Humans Are Weird: Anthroponomastics Edition
I’m a bit of a nerd when it comes to a lot of things, but one of the ones that really interests me that I don’t think a lot of people necessarily think about is personal names: the set of names that identify individual human beings.
One of the common things I see in science fiction is names used to define alien races as being alien, by having them counter traditional English name structures (I imagine this is true in other languages as well, but I am less familiar). Tali’Zorah nar Rayya, G’Kar, Pa'u Zotoh Zhaan, Teal’c, etc. When names do resemble human names, the reason given is usually that their full length would be unpronounceable by humans, like Spock.
But the general similarity between all of these variations is that within the species, names are structured the same. Tali’Zorah nar Rayya is the daughter of Rael'Zorah nar Rayya. G’Kar is a follower of G’Quan and has an aide called Na’Toth. Names are often used in SF not only to identify a species as alien, but identify them as a specific race of alien.
So what if that is, to a degree, true? What if humans encountered aliens who have a specific form of designation for each individual of the entire species? And then they have to deal with human personal names.
Human personal names are weird. There’s a general correlation between how they’re given within cultural groups, but those are by no means rules and when you have cultural groups intermingling, they can even cross.
Most English-speaking countries have three names: First, Middle, Last. First and Middle are distinct from Last. Last names are usually patrilineal and come from the father, but that’s becoming less true as more children take their mother’s last name and hyphenated dual last names become more prominent.
Speaking of dual last names, other cultures sometimes forego the Middle and have two Lasts instead. Spain, as well as many Spanish-speaking countries, has three names: First Patrilineal Matrilineal. So when Maria Alvarado Rodriguez and Diego Rubio Suarez have a child, they name her Inez Rubio Alvarado. But even that isn’t a rule, because recently women in Spain and other countries have taken to reversing the surname order of their children, like Inez Alvarado Rubio.
In Russian, you also have three names: First Patronymic Patrilineal. Nadezdha Valentinovna Petrov is the daughter of Valentin Igorovich Petrov. Irish Gaelic names appear as though they have three much of the time, but they’re really First and Last with a surname prefix of Ó/Ua or Mac for males and Ní/Nic for females: Seán Mac Mathúna, Gráinne Ní Mhurchú.
First, though, is probably better referred to as a Given Name, because it doesn’t necessarily always come first. In Japanese, the Surname comes before the Given Name, so a name written in English format as Shinobu Sato would be more accurately written as Sato Shinobu. This is also true of Korean naming convention: during the 2014 Winter Olympics some American broadcasters referred to a South Korean figure skater as Kim Yuna, while her legal name under South Korean convention is Yuna Kim.
And names are so different across borders that often when people emigrate or relocate, they change their names to better interact with the host culture. Ergo the stereotype of getting a new name at Ellis Island. My mother’s family is primarily from Moscow and Western Russia, but none of their names sound it: Yulia is Julie, Svetlana is Vicky, Kirill is Kyle, etc. And they all have middle names, legally, but those “middle names” are actually their patronymics, which would be considered surnames in Russia. One of my friends is from Tanzania and goes by Amy because she doesn’t want people to butcher the pronunciation of her Swahili name; according to my African-American Lit professor who works with several Ghanaian academics, the same is true of people with Ashanti names.
That’s not even the most complicated part: we don’t even call each-other by our legal names most of the time. If we’re in a casual setting, we might call each-other by names that may have no relation to our given names. My friend’s birth name is Cynthia and we call her Ray. Plenty of people go by their middle names. And this is often from birth. Someone might name their child Robert, but most people don’t look at an infant and think “Robert,” so five minutes out of the delivery room he’s called Robbie or Bo or something else. My Spanish-language teacher is Basque but was born in a dictatorship when her parents weren’t allowed to name her Idoia - so they named her Maria Idoia and immediately dropped the Maria in general use.
I have at least four nicknames within my family alone: my immediate family calls me Kate, my aunt calls me Katie (and is the only one allowed to do so), and my grandmother calls me either Katya or Katousha, which are both Russian endearments.
And then we change them for a variety of reasons. We have gender-specific names, so people whose identity doesn’t correspond to their assigned gender will change their names to more accurately represent themselves. People change their names when they get married. People change their names when the name itself is besmirched somehow: hundreds of Adolfs became Alfreds and Alberts after WWII. People even sometimes change their names because they feel like it.
Any given human being has at least half a dozen names they go by. So you have poor T’Xao just trying to find the Human known as Katherine Elizabeth Jennings and getting responses like “Oh, Katie’s over in Engineering” and “Jen’s in the Dining Hall” and “I think I saw Lizzie heading toward Medical” and who are all these people and can they lead him to Katherine Elizabeth Jennings? T’Xao just wants the Engineering reports so he can show the Captain, this shouldn’t be this hard.