Sunday, 8 January 2012

i have given you my soul; leave me my name!

i've been inspired by annanonymous' post on naming to reflect on my own choices of names as a parent. she makes the point that:

The names which top the 2011 lists are indeed fairly middle class, and the trends in their popularity suggest that 'generic' is what parents are after: they're choosing names that don't stand out too much. There's actually a lot of comfort in conformity.

while this may be true of the western world, the opposite seems to be the case in the indian subcontinent (and particularly india & pakistan). of course i don't have research to back this up, only my own personal experience. but that experience strongly suggests that having a unique name is the over-riding factor for this group of parents. they will try to find a name that no-one has heard of.

i wonder if this is because families are generally so much larger there, so the likelihood of a name being used by cousins, nephews, neices, uncles, aunties, brothers and sisters for their own children are pretty high. since they don't want to have double-ups with relatively close relations, they try to find something unusual.

since there's such a variety of names anyway, based on the many languages and historical influences, no-one actually cares if a name is easy to spell. also, many naming traditions in the region don't include a "family" name - there isn't a common name that everyone in the same family has. so there isn't that sense of conformity that you might find in a western tradition.

which is not to say that there aren't rules. giving names is a very serious matter for muslims. there are quite a body of writing and thought around giving names to children. the name should be one that has historical significance - ie one that was held by a person of good quality who led an exemplary life. hence why the most popular boys name in the world is mohammad (in many spelling variations), though very few of them are actually called by that name. it just forms a part of their full name. as a side note, i've often wondered why christians in the english-speaking world don't use "jesus" as a name much more often. it seems to be used in the latino culture a lot more.

names should also have a good meaning and not be an embarassment to the child. in fact, it's seen as the right of a child that the parents should choose a decent and sensible name. so, even if names are chosen because they are unique or unusual, parents in the indian subcontinent do make an effort to ensure that it won't be a cause of ridicule. not that i believe anyone should be ridiculed because of their name, but i guess it's a protection of the diginity of the child.

a name is the most important part of a person's identity, but one that they initially don't get to choose. and while many do choose to change it in later life, most commonly married women in the west, that initial name does seem to form a part of who you are or how you are defined. there isn't really any other way to do it - children aren't able to make a decision about it until they are at least a few years old, and at that age are likely to make a decision they'll regret later in life. so one of the most important things about you is beyond your control, at least for quite a few years. and even then, changing a given name is likely to cause some hurt to the parents who took the time to choose it for you.

names are such a contentious issue - any post about changing names on marriage will often be attract the most comments on feminist websites. it's something that many of us intrinsically place a lot of value on. it's something about us that we want other people to get right. i think my name is pretty simple, being only 5 letters, but i keep a list of all the ways people manage to get my name wrong when i say it to them over the phone. it includes angie, angela, eugene, as well as some not so nice ones. and i make an effort to say it very slowly and carefully, because i know that as soon as people hear the first syllable, they stop listening and assume the rest. the fact that i have a very kiwi accent and they can't see i'm a woman of colour helps in their assumption that i have a traditional european name.

the pronunciation of such a simple name is also an issue. the average nz'er wants to say the first syllable with the same pronunciation as the word "an" as in "an apple", though the correct pronunciation is "un" as in "unforgettable". the second syllable comes out as "jim" even though it's quite clearly spelt "jum" and i take the trouble to say it that way. i certainly don't mind people who make a first attempt without having heard me say it getting it wrong. but it does bother me when i've said it for them, slowly and clearly, and they insist on saying it wrong. grrr.

as for my own children, i bucked the trend of unusual names to go for very traditional and common ones for my own children. in fact, i decided on the name for my first child when i was 15 years old, having read about the most famous historical figure to hold the name, and admiring her greatly.

it is apparently traditional in some cultures for the paternal grandparents to choose the name, or for the father to do it. i find this really difficult - my own position was that i was the one who had gone through all the pain and hardship of bearing and giving birth to this child, which should surely result in my having the right to choose the name. pretty one-sided i guess, but at the time, i felt really strongly about it and couldn't have borne the thought of someone else choosing a name for my babies.


Deborah said...

Changing my mental pronunciation of your name RIGHT NOW. I've never actually heard it...

I take a bit of trouble to get the pronunciation of my students' names correct: it's simple politeness, and the respectful thing to do. On a couple of occasions I've had to get the student to write their name out for me, so that I can hear it.

My pet peeve is when I introduce myself as Deborah, and am immediately called Debbie. It's very rude.

stargazer said...

hah, the latter point reminds me of a "diane" who used to hate being called "di" but got it all the time because of princess di. maybe the latter didn't like it either actually, but didn't want to take on the media war of trying to change it back.

i have to admit i have the most difficulty with pronouncing pacific island names and also chinese names (because the sounds don't always match the letters the way we use those letters in nz). if i get the opportunity, i ask first explaining that i would like to pronounce it correctly. if i don't get the chance, i preface my mangled pronunciation with an apology and a request to be corrected. i'm not sure how else to manage the situation really.