Continuing on from the discussion of phonology, I want to get into names — not how they sound, but how they’re used.
When I’m reading, I see a huge number of invented worlds where everyone has a given name and a family name, in that order. It is the blandest, most invisible way to name a character, because it’s the stripped-down form of the name style that most of you reading this essay probably have. And it doesn’t require the author to think very much.
But if you look around the world, and especially through history, it isn’t always that simple.
Let’s start with the family name. Those aren’t universal; there have been lots of times and places where people didn’t have any kind of inherited moniker. Instead they had given names, and maybe some kind of descriptive epithet. Like, for example, their profession: John the tailor. (Who in later times would become John Taylor.) Or their parentage: James, Robert’s son. (Later known as James Robertson.) Or placenames: Simon, who lives in the woods. (Simon Woods.) Or physical characteristics, behavioral tics, and various other quirks. As you can tell, a lot of these got pressed into service as family names over time, losing their semantic meaning in the process; Jenny Robertson isn’t a son and her father’s name was Bill, but somewhere back in the family tree there was a Robert with a son, just as there was a tailor in the Taylor family. I believe Iceland is the final Western holdout for actual patronymics: Helga Sigurdsdottir’s father is Sigurd Olafson, whose father was Olaf Thorvaldson, and so on up the chain, with the “family name” changing each generation. Many Arabic cultures also use patronymics, sometimes a whole string of them detailing multiple generations of the family tree; the Arabic traveler referred to as ibn Fadlan was more properly known as Ahmad ibn Fadlan ibn al-‘Abbas ibn Rašid ibn Hammad.
Heading off in the other direction, sometimes people have more than one family name! Hyphenation has become more of a thing in the United States in recent decades, but it’s long been common in Hispanic countries to have a double last name, drawing from both the father’s and the mother’s side. Or the society groups people into larger clans and smaller families, with people bearing monikers from both; Gaius Julius Caesar was of the gens Julia, but specifically of the Caesar branch within that gens. You get an echo of this in certain periods of English literature, where the introduction of someone as Thomas Howeton is met with the query, “Of the Devonshire Howetons?” In these situations, the hereditary nature of the affiliation is of vital importance, because it marks the individual as belonging to a group — a sharp contrast to the epithet-based approach, which is focused on the characteristics that mark someone out individually.
Of course, societies often mix these things together with a semi-free hand. The cognomen or third part of the triple Roman name started out as an epithet instead of a hereditary marker (and when that shift happened, it got more common for Romans to have a fourth name — the agnomen — to pick up the nicknaming slack). Or your Roman might be referred to in a text as the son of his father, as a means of clarification. Someone in a patronymic culture might be much better known by their nickname than by their father’s name. But the mixture and the balance thereof can say quite a bit about the society: anybody who bothers to name their great-great-grandfather when introducing themselves is clearly quite invested in lineage as a thing of importance, while subdividing one’s family within a clan implies key details of status or alliance that inhere to those groups. Having a matronymic, or name derived from one’s mother, might indicate a matrilineal society — or it might mean your mother was unwed, and you therefore have no father’s name to use — or your father died before you were born — or your mother was such a famous badass that you decided to commemorate her; the children of Empress Matilda sometimes used the name FitzEmpress (the most famous of these being the eventual king, Henry II).
Then there’s the given name . . . or more than one. Many of you reading this probably have a middle name, which in the United States is a term that encompasses pretty much anything that might come between the given name and the family name: the second part of a two-part name, maiden names, patronymics, etc. These reflect a broad swath of naming conventions being fit, Procrustes-like, into the model of the “American name.” Or many people wind up with multiple given names, possibly to honor a slew of relatives on both sides of the family, possibly because the parents just couldn’t make up their minds. The children of immigrants frequently have “American” first names and “ethnic” middle names (or the other way around), reflecting their parents’ double desire to have their children fit in but also maintain a tie to their ancestral culture. And some of us — myself included — have middle names just because that’s what you do in this country. It serves no practical function, apart from being a second canvas upon which the parents can exercise their creativity.
On top of that, you may have a religious name! My husband has both a middle name and a baptismal name — the latter of which doesn’t appear in official government documentation, but he was baptized Catholic, and neither his given nor middle names come from recognized saints, so his grandmother had to choose something in a hurry when the priest made his disapproval clear. Jews may have a shem hadokesh for use in formal religious documents; Wiccans and neopagans may chose names for ritual contexts, separate from what they call themselves in daily life. Likely the same is true for other religions I’m less familiar with. Whether the religious name is considered to have magical power or is just a way of marking the boundary between the sacred and the secular, it’s yet another layer in the pile of monikers a single individual might carry.
And when that’s all said and done, there’s the question of what order you put the names in. In the West, it’s usually personal name followed by family, while in East Asia — and, randomly, in Hungary — it’s the other way around. I’ve heard this attributed to the individual vs. communal mentalities of those respective regions, but I think it may have as much or more to do with grammar (whether modifiers precede or follow the word they modify). Where fiction is concerned, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the family name come first outside of settings that are obviously meant to be direct analogues of East Asia, just as I haven’t seen double family names very often, or any of the other variations that exist across the world. 95% of the time, it’s one given name, one family name, the end.
I’d like to see more authors shake that up.