The Name Game
(Originally published August 14, 2014)
After a brief hiatus due to fieldwork in Greece and Turkey, we continue the blog with a realization of just how important names are in developing and representing identity. Onomastics, a subdiscipline of linguistics, delves into the ramifications of naming and is often applied to business as well as personal use.
Proper names and toponyms are some of the best examples of preserving or reconstructing a form of linguistic identity. In the case of topography, the name of a specific location has the potential to reveal much historical information about the specific area. With regards to Asia Minor, the Turkification of villages and cities was an important part to solidify the budding nationalistic identity of the new Republic of Turkey and eliminate any trace of the Greek speaking Byzantine Empire that may have survived during the Ottoman reign. Hence, we see large cities such as Smyrna, Nicaea and Prousa transformed into Izmir, Iznik and Bursa to accommodate Turkish phonological rules. We also see smaller villages such as Androniki undergoing more radical linguistic changes (Endürlük).
North America presents an interesting community where we see some Native American tribes represented in city and county names juxtaposed to those of Spanish, French, German and other origin. In Northern New Jersey alone, we have towns like Mahwah and Paramus (coming from the Eastern Algonquian language group of the Lenape), Demarest and Dumont (French), Teaneck and Tenafly (Dutch), and so on. What are the broader ramifications of having such linguistic diversity in the place names of one general location? One could argue that having so many different languages coming together (as represented in place names) leads to a seemingly desensitized understanding of the respective languages. In short, we see rampant lexicalization of toponyms, as individuals are not consciously aware of the original intended meaning of the place name. This furthers the idea of the United States embodying an increasingly multicultural community.
What about personal names? Expecting parents spend more time deciding on the first (and often middle) names of their infant than they do preparing the child’s new room, as suggested by Google hits of 524,000,000 for “baby name” but only 420,000,000 for “baby room” and 96,600,000 for “nursery room.” In fact, many cultures have strict guidelines in this process, either having to take the name of a recently deceased family member or choosing one from a religious figure, in addition to taking addition names during rituals such as baptism, vision quests and other rites of passage. As children, we often face ridicule by having what is perceived to be a “strange” first or last name. As adults, we recognize the importance that a name has on the development of a career, hence why so many actors have stage names deemed to be more desirable than their given ones, the way authors adopt pennames.
What’s the story behind your name? Did you grow up at one point wanting to legally change your name? As always, I’m curious to hear your comments!