culture & cognition

Sticks and stones (CODA) – How names work against women

Mothers tell your daughters

From 2011 to December 2015, five women fought the Japanese Government all the way to the country’s Supreme Court. They were seeking to change a law that compels couples to adopt the same surname in order to legally register their marriage. Although the law does not specify whose name it should be, in practice, 96% of couples take the husband’s name, and the women argued that this made the law unconstitutional, because it violated their basic civil rights.

By losing your surname … you’re being made light of, you’re not respected … It’s as if part of your self vanishes,” said one of the plaintiffs, Kaori Oguni.

Conservatives were unimpressed. Defending the law, which was passed in 1896, constitutional scholar Masaomi Takanori, argued that, “Names are the best way to bind families,” and that “Allowing different surnames risks destroying social stability, the maintenance of public order and the basis for social welfare.”

When I planned my three part series on names, I hadn’t heard about this case. My earlier posts described the legal regulation of names in the West, and the way it has undermined traditional naming practices, distorting the name grammars of many of the world’s languages in the process. These changes have influenced the perception of people’s names, made them harder to process and to remember, and as I showed in my last post, they have not affected all parts of society equally. African-Americans in particular are disadvantaged by the American name system.

On examination, it turns out that there have been winners and losers in the name game. And that is why, when I read about this case, and its result, I realized that I had to add an extra post.



Sticks and stones (3): How names hurt

The shock of the old

Most  people in Iceland don’t have family names. Instead, Icelanders’ last names are made from their father or mother’s first name, to which males add the suffix -son (son) and females -dóttir (daughter). This practice  can seem strange to outsiders, but it was common throughout Scandinavia until surprisingly recently: laws compelling citizens to adopt heritable family names were only enacted in 1828 in Denmark, 1901 in Sweden, and 1922 in Norway.

In 1982, Sweden changed its laws to allow matronyms and patronyms to augment – or even replace – family names once again; and Norway (2002) and Denmark (2005) then followed suit. This legal flip-flopping is a reminder of the fact that heritable family surnames are a remarkably recent invention, and that their ubiquity in the modern world is not the result of cultural or linguistic evolution, but legislation. Heritable family names were regulated and enforced as  modern states developed because they make populations easier to count, tax and govern, and with this in mind, it is worth noting that for most of Scandinavian history, to the extent people had fixed names, these were first names. Surnames were used when it was necessary to discriminate one Erik from another, and historically, they were ad hoc and flexible. And although the practice of forming surnames from parents’ given names was common, basing them on a discriminating feature – the village or farm where someone lived, their occupation, a personal characteristic, etc. – was not exactly uncommon.

These historical realities are reflected in the distribution of Scandinavian family names. While Denmark, Norway, and Sweden are now awash with fossilized patronyms, many Icelanders use Western-style surnames that reflect the feature based naming practices that historically coexisted with patronyms in Iceland. Accordingly, if we want to understand why it is that the default surname for Einar Peterson’s son Björg is Einarson (a true patronym) in Iceland yet Peterson (a fossil) in Sweden, the answer lies not in ‘customs’ or ‘traditions,’ but in the arbitrary decisions of governments. (more…)

Sticks and stones (2): How names work

A stranger in the village

When people migrate to Sweden, they are given the option of exchanging their current last name for one that sounds a little more Swedish. The process is administered by the Patent- och registreringsverket  – the Patent and Registration Office (PRV) – and of the many rules it enforces, an important one requires anyone wanting to adopt an existing Swedish surname to prove their descent from at least two generations of people with that name who lived in the past 100 years. This, of course, is not something most immigrants can do. Instead they must  come up with a new name, and then apply to the PRV for permission to use it.

To help with the process of inventing new Swedish sounding names,  the PRV offers detailed guidance. This must come as a relief to anyone going down this path, because  Section 12, paragraph 1 of the Names Act (1982) states that that any candidate name that “in composition, pronunciation or spelling has such a linguistic form that it is not appropriate as a surname in this country” will be summarily rejected.

Although you might wonder why anyone would possibly go to all the trouble, many newcomers to Sweden clearly feel it’s worth it, and large numbers of them submit to the process every year. This in turn has created a kind of natural experiment, because it allows the fortunes of immigrants who adopt these new Swedish-sounding surnames to be compared to those immigrants who choose to stick with their existing, foreign surnames. And when economists Mahmood Arai and Peter Skogman Thoursie ran the numbers from this experiment, they found that immigrants who adopted Swedish sounding names earned 12 to 44% more in salary than immigrants who didn’t (depending on how exactly the difference was calculated). (more…)

Sticks and stones (1): How names work & why they hurt

Boiling a frog

In 1781, Christian Wilhelm von Dohm, a civil servant, political writer and historian in what was then Prussia published a two volume work entitled Über die Bürgerliche Verbesserung der Juden (“On the Civic Improvement of Jews”). In it, von Dohm laid out the case for emancipation for a people systematically denied the rights granted to most other European citizens. At the heart of his treatise lay a simple observation: The universal principles of humanity and justice that framed the constitutions of the nation-states then establishing themselves across the continent could hardly be taken seriously until those principles were, in fact, applied universally. To all.

Von Dohm was inspired to write his treatise by his friend, the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, who wisely supposed that even though basic and universal principles were involved, there were advantages to be gained in this context by having their implications articulated by a Christian. Mendelssohn’s wisdom is reflected in history: von Dohm’s treatise was widely circulated and praised, and is thought to have influenced the French National Assembly’s decision to emancipate Jews in France in 1791 (Mendelssohn was particularly concerned at the poor treatment of Jews in Alsace), as well as laying the groundwork for the an edict that was issued on behalf of the Prussian Government on the 11th of March 1812:

“We, Frederick William, King of Prussia by the Grace of God, etc. etc., having decided to establish a new constitution conforming to the public good of Jewish believers living in our kingdom, proclaim all the former laws and prescriptions not confirmed in this present edict to be abrogated.”

To gain the full rights due to a Prussian citizen, Jews were required to declare themselves to the police within six months of the promulgation of the edict. And following a proposal put forward in von Dohm’s treatise (and later approved by David Friedländer, another member of Mendelssohn’s circle who acted as a consultant in the drawing up of the edict), any Jews who wanted to take up full Prussian citizenship were further required to adopt a Prussian Nachname.

What we call in English, a ‘surname.’

From the vantage afforded by the present day, it is easy to assume that names as we now know them are an immutable part of human history. Since one’s name is ever-present in one’s own life, it might seem that fixed names are ever-present and universal, like mountains, or the sunrise. Yet in the Western world, the idea that everyone should have an official, hereditary identifier is a very recent one, and on examination, it turns out that the naming practices we take for granted in modern Western states are far from ancient.