Names

Richard Hudson

[published in emagazine 18, December 2002]

Who am I? For that matter, who are you? This isn't an existential question for philosophers, but a linguistic question. In other words, what's my name? You may think the answer is staring you in the face (about an inch up on this page), but it's more complicated and interesting than that, and I want to try and persuade you that names should be on the menu for any course in English Language.

First, the data. Here's what I'm called. I'm:

Looking back in time I think I was simply Hudson to everyone at school, including friends (I'm not sure of that - it's a long time ago); and looking forward to a fantasy future I can just about imagine becoming Sir Richard or even Lord Hudson.

If anyone has a problem of identity, it's me. Or you - you can probably match this list, and maybe even go beyond it with a range of interesting nicknames (which I don't seem to have acquired).

I'll try to draw some morals as we go along. The first moral is that armchair linguistics is both possible and fun. You and I have all these facts at our fingertips, and all we're waiting for is the right question (e.g. what do your friends call you?). We don't need textual evidence - we can just believe ourselves for the basic facts. Maybe a detailed study of letters or taped conversations would thicken the plot, but there are already enough more or less reliable data to be getting on with.

Let's look at the syntax of names. This isn't difficult because you already know that the names Richard and Hudson belong to different classes, though we can argue about the terminology. Richard is like John, Mary, Frederick and so on, and Hudson is like Smith, Brown, Jones and White. I prefer to call those like Richard 'given names' because they are 'given' to us by our parents; 'Christian name' doesn't work for non-Christians, and although 'first name' is ok for English, it doesn't generalise to languages like Chinese where the given name comes second (a source of great confusion for Chinese speakers in the UK). The others are 'family names' but if you prefer 'surname', that's fine by me.

So we have two lists of names: given names and family names. We also have a list of words which we put before these, and which most people would call 'titles' - words like Mr, Miss, Professor and Sir. Here then is a simple formula for combining these:

Name = Title + Given + Family

This is pure syntax - the study of how words combine. We take this rule for granted, but it could have been different; we accept Professor Richard Hudson, but why not Hudson Richard Professor? The only reason is that English doesn't allow it (though something similar is normal in Japanese, for example: Hudson-san). The syntax goes further - for example, we can combine Title + Family (Professor Hudson) but not Title + Given (Professor Richard). Why? Well, that's just how it is in English.

The second moral is that language is rule-governed, and the rules work - we all abide by them, however enthusiastically we flout every other rule in sight. So far as I know, nobody reverses the order of their names just to be different. Some of the rules are quite easy to work out for yourself, but you have to look at what isn't allowed as well as at what is. This is because the rules draw the line between the grammatical and the ungrammatical, so you have to consider both (e.g. *Miss Mary as well as Miss Jones). Linguists put * against ungrammatical examples to avoid confusion - a very useful practice.

Now for the bit you've probably been waiting for: social relevance. Every name carries a different social message. You're giving one social message if you call me Dick, and another if you call me Professor Hudson. With Dick you're saying that you know me well and are at least my social equal (and possibly superior). With Professor Hudson you give the opposite message: you're treating me as a respected stranger.

Do you agree? If so, how do you know? This isn't something you and I know about these particular names - people called Dick Hudson are probably quite rare in your life. The answer must be that we know rules for using the general patterns we were looking at two paragraphs back:

Use Given when talking to (or about) a close inferior or equal.

Use Title + Family when talking to (or about) a distant equal or superior.

It's because you know that Dick is an example of Given that you know it's ok between family or friends.

Our third moral, then, is that you can't separate usage from the language system. For example, if you want to understand how we use names socially, you have to start by studying how we use them linguistically - within the grammar of English. Putting this the other way round, one of the pay-offs of studying grammar is that it gives a solid foundation for studying usage in texts.

You may have felt uncomfortable when I talked about social equality and superiority - surely we're moving towards an egalitarian society in which such things don't count? Well, let's look at how we use names. Look at how naming works in your classroom. Who calls who what? What does the teacher call the students? And what do they call the teacher? If it's Given all round, who said it was ok? What about other classes? What about lower in the school? Who calls who Sir or Miss? I rest my case.

Even more interestingly, consider usage within the family. Why do my two grown-up daughters call me Dad, rather than Dick? (Your family may work differently, but I invite you to think which family is the more typical - and who made the decisions about naming.) Is Dad a name at all? Well, yes, it must be - we have clear syntactic evidence for this. (Once more, see how you can't separate usage from the grammar.) Names (proper nouns) are different from common nouns because they don't require a determiner (a word such as the or my); so we can say I saw Dad though we can't say I saw Brother. So when Dad is used on its own, without a determiner, it must be a name. What kind of name is it? It's obviously not a given name or a family name, but it is rather similar to a title because it defines the bearer's place in society (think of Mrs and Professor), so let's call it a title.

Back to the data about families. Imagine a three-generation family with Fred at the centre. What does Fred call the various members of his family - Given (e.g. Mary) or Title (e.g. Dad)? Fred certainly calls his children and his wife and siblings Given, but in most families he calls relatives in the generation above Title - Dad, Mum, Auntie, Uncle. Aunts and Uncles may eventually slip into the Given category, but for many of us our parents are forever titled.

The fourth moral I should like to draw is that language use can tell us a lot about ourselves and our society. If our choice of words is both rule-governed and sensitive to social structures, then it must reveal something about how we actually perceive these social structures - as opposed to how we might like to think we perceive them.

So what? How does this help with English Language and Literature? Here are some things to do with names:

Names are an excellent way into language because they combine most of the essential elements of language in a relatively accessible and concrete form:

All these aspects of names are governed by rules which we have simply inherited - social conventions, some sensible and others dysfunctional. Welcome to language!

(For more on how language shows the social relations of 'power and solidarity' check http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/dick/socio.htm.)