What is in a name?

One of the first things that I struggled with linguistically in Mongolia was learning Mongolian names. I had a really hard time hearing names because there wasn’t much of a similarity between names that I was accustomed to hearing (North American, European, African) and these new names that I was hearing for the first time. It was something that frustrated me because I wanted to learn acquaintances names and pronounce them correctly, but my brain frantically mismatched phonemes in a futile attempt at understanding. Once we started learning the Mongolian language, this made learning new names much easier! (It also helps that Mongolian nicknames tend to follow easy patterns.)

Narantsetseg, literally “sun flower”, is a relatively common girl’s name.
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

A fairly common element in Mongolian names is taking two words and putting them together into a single word that communicates an idea. For instance, the words “enkh” and “tuya” become “Enkhtuya”, which means “ray of peace”. Not all Mongolian names are a combination of words like this. Some are stand alone word names like “Gerel” (“light”). Ideas of strength, beauty, and eternity are common motifs. An interesting name that is not as common as it used to be–or so I hear–is “Nergui”, which is literally translated as “no name”. The idea behind naming a child Nergui is to distract or confuse evil spirits who would otherwise harm the child. If you want to see more detailed examples of Mongolian names, there’s a pretty great list with definitions on this site.

I could definitely be wrong, but I don’t believe Mongolians use middle names with the fervor that Americans do–if at all. Another difference is in how Mongolians assign last names. Unlike in the majority of the US, a last name isn’t passed down patrilineally. Instead, a person’s last name is his or her father’s first name. Using our names as examples, that would make Eric’s name Eric Daniel and mine Bethany William. Our children would be Z Eric and T Eric. Without a shared last name (in the way that we share last names in the US), this means that women keep their maiden name in marriage because it is only their father’s first name. So yes, this means that in a nuclear family, there are three surnames (or more if it is a blended family). (For additional confusion for foreigners, Mongolians tend to use general relational descriptors for relatives. A “sister” might actually be a cousin, and so on.)

When considering names and naming practices the world over, it reminds me that every culture has its reasons for acting in certain ways. It may be a historical preference, an inherited or borrowed trait, a different view on familial relations, a means of showing honor, a prayer for the child’s future, and on and on. How do you determine names in your culture?

Note for Mongolian readers: if I’ve made an error in this post, please let me know, and I’ll correct it!

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