A birth. A breath. A cry of being. Following this, an act of nomination and a new name that will identify the newborn as a unique individual. Generative language is the distinctive characteristic of our species; and the act of naming separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. To remain without a name would be to live on the margins of life, to remain anonymous or faceless. By contrast, to be given a name is to be assigned a physical and mental place in the family of mankind and to assume a sense of responsibility for oneself. A name links us to a community of speaking beings, each of whom also bears a name.
The name, for most of us, becomes so much a part of our being that we take it for granted. Often we realize the extent to which our name is inscribed in our being when it is mispronounced. We tend to immediately correct the person who has made the error.
It is for this reason that I found the article written by Valerie Strauss entitled “The Importance of a Name” so interesting. Strauss has been working with an underprivileged population of students of mixed racial origins. In her role as teacher, she found that every year some of her students reacted uncharacteristic timidity and diffidence when she asked them about the correct pronunciation of their names. When given a choice of two possible alternative pronunciations, they would shrug and say, “Whatever is fine.”
Strauss writes of her surprise at this attitude, wondering if it is a cultural response, intimidation, fear, embarrassment or, perhaps, her own over-reaction. In the end she concludes that these students, having lost their sense of self-respect and value, choose to remain invisible to the other, even if it means, at times, sacrificing such a fundamental part of one’s identity as the correct pronunciation of one’s name. She suggests that they are uncomfortable asserting themselves, choosing to remain in a position of hiding.
Our name is our passport throughout life. As both a gift and an inheritance from our parents, we gradually come to occupy our name as a unique personal dwelling place. This residence is a metaphor for our internal world, a place filled with our dreams, hopes, drives, fears and values. Our name is not always neutral: we carry our name with pride or with shame. Sometimes, there is a bond or there is a rupture; other times, there is a positive association or a negative association. Rarely is the association with our name completely neutral.
Historically, names, and in particular family names, were associated with status and social standing. Wars were fought in the name of family land, heraldry or insignia. Today, the social standing of certain individuals is still associated with a family name. Think of the Rockefellers, the Kennedys, or the Royals. However, for most of us, our name, while not necessarily associated with financial success or status, still carries within us a sense of our self-worth. For those who have experienced trauma, discrimination, prejudice and inequality, especially at a young age, it is difficult to wear one’s name with pride, dignity and a sense of achievement.
It is important that the way we savour the sound of our name on the inside be recognized and respected by all of the others we encounter. And like Strauss, who so insightfully recognizes the sense of self-respect related to our name, we must insist on asking those with foreign or unusual sounding names for the correct pronunciation. The alternative is the suppression of a foundational part of the identity of another human being. Another unfortunate opportunity to remain invisible.
Image credit: Jam Smooth (via flickr.com)