Language and identity – who are we if not our name?

“Your language is your home and your country is your language and your language is your flag” Hugo Hamilton – The Speckled People

As a linguist of sorts I truly believe in the power of language to solve so many of the world’s problems.

I didn’t much like my name when I was growing up. I longed to be Susan or Cheryl. Fortunately in my primary and secondary schools in South Wales there were lots of children who had ‘unusual’ names. We were the sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters of immigrants – Irish, Scottish, Italian, Caribbean, Indian, Polish, English (!) German, French, Lithuanian, Czech, South African and more. Not in equal quantities but all there.  And of course we were in Wales which added an extra rich layer of culture. And all our parents or grandparents had chosen to move to a beautiful part of the UK that offered good jobs, good housing, good schools, fresh air, great opportunities for leisure time, world famous sports stadium with a “tartan track”, the boating lake, the mountains, the seaside not far away…of course it wasn’t Paradise. But we had by and large quietly aspirational, supportive families…and religious freedom. And even fun.

Sometimes new teachers struggled to pronounce some of these names. But most I seem to remember wanted to get it right. Nicknames tended to be things agreed amongst peers. A totally different issue. Though I would never allow Caramel and screamed at the first spell check that changed my name to Carmen O’Clock.

We may not all have liked our names but we were comfortable with them and would have protested vehemently if anyone had tried to demean us by using them to label us in any way  – as would our parents. We knew without it ever being explained to us that our names were our identity.

All this leads me to wonder why, just last night, it appeared to be ok for a few teachers on Twitter to be joking about the names that are always “trouble.” This was descending into stereotypes, possibly of class and parents’ rights and choices. It is not within our gift to mock what anyone decides to name their precious baby. It could so easily have descended into racism. Educators, of all people, should know better. I also thought of a number of friends who adopted young children who already had names. I am not qualified to talk about this but I think it is worth pondering…I would love to hear the views of others.

Here are some of the names in our family currently – all chosen carefully and with joy. In no order of age or status or preference of course! First names and middle names all mixed up and let anyone dare to mock one of them. They do not fit neatly into generational stereotypes either. Don’t make assumptions. There are so many ways we label and define children that are just so wrong. We tend to blame government policy for much of this. But names? That is not government policy. That is just uncaring and unprofessional. If anyone wants to change their name by deed poll, that too is fine but not something I can comment on. I tend to stick to what I know.

Carmel, Jane, Sheelagh, Hannah, Christopher, Max, Patrick, Mary, Lily, Mae, Hope, Imogen, Iona, Rose, Lisa, Esther, Paul, Elizabeth, Felix,(big family name long before it was trendy) Maureen, David, Robert, Mary, Eli, Maisie, Jake, Callum, Daniel, Rachael, Lewis, George, Veronica,  Catherine, Iona, Oscar, Nicola, Theresa, Lianne, Evan, Annabelle, Margaret, Mark, Jacqueline, Terence, Eden, James, Alexander, Anna, John, Isabelle, Michael, Marie, Ellen…

Let me recommend some books about language names and identity for anyone who might want to think further about this;

The Speckled People by Hugo Hamilton

Travellers in the Third Reich by Julia Boyd

The House by the Lake by Thomas Harding

And finally for any primary MFL teachers who don’t know this book – have a look at “Homme de Couleur” based on a poem by the first President of Senegal, Léopold Sédar Senghor. It exists in French, German, Spanish and Italian. And English of course. Low linguistic challenge, high cognitive challenge and all backed up by pictures! The power of language!

Homme de couleur





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