Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The World of Names

This entirety of this post began with a very simple question: how does the fact that most people in our culture today are habitually referred to by just one name make them different from the characters in Tolkien with many names? Because I only go by “Ian” am I less multifaceted than Aragorn/Thorongil/Dúnadan/Strider/Elessar? The short answer is, of course not (or I should hope not… for all of Tolkien’s genius I should hope that as a real person I’m at least a little more complex than one imagined character!) With that conclusion reached, I next had to figure out why…and that’s where things get fun.

Answering that question effectively necessarily entails going back and examining some of the ideas which spawned the question in the first place. One of the key concepts behind this line of thought was the idea of names as adjectives, discussed in relation to the in-class readings, particularly Dana Gioia’s “Words.” Words are simply the identifiers we use for all the many things which surround us, and contain all of the various implications and associations which we have, not only with the things themselves, but the words also. Names are no exception. They are the means by which we identify people as individuals, and that identifier carries with it all of connections we have to that person, whether they are simple and straightforward, in which case we might call the person “that random cute girl from my chem. lecture” or they may have many years of many experiences built into them, as with the one we call “dad.”

Additionally, the stories which make up this understanding of someone’s name are infinitely variable, and I really mean infinitely. I liken this to an essay written by the science fiction writer Orson Scott Card where he discussed his preference for writing stories with relatively few major characters because with every character the story becomes exponentially more complicated. This is due to the fact that the “story” of a person varies based on their relationship to the one telling it. Character 1 is a different person to Character 2 than he is to Character 3, which is different again from who is to 2 and 3 together. Consider things in that sense, and you see where storytelling (or life) can get intensely complicated. It is also because of this fact that from here on out I will be primarily discussing individuals’ interactions with societies rather than individuals (because god knows, in a time when people’s average facebook friend count is often pushing 1000, we’d be here a long time if I didn’t.) This approach to the question is also more relevant, given that the different names associated with Tolkien’s characters are primarily those given by different races or cultures.

Now, from these prior examples I was able to thoroughly justify to myself that I was indeed just as multidimensional as any of Tolkien’s characters, because my very me-ness is contained in all of the stories of my life, and the infinite permutations of those stories as seen by different people. (I was however, unable to give myself the ego-trip of being “realer” and thus, in some small way, more awesome than Aragorn…since Tolkien seems to understand very well the vast multiplicity of “persondom,” and includes enough details in his world to make you truly believe that every character has these infinite stories surrounding them and connecting them to the rest of their reality.) So, the fact remains: why, if I am definitely seen by everyone in the world in different ways, do I not have multiple names, at least across cultural or language barriers? Or perhaps more to the point, does it really make sense, given this diversity of associations, for people to be known by only one name by everyone?

Quite simply, it doesn’t, but almost equally simply, the reason it doesn’t make sense is because it doesn’t happen. You probably caught on to this fact faster than I did, and probably thought long ago “Um...Ian…NICKNAMES. Your argument is invalid.” And I will admit, that fact did not occur to me as quickly as it probably should have, but in turn I will argue that despite this, the argument does still have a point because it is still exceedingly rare for any one person to be primarily identified by different people by different names, particularly at the outset of that relationship. If Aragorn were to be a modern high school student moving from, say, Dallas to Boston (arguably two very different cultures) it is quite likely that he would be known by the same name in both places. While it is certainly conceivable that some of his friends might have amusing nicknames for him, and he might habitually go by “Andy” because he (for whatever strange reason) feels dorky that his parents named him after a fantasy novel, it is very doubtful that he will be known as Strider in one place and Elessar in another.

However, while the obvious variation in names that we have in our society is not truly comparable to that of Tolkien’s world, there is still a recognizable difference, particularly across cultural/language barriers on an aesthetic level, if not on the level of definition or translation as is often the case with Tolkien’s characters. I came to this conclusion based on my experiences living in France, where the pronunciation of my name comes out to something like “Yahn” rather than “Ee-uhn.” Being familiar with the language and pronunciation, this wasn’t something I considered particularly strange until I came back to the United States and mentioned it to some of my friends, whose immediate reaction was “Yahn, (side note: there’s quite difference in the American and French pronunciation of this one syllable, the effect of which makes this anecdote somewhat more powerful, sadly, I can’t convey it through text.) that sounds like some sort of Viking name.” Yet, this difficulty of Americans to quite grasp the pronunciation of the French language is in a way revealing, especially given that I aspire to be a Viking when I grow up (kidding…mostly), and am sometimes referred to as such by those same friends. That is to say, despite their lack of understanding of the particular aesthetic given to my name by the French culture (also proof for Tolkien’s idea of the taste of a language, and the affinity or lack thereof for different ones) that name still revealed something about me and could still be connected to who I am.

Similarly, to Bree-folk, hearing their “Strider” referred to as “Elessar” may seem strange and foreign, yet, somehow right, as if something in the taste of the word speaks of who he is elsewhere. That taste may not give them the same impression that those who know him primarily by Elessar and who understand the language and meaning behind it, and will perhaps be more reminiscent of small details, half-remembered, about him among the rumors which tend to arise in inns like the Prancing Pony, yet it will speak truth about him: a story not yet told which may one day be heard.



  1. Excellent point about the way in which names carry relationships as well as stories: that our names say something about the people who are calling us by this or that name. While it is true that most of us do not change our names as radically as from "Strider" to "Elessar," there are more ways in which we distinguish ourselves/are distinguished by others than this. A few thoughts that I've had about the question:"Mrs. B" (with, by the by, a partial explanation for why it is hard to know what to call me in class).


  2. Hello Yahn!

    I like the idea that our names can reveal different aspects of ourselves. However, I think you also have to look at the relationship between people using the names. For example, I am known as River to just about everyone. The exception is my best friend Anya. She has always called me Riv since we were children. She is the only one who calls me that and, as far as I’m concerned, she’s the only one who can pull it off. It’s not that I would have any reason to object to, say, you calling me Riv, but it just doesn’t seem to fit right. It would sound wrong to hear anyone but Anya call me that just as it would seem odd to here her call me River. I think it’s because of the nature of our relationship. Anya has known me since we were five years old. She certainly isn’t the only one who has known me that long. She is, however, the closest friend I’ve ever had for the longest time. We have a particular level of familiarity that can’t be duplicated. No matter how close I get to someone else, even if I get closer to them than I am to Anya, they won’t have grown up with me. My personality and Anya’s essentially were built around each other. The nickname Riv, as simple as it may be, encompasses the entirety of our history together. To have someone imitate that history by using that nickname would just be irritating. Obviously, this isn’t always the case with nicknames, but I think it raises a valid point. Names don’t just contain aspects of our personality. They also include the relationship between the named and the namer.


  3. You are quite right that having more names does not one more real than someone else, more well traveled perhaps, but not more real. However, the use of multiple names in your Aragorn example does go beyond nicknames. His different names relate to who he is to those naming him, his function if you will. As Strider, he is the ranger of the North living on the margins doing mysterious and secret things. He was strider, rather than Elessar, when tracking Gollum nigh to the gates of Mordor. He is Elessar, and nor Dunadan in Gondor as the heralded king of prophesy.

    To take a modern example, imagine a Major Freeman, Delta Force commando serving in Afganistan. To the team he leads in the field he might be known by a callsign or simply “the Major.” His immediate commanding officer might call him “Freeman,” denoting his subordinate status by dispensing with his rank. However, he may call Freeman “the Major” when addressing him in front of him his men. To the local Afgan elders he deals with, he might be known as “the American.” To his classmates at the academy, he is known as “Jonny.” To his wife, Jon - his parents, Jonathan - the kid next door, Mr. Freeman sir - his former drill instructor, “pixie dust” (don’t ask) - in his will, Mr. Jonathan Godspeed Freeman III. Some are nicknames, but they also denote a manner of tone and Maj. Freeman’s function in the context of those naming him and whether they are names of reference or names of direct address. It would be interesting is examine the difference between names of reference and direct address among those in the legendarium with a great multiplicity of names.

    Some of Maj. Freeman’s names are fairly clear, and others not so much. The afgan elders hearing the name Pixie Dust in reference to the American, will undoubted be confused without some explanation. The name Jonny might seem self-evident until is it explained that he was going through a Johnny Cash phase while at the academy. Knowing all of the names, is one thing, but knowing why the names are attributable to him (the story behind the names) will allow you to know Maj. Freeman (or Aragorn or Gandalf) better.

    -Jason A Banks

  4. Great Post! I liked particularly your comments on pronunciation of names between cultures and countries. However, I feel your experience of nicknames differs hugely from mine, probably because I have a name that has more nicknames than is normal: Katherine.

    Most people call me Katie, some call me Kate, *one* person has gotten away with calling me Kathy. I’ve been called practically all the foreign versions of my name, and all of the pet names too, at some point in my life. Then there are the names I’ve chosen for myself. I was Kaoru and Saki at Japanese Camp, and I have many friends that I met online that still call me by my online name, which was Kai, or Kai-An. But my name is Katherine. I think what someone calls you is an indicator of your relationship and past experiences and changes accordingly. But I think there is a distinct difference between what you are called and what your name is.

    This idea has been around for literally ages; this is why in Catholicism and many other religions you pick a new name when you are confirmed or become a full member: it’s a sacred name that embodies that part of you. There are stories in hundreds of cultures where if someone knows your true name they can control you, or kill you. In many mythologies and histories there is a whole branch of knowledge called Naming (capital N). There were curse tablets that consisted of nothing but a name crossed out, as if the destruction of the word equaled the destruction of the person.

    I think Aragorn’s names follow this same pattern. The hobbits, who know very little of who he is, call him Strider. Dúnadan, or man of the west, refers to his ranger aspect, and his humanity. Thorongil is a metaphorical name, disguising his true nature (and indeed, like the curse tablets, he could have been killed had certain people known his true name). Elessar, or Elfstone, is a sacred name, his high title, given to him along with his destiny of kingship. But his *name* is Aragorn. It’s not just that this name encompasses the entirety of his person, but that it is somehow sacred and powerful. Even in the movie version of Fellowship, when Legolas says “He is Aragorn, son of Arathorn” I get the chills. Tolkien is always portraying words as power and magic; it stands to reason Names themselves would be incredibly powerful words.

    -Katie M

  5. Great post! I think a particularly interesting fact about words is that while for the most part we all agree on the meaning of these random sounds (a chair for all English-speaking people means something you sit on, or a place one could hold in a society), we only agree to a certain extent. Within our individual minds, though, I would guess that most, if not every, word additionally has a completely different association that makes each word our own. For example, when I hear the word chair without context, I imagine the giant puffy scarlet, yellow, and green plaid armchair that has a leg rest that sat in my living room for the first twelve years of my life. For you, or for anyone else, the association would be different. This results in all people having indivdualized lexicons that are also the same as everyone else's. Names are no different. When you and I hear the name Michael Jackson, we both know that we're talking about the recently deceased musician. But though the referent is the same, we might think of different things when we hear the name: I might think of him dangling that child out of the window while you might think of him in Thriller. This is why only having one name for a person still allows for multidimensionality.


  6. I am very grateful that you have brought this up in a blog post. What I was wondering about when reading the origins of all the different races was where do they get their different names for certain beings? Iluvatar has different names and so does Gandalf. In fact, I think your analysis of names applies best to Gandalf, since his name changes based on the peoples of every region and he is named in a way that seems like would be their first impression of him.

    About our names, I think that we need more subnames. As a teller at a credit union, I run into masses of people with common names, many of them are the same first and last names. Do you know how many Jacksons and Williams we have in the area? Even with an ID, which is sometimes a little blurry, it gets confusing. I don’t want to give the wrong person somebody else’s money. That is one minute detail that draws me to these fantasy tales in which people have seven names, which you can deduce their genealogy from as well. My name is so boring. I don’t even know my family tree past my great grandma.

    Alex Allen

  7. Your discussion of pronunciation of your name in the US and in France immediately made me jump to the idea of translation. Well, really, the difficulty of translation, especially for a text like Lord of the Rings. The purpose of a translation is to recreate the original work’s form, content and meaning, but Lord of the Rings is closely connected to the literary and linguistic traditions of Western Europe. Tolkien was very particular about every word he chose, but translations are often abridged and/or transformed, thus potentially creating mistakes that destroy the style and soul of the original work.

    In class discussions and in several of the blog posts, we have talked about the idea of taste and the flavor of languages, and I cannot even being to fathom how difficult it must be to translate the names of Tolkien’s beings and places (not to mention the rest of the text, including songs and poems) from one language to another while retaining the same flavor and meaning that the words had in English or Elvish or whathaveyou. There are phonetic differences in pronouncing sounds across the languages of the world, and that must be a great barrier in translating effectively.

    Even so, The Lord of the Rings claims to be a translation of the The Red Book of Westmarch,, which was not written in English. Does anyone then know of the success of Tolkien translations? Did he leave any advice to future translators for translating his works?

    - BLS