The possession of a name is considered one of the most fundamental cultural universals in the world. Some very small tribes may not use personal names, being able to call everyone in their social circle by an extended kinship term, but perhaps more striking than this is the incredible diversity in naming practices among the rest of the world's inhabitants. Beyond the very definition of a name - a sequence of vocal noises used to point to an individual instance of humanity the same way other sequences refer to items or ideas - the universality breaks down.
|This Matsigenka woman is probably one of very few people in the world with no name.|
The oldest and most universal type of name is the given name - a name given on an individual basis, corresponding to first and middle names in the European tradition. As discussed last week these usually go back to mononymic traditions, where people had unique, invented names. In modern China most given names are still usually original compositions. Even if, as in most modern cultures, there's a more closed set of given names (for instance in the early modern Netherlands, where essentially everyone got either the name of a Christian saint or one of the few original Germanic names that survived,) given names are a unique category in that they are bestowed according to a decision, usually by parents, rather than according to a traditional formula. Given names can also be granted in adulthood, as with East Asian courtesy names, or posthumously.
As inclined as humans are to traditions, though, this originality can break down. As it turns out, in the early modern Netherlands given names were also customarily subject to pretty strict rules naming children after their grandparents, aunts and uncles, and rigid naming traditions are what led the Romans to abandon praenomina. Sometimes people are deprived of given names entirely. In China, historically, women would formally be referred to merely by their family name and maybe their husband's family name, suffixed by the character 氏, though they would typically have social nicknames. Women in the Roman Republic certainly lacked any type of given name - they would be called by their nomen, plus their father's or husband's cognomen in the genitive (a grammatical case denoting possession - yikes!) and maybe a number referring to their birth order, to distinguish sisters.
|Empress Vibia Sabina was named after her father Lucius Vibius Sabinus, and her sisters had the same name.|
|Cardinal numbers were often used in the names of Ancient Roman women. On the other hand, cardinal directions are a common source of American names.|
Most non-given names trace lineage or place of origin. They originate as societies gain complexity and class stratification in order to trace family origin, and almost always begin among noble classes before spreading to lower social groups. Maybe the simplest of this type is the patronym/matronym, a name based on the given name of an ancestor, usually a parent. Examples include Icelandic patronyms and Arabic nasab.
|Björk Guðmundsdóttir is the daughter of someone named Guðmundur.|
Other common sources of extra names are toponymics and clan names. Toponymics are names based on place of birth or family origin. These most commonly originate to designate the lord or ruler of a place, and if they later spread into common use they tend to degrade into simple surnames. Clan, section, or lineage names are a designation of which segment of a monoethnic society one belongs to. Clan names are often exogamous, meaning that marriage to someone with the same designation is taboo.
Surnames, family names simply passed from parent to children, are the most familiar type of non-given name to most westerners, and indeed are very common across places and times, perhaps because of their role as a catchall category. In Europe and elsewhere, surnames might originate with patronyms (Williams, Johnson), toponymics (Hill, Murray), or occupation titles (Fletcher, Smith). Children most commonly receive their father's surname, though some matrilineal customs have existed as well. In Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries people carry both patrilineal and matrilineal surnames, and in the last few decades many countries have changed naming laws to promote gender equality.
Surnames are a great bureaucratic convenience, collecting family names of multiple types of origin into a straightforward marker of lineage, and began as such in China with the Shang dynasty 3500 years ago. Most of the rest of the world has taken them up more recently, either as an independent invention or under Chinese or European influence, with the transition not completed until the early 20th century in Thailand, Turkey, and Scandinavia, and in Iceland, Myanmar, and parts of Indonesia and East Africa surnames are still not the norm.
Machiguenga (one of a few tribes lacking personal names)