Saturday, September 19, 2015

the Colonial Vestiges of Personal Names

The more one learns a language, the more one starts to notice the unique subtleties that are idiosyncratic, but can at the same time by conflicting.  The author's recent journey in mastering the Swahili language sees plenty of previously foreign pieces of linguistic rules being understood as things that are inherently local.  For instance, local Swahili words does not allow (just simply don't have) the ending of any consonants.  Foreign loanwords, for instance, generally end with the letter "i" to ensure consonants does not finish any word when pronounced.

Understanding this idiosyncrasy allows the observation of an interesting phenomenon in the names of local people.  While last names here strictly follow the "no ending consonants" rule, the first names are often foreign borrowings in their non-bastardized form, and there are plenty of names with ending consonants.  It is simply weird to see so many people sporting names like "James," "Michael," "Simon," "Rose," "Joyce" when the Swahili language, in its present form, does not even have their proper pronunciation.

And what is more conflicting is that the spelling has not at all been modified to follow the Swahili way, in which words are pronounced exactly as they are written.  While the author came across a few cases of bastardized spellings of English names (such as "Saimoni" for "Simon" and "Joni" for "John") during his field visits to speak to farmers on the ground, the vast majority of farmers tend to write down the English spelling (e.g. "Simon") even when, most of the time, people tend to say and read the same name by its Swahili way (e.g. "Saimoni")

Simultaneously though, there is another point of curiosity.  While some people sport Western names as mentioned above, others do not.  Muslims, of course, tend to have localized versions of the usual assortment of Muslim names as seen across the Islamic world (e.g. "Ismaili," "Fatima").  Many people, usually of Catholic faith, keep non-English Western names (e.g. "Roberto," "Katarina").  And still many others keep traditional Swahili names.  The kaleidoscope of different origins for names makes it all the more fascinating how people manage to decide on them for their children.

Briefly questioning some local coworkers on the matter, the author finds that religions, whether it be Islam or Christianity, plays the most pivotal role.  Many churches, for instance, refuse to baptize babies that do not have names in the list of approved ones in the book.  Of course, these names are strictly Western in nature, and depending on the nationality of the church in question, they could be English, Italian, Spanish, etc.  The willingness of many parents to give their children Western names just for church recognition speaks volumes about the centrality of the church in many communities.

Yet, that is not to say that people who do not have Western names are people who are uninterested in matters of religiosity.  The author was told of many "stubborn" Christian families that insist on giving their children Swahili names despite the opposition of their priests.  Many have threatened to (and indeed do) move to other churches where local names are allowed.  The result of such defiance may in time lead to formation of indigenous religious sects, ones that gradually abandon the original Western tenets that run contrary to local traditions and cultural traits.

Whether or not the presence of Western churches and their apologetically foreign-sounding religious first names continue to exist in rural Tanzania, what is sure is that Western colonialism, which first brought exposure of the local people to Western religions, their names, their languages, and their foods (for instance, large potato fries "chips" are a local staple), have left massive and irreversible impacts on even parts of the country where colonial administration was tenuous and sporadic at best.  This is probably best illustrated by how no one feels weird having a Western name to begin with.

This simply contrasts too greatly with the situation in Asia, where aside from few exceptions (Philippines is one), Western names only exist as a means to communicate one's comfort with "foreignness."  No one really seeks to make Western names a part of local social norms as Tanzanians are casually doing.  But, to end the commentary, it would be interesting to further look into the level of willingness that local people supersede indigenous cultures with Western ones.  Or to go a level deeper, do they really want to use tools like Western names to become more Western?

No comments:

Post a Comment