my grandmother’s name was Ellen, therefore I name my first female child Ellen); sometimes the meaning relates to a worldview (I call my child Rachel because I have certain religious beliefs): sometimes the meaning is idiosyncratic (I name my child Natalie after a famous actress I adore).

    Western naming practices, if indeed one can speak of such a thing, has its own semantics.

    Comment by Glenn | June 11, 2011 | Reply

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