What's in a Name?

Nothing seems simpler than a name, right? We all have one. We know many of them. We embarrassingly forget some of them. They are exceedingly useful in talking about the world and seem to be rather uncomplicated. It turns out that they are really not, though. Philosophers, especially in the Anglophone world, have written a great deal about names in the 20th century. One view of the semantics of names goes back to the famous British philosopher, John Stuart Mill, who proposed that the semantic value—a fancy way to say ‘meaning’—of proper names is just the referent of the name. So, the meaning of my name, ‘Casey Woodling’ is, well, me. There is really nothing else to the meaning of my name. This seems on the face of it to be a rather plausible view. What else might be a candidate for the meaning of ‘Casey Woodling’? When people use this name, they are trying to refer to me and get the listener to think about me, so it seems fairly plausible that this is all there is to the semantic value of names. Of course, there are very well-known problems for Millianism. The famous German philosopher Gottlob Frege raised some difficult ones through his famous puzzles. Consider the following sentences.

a.     Robert Zimmerman is Robert Zimmerman
b.     Bob Dylan is Robert Zimmerman.

‘Bob Dylan’ and ‘Robert Zimmerman’ are two names for the same person in case you didn't know that about Bob Dylan! If Millianism were true, then the meaning of each sentence would be the same, as the names have the same referent, but this hardly seems to be the case. There are also problems when we try to substitute these co-referring names in what philosophers call attitudinal contexts, contents about attitudes or mental states of people.

c.      Casey believes that Robert Zimmerman is Robert Zimmerman.
d.     Casey believes that Bob Dylan is Robert Zimmerman.

It seems that (c) could be true while (d) is false. Perhaps I just don't know that Bob Dylan's birth name is 'Robert Zimmerman'. The terms do not seem to be substitutable in different attitudinal contexts suggesting that there is really more to their meaning than just their referent or denotation. These observations lead to Frege’s famous theory of sense, a notion of meaning that is clearly distinct from reference. In addition to these famous puzzles of Frege, there is also the worry about empty names, names that do not refer to anything but still seem to have meaning or cognitive significane, names such as: ‘Santa Claus’, ‘Sherlock Holmes’, and so on.

 View from the University of Antsiranana

View from the University of Antsiranana

It seems to me that there is another problem for Millianism as well: some languages have naming practices wherein names have clear connotations in addition to denotations. Malagasy provides an excellent example of this. Take the first king to unite the Merina kingdom of Madagascar. His name was ‘Andrianampoinimerina’. (It's quite a mouthful for non-native speakers. You can see this for yourself by trying to say it!) This was actually not his birth name but a name he took after taking control of the various mini-kingdoms near what is now Antananarivo. His birth name, by the way, was ‘Ramboasalama’. Now each name has a connotation. ‘Andrian’ means king. ‘Nampionimerina’ means roughly the king who is in the heart of the Merina (the people). So, the term expresses the following connotation: the king who is in the heart of the Merina. His birth name means healthy dog and also is prefixed by ‘Ra’, which gives respect, so the connotation is something like: respected healthy dog. When I talk to Malagasy people about my children, Grady and Marcella, they often ask me what their names mean. They do this because Malagasy names almost always have a connotation in addition to the person they denote. I often find myself saying that their names have no meaning today, but they had one in the past. Based on etymology, ‘Grady’ means noble and ‘Marcella’ means war-like, but people no longer associate these meanings with the names in general. The fact that English names rarely ever have a recognized connotation has the effect of making Millianism seem more plausible, and it is perhaps no surprise that an Englishman first developed it. When applied to Malagasy names, it seems to be a non-starter given that many Malagasy names are rich in connotations that outstrip their mere denotation or reference. A good friend’s name is ‘Hobiniaina’ which means acclaim of life. This is a way for the parents to say that their child is to be one of the key features of their legacy. There is a clear meaning to names in Madagascar and parents put thought into their choice, as they do in the English-speaking world of course. However, names are often chosen in the English-speaking world based on personal associations that the names have in the minds of the namers and not based on their conventional connotations. Perhaps a child is named after someone, or in some instances, a place, but rarely do the parents in the English-speaking world have a meaning in mind in the sense that Malagasy parents do. So, it seems to me that Millianism has one more problem than we previously thought.

Measuring the truth of Western views against linguistic or cultural facts in Madagascar is not new. Elinor Ochs (1976) argued that Paul Grice’s famous maxims of conversation were simply not true in the Vakinankaratra region of Madagascar. I have been telling my own students that they should keep this method in mind as they formulate their own research; they should ask themselves whether the Western views under discussion cover all the facts of the Malagasy context. In the case of Millianism, they seem not to. So, what is in a name, after all? It seems to depend very much on the naming practices of one’s language community, and there seems to be more in names in Madagascar than in the English-speaking world.