Monday, August 23, 2010

What's in a Name?

When I was growing up, I never imagined that names could possibly be ordered in any other way than: first middle last. The first, of course, was your given name, chosen to identify you as an individual, different than the rest of your family members. Your middle name was often a family name, a sort of second-choice first name, or maybe you were one of the unique people with no middle name, for whatever reason (maybe because there’s no good reason for one… That I can think of, other than the fact that I like finding out people’s middle names). Your last name, finally, was your family name—probably your father’s, but in an ever-increasing number of cases, a hyphenated name (or maybe just your mom’s!).

In any case, I would have found it hard to believe, as a kid, that names could be ordered in such drastically different ways across the world. Of course, I was introduced to different naming practices when our Middle School discovered suddenly that it had been mixing up the order of names of one of the only Chinese students in school, and had to make amends. (In that case, the student came from a culture where the last name was the one he was supposed to be called. It would be like if I had moved to China and everyone called me “Daghlian.” Just not right).

Now, after spending some time in Ghana and more recently, trying to navigate the intricacies of Ugandan culture (as if I can make a sweeping statement that there is such a thing. If I were more knowledgeable, I might be able to distinguish between the Baganada culture and Acholi culture… But that might take a bit more research!). Trying to make sense of the difference in name orders has been really interesting in both places.

Here in Uganda, people generally have two names, a first and a last (though some have three). From my understanding, the first name is a Ugandan name and the second name is an Anglicized name, usually having religious roots (I mean, about as religious as the name Elizabeth is. But for a lot of people, it can distinguish between a Christian and a Muslim, for example). So, let’s say one girl’s name is Atukunda Lillian; her brother probably won’t have any names in common. Her brother might be called… Katumba Joseph. Pretty simple, but it also kind of blows my mind that in one family there might be a plethora of different names and no common name. I’ve always viewed it as such a unifying thing (which is a little odd considering that among my five siblings we have three different last names… so why would I think it was so important?).

Anyways, that naming practice is also very different from Ghana’s, which still makes me laugh a little bit. In Ghana, you might meet a person on the street and maybe he’ll introduce himself as Frank. You later ask someone, “do you know a person called Frank who stays around here?” They will say “no… but Kofi says he met a white lady today, maybe you are looking for him.” You think to yourself, no, but he said his name was Frank. So you go to ask someone else: “have you seen Frank?... or perhaps it’s Kofi?” They look at you blankly and then say, “no… but you know, Nii has just passed by here, perhaps it is him.” “Eh!” (as you would say if you were living in Ghana), where is this guy?? So, you ask one more person, certain that this time you’ll find him. “Have you seen Frank… Or Kofi? Maybe Nii?” They look at you and pause… “No, I don’t know anyone by those names… But here is Mr. Mensah.” And Mr. Mensah turns around…. It’s him!

People in Ghana have so many names and nicknames and titles that they use depending on the context. So in this case, it would make perfect sense to meet someone named Nii Kofi Frank Mensah. Nii is a title meaning “king” in Ga, although, considering that it’s a really common nickname, probably not that meaningful. Kofi simply means Friday born (in Twi, which wouldn’t really make sense if you had another name in Ga), and while not everyone includes it as a formal part of their name, they will generally use it in some settings. Frank, of course, is the given Christian name (though Muslims would obviously choose Islamic names) that all students are required to use in school. Finally, Mensah is the family name that will, just as I would expect, signify familial relationships, usually coming from the father’s side (unless you are Asante, which is matrilinear).

So, in short, names are cool, and it would be neat to learn more about different practices from around the world. But here are a few to start!

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