Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Name Post: Onomasticians Unite!

There was so much to be uncovered during my first two and half weeks in Germany that I never quite got this blog up to speed. Despite the fact that I’m writing this from Copenhagen, I want to back track to my last week in Germany, which is also actually projecting forward to my return there at the end of this week.

There were a lot of reasons why living near Leipzig for a few weeks turned out to be a good thing. I can’t quite believe I was stupid enough not to know this before I arrived, but the center for German names is right in downtown Leipzig. This is not only the center for all German names, but for names in Austria and Switzerland as well. So, completely by chance, I happened to be staying with a contact who lives about twenty minutes away from the major academic group studying names for most of Europe. (I really can’t stress the serendipity of this enough…I mean have you ever heard of another university besides the one in Leipzig that offers a whole onomastics department?)

This is just a random photo of me in East Germany that I haven't posted yet, but to give it a seminar-style segue, my excitement about this caramel macchiato and cake is about equal to my excitement about the naming institute.

I was plugging away on the computer at Emma’s house when her husband and I came across this page for the center: http://www.gfn.name/. With the help of Stefan’s translation skills, I soon learned that this center has a variety of purposes. First and foremost, it’s connected with an academic department. Students at the University of Leipzig can choose to study onomastics (names!) as a concentration (most of these students are coming from the linguistics department) and they all take classes in place names, surnames, and the cultural significance and origins of first names. The center also acts as a help desk to German parents who are trying to understand the rules of naming a baby in Germany (believe me, it gets complicated). For a fee, people can pay the center to write an official certificate to then show at the standesamt in support of a name. Researchers at the center will then do their own research about the name and make a case for why it should (or should not) be allowed in Germany. Because they are the only people who do this kind of work for Germany, Austria and Switzerland, their recommendation (or lack there of) makes a large difference in whether a name is accepted by a standesamt or not. People also come to the center with requests for them to research their last name and for a fee the center will put together a book on its history and origins. If I had extra euros (who does, really?) I would ask them to research "Bang-Jensen" in a heartbeat.

I was exponentially excited just to peruse their website and even more excited when I got an e-mail back from them a mere fourteen minutes after I requested a meeting. I met with Gabriele Rodriguez who has taken over the responsibility of making all of the certificates for parents’ seeking approval on a name, as well as dealing with the press about legal questions involving names, popular names trends, and current data.

The super chic University of Leipzig building where the naming center lives.

Everyone at the university center was incredibly kind in welcoming me into their midst. Gabriele and I talked for three and a half hours, and there’s so much wonderful & interesting stuff from that conversation that it’s hard to capture it all. I also learned that there are actually academic conferences on names. (WHAT?! How did I not know this?! ) They’re sponsored by the International Council on Onomastic Sciences and the next one is going to be in Glasgow in 2014. I just need to figure out a way to strongly suggest to the Watson Foundation that they abandon all tradition and continue to give me money to do this beyond one year. For a description of what onomastics is on the ICOS website, see: http://www.icosweb.net/index.php/whatis-onomastics.html.

I had been getting a lot of mixed information from people about what exactly the German law about names is today, and Gabriele was able to clear up a lot. She also pointed out, however, that some of the discrepancies simply comes from the fact that different standesamt officers have different standards for names and personal biases. (A baby named “Millennium”* might not be okay to a guy working at a standesamt in Delitzsch but might be a-okay to a woman working at a standesamt in Halle, for example).

The unusually named Kemba on our trip to the zoo.

She told me that 2008 was the year of big changes in the law. Interestingly, these changes were brought about by an Indian couple living in Germany who wanted to name their daughter “Kiran.” The government said that Kiran was a boy’s name and that they couldn’t do this without giving their daughter a second name that was more feminine. The couple was adamant that they didn’t want to give their daughter a middle name, and finally the government relented.** That case seems to be the turning point where the law was changed and it wasn’t only “German names” that were accepted. Today, the sex of the child still has to be evident from the name BUT if you can prove (often with the help of Gabriele Rodriguez at the University of Leipzig,) that worldwide this name can stand alone as predominantly male or female, it will most often be approved.

Take, for example, a call that Gabriele got while I was in the office. A German mother was calling who wanted to name her new baby “Marlene.” She had gone to the standesamt and they had told her that it’s not clear if this is a boy’s name or a girl’s name (to readers in the United States, this might be surprising). The standesamt told her she should give her daughter a second name that was recognizably feminine. The mother was calling Gabriele at the center because she didn’t want to giver her daughter a second name. She was hoping to get a certificate from Gabriele saying that worldwide, Marlene is predominantly a girl’s name, and the name should be approved for a girl in Germany without adding a second name.

Gabriele’s office is lined with baby name books from around the world. When she gets a case like this one, she’ll do online searches as well as pour through these books to try and find the clearest justification that it can be a stand-alone name, and that there are countries where it’s extremely popular. On her bulletin board are the birth announcements of dozens of babies who Gabriele has helped name. For me, it was a treasure trove looking at these cards and asking her what the rationale was for these names being rejected in the first place. She wrote a certificate justifying “Luca” as a name for boys without an additional more masculine name. She’s written one for “Kimi” for a boy as well because, as she explained, “Kimi” is popular for boys in Sweden and should be able to stand alone in Germany. Gabriele also got “Anderson” approved as a first name and found the justification for this in a 1974 copy of “What Shall We Name the Baby?” She helped a couple give their daughter the name “Helene Ruben” despite the standesamt’s initial protestations that “Ruben” was a boy’s name. While I was there, a woman came in to pick up a certificate in favor of the name “Caiane.” Gabriele agreed with the mother that it should be approved and she wrote up a certificate for the standesamt arguing for it. From Gabriele's perspective, "Caiane" should be allowed in Germany because “Cai” and “Caia” are already very popular, as is the “ane” ending for girls (Juliane, Emiliane, Christiane, etc…) “Caiane” was just putting these two already established naming trends together.

I really think there should be a New Yorker article written about a day in this office.

Gabriele also has hundreds of files leftover from the naming center of the GDR. (This is actually when the current center was founded). The files list every baby name that was contested during this time on small handwritten index cards. After some searching, we learned that the name "Nell" had actually come up during this time. We found two cases in the GDR where "Nell" that had been initially rejected and then eventually approved in 1988 (funnily, the year before I was born).


Part of what the German government, and Gabriele, are trying to do, is figure out what classifies as a name. In the United States, we have an easy answer for this and that is: everything. But in Germany (like in Morocco) there needs to be justification that this has a tradition of being a name. That’s why if “Kimi” is a boy’s name in Finland, it can now be approved in Germany as well. But sometimes, to be honest, it seems pretty arbitrary. Take for example, the idea that in Germany you can name your daughter "Mercedes" but not "Porsche." The argument is that the name Mercedes came before the car, and therefore it's an appropriate name for a human, but the name Porsche would always be referring to the car itself. But surely, somewhere in the world, there must have been at least one child who's family strung some syllables together and called Porsche as well? The line between the two feels rather wobbly and, frankly, if most people associate both "Porsche" and "Mercedes" with cars today, does it really matter which one was a name for humans first?

(Excuse the Vermonter liberal bias that seems to have just entered the room).

As you can imagine, there is a lot of disagreement within Germany itself on what a name can be. I thought a particularly interesting case comes up with the popular German actor Til Schweiger. He married an American woman and their children were born in the United States, giving them permission to name them whatever they wanted. One of his four kids is notably named, “Emma Tiger.” A few years ago, a couple in Germany wanted to name their child “Lilly Tiger” and were told by the standesamt that “Tiger” isn’t a name. Their justification for it? Til Schweiger says it is. They argued that although this baby had her name approved in the United States, Til Schweiger is a German actor and thus part of German culture and German history. In other words, his naming preferences should be able to be replicated by other Germans.

The name Lilly Tiger was eventually approved.

Emma's daughter, Lily, contemplating whether her life would be different if her middle name was Tiger.

The hours I spent in this office were fascinating. I continued to be fascinated when I went back a few days later to meet some of Gabriele’s colleagues and hear their perspectives. It is, I think, extremely interesting as an American to hear these debates. The whole time I was in her office I was thinking how wonderful it would be to have a job like Gabriele’s but I was also thinking how it would be a completely futile job in the United States. It seems somewhat ludicrous to an American, that a parent would have to come up with some kind of certificate in order to make a legal case for “Marlene” not having a middle name. On the one hand, it seems that now, at least with Gabriele’s approval, parents can use almost any name that they want. But this all leads me to wonder then, what the fuss is all about and particularly, how long will it last. When, for example, will enough people wanting to use the name "Porsche" turn it into a name that's acceptable for humans AND, most importantly, who decides?***

The bottom line is that it was thrilling to be surrounded by people who study this every day and who are so at the heart of these decisions. In other words, people who don’t bat an eyelid when I say I’m going to seven+ countries this year to study how people get their names.

Gabriele’s colleague, Dietlind Kremer, put it really well. I asked her what she tells her students about why they should study names and why names matter. “This is what I tell them,” she said. “I tell them to take a newspaper and a pair of scissors. Cut out all of the names. See what you’re left with.”

A huge thank you to Gabriele Rodrigeuz and Dietlind Kremer for giving me a glimpse into their world.

*This name was eventually approved by the German government.

**My details on this court case and this family were told to me second hand and I wasn’t able to find any articles about it, so take all this with a grain of salt.

***I just realized this blog post really makes it sound like I'm a big fan of the name "Porsche." That is really not the case. (No offense to the U.S.-born Porsches out there). It's just a good example of how arbitrary this seems sometimes. (While we're already in a footnote, are there any Ramona Quimby fans out there? By the time I was nine I had pretty much memorized the entire series because I would listen to the books on tape every night before I went to bed. For those of you who may not remember--her doll's name is Chevrolet).

Sunday, January 29, 2012

2nd Quarterly Report

I just completed my second quarterly report for the Watson Foundation and thought that I would share it here. You may recognize bits and pieces of it from previous blog posts, but I thought it was worth putting up here as a shorter version of the last three months. Happy reading.

January 28, 2012

To the Watson Fellowship Office,

Happy New Year! I hope this finds you well. I’m currently munching on a Danish pastry while looking out at the snowy streets of Copenhagen. The decision to leave my project country of Germany for a week and come to Denmark was a rather spontaneous one made after a distant relative offered me the use of his apartment here and I was able to connect with a few potential research contacts. It feels appropriate to the spirit of the Watson that the halfway point finds me in a new city that I had no idea I’d be visiting when I left last July!

I can’t believe that I left the United States whole six months ago, but I also can’t believe that I have six more months of transitions and travel left to go! The thought is both exciting and exhausting. When I last wrote, I was in Hyderabad, India before heading north to spend my last two weeks in India sightseeing around Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, and the small northern town of Simla. I thoroughly enjoyed taking those two weeks to experience India in a different way and I found that after nearly eight weeks in different Indian cities, I had finally become a much more assertive and confident traveler. There were many things I had finally figured out about life there (navigating my way through the chaotic train stations, surviving the Delhi metro during rush hour, learning how to eradicate bed bugs) just when my time was up! It was difficult to say goodbye to a place that profoundly impacted how I view and move about the world, and difficult to say goodbye to my new “Indian families” who had opened their homes to me, but I was also exhausted and ready to be in one place for a while.

I arrived in Rabat, Morocco on November 15th and had the good fortune of coming into contact with a young woman with a spare room who was willing to rent it out to me. It was wonderful to be in the same place for the eight weeks I was in Morocco . The apartment was right near the ocean and I loved wandering my neighborhood, buying groceries in the fruit and vegetable market near my place and getting to know the kids who played outside. After a lot of time in Indian hostels, I loved being able to come home and cook for myself and be based in one place long enough to form some wonderful new friendships. I took to Rabat quite quickly and loved the interesting combination of European and Arab influences you find just wandering the streets. I loved the chaotic medinas, taking brief trips to Fez and Casablanca, and sampling more varieties of olives than I ever knew existed.

In Morocco I had a range of conversations (formal and informal) about naming and I took a few Moroccan Arabic classes to learn how to communicate on a very basic level. One highlight of my time there was that some teachers at a school became interested in my research and the idea of the Watson fellowship in general and had me come in to be a guest speaker in their classrooms. My conversations with the students about their relationships to their own names and identities were some of the most fruitful of this year. Morocco is the first country on my list where the decision of what to name your child is shaped by governmental pressures. There is a set of laws and an approved list of names that can be used because these names are said to represent “Moroccan identity.” As you can imagine, conflicts arise when there are different ethnic groups who want to use different names and are excluded from this idea of what a Moroccan identity is. I really enjoyed my conversations there and felt that I had developed new strategies for research and new definitions for what that research can look like.

Another highlight of my time in Morocco was meeting my parents at the Casablanca airport on Christmas morning. It was wonderful to be able to share a sliver of this year with my family (and I think, reassuring for them to see me “in action”). It was a very joyful reunion and wonderful to spend some time reflecting on this year with people who know me so well .

On January 9th, after a stop at the iconic Rick’s Café in Casablanca, I flew to project country #4: Germany. I experienced a lot of culture shock at the Frankfurt airport and was reminded it was my first time setting foot outside of Asia or Africa in over five months. From Frankfurt I traveled to eastern Germany to a rural town outside of Leipzig where a family had generously agreed to host me. I lived with them and their 3 daughters (ages 5 weeks old, 2 and 4!) for about three weeks and because I was constantly surrounded by children, I was able to meet a lot of parents who recently went through the naming process in Germany. Germany also has a strict set of naming laws and serendipitously, I met a whole slew of academics who teach at a university that offers its own department of onomastics (names). I’m eager to continue my research in Germany when I head back there (this time to Berlin, rather than the east) at the end of this week.

I’ll finish up my seven weeks in Germany at the end of February at which point I’m taking a week-long trip to Istanbul to see my sister and celebrate my 23rd birthday before heading onto project country #5: Zambia, on February 28th. I have a feeling from here on out things are going to be moving very quickly indeed!

When I think about the next few months I have similar feelings to as when I left home last July. I am nervous and excited and can’t quite believe I’m doing what I’m doing. But now, I have the confidence that I can, indeed, do this. As more and more time passes, I am becoming more and more appreciative of what these experiences are teaching me about myself. Although I still question how I’m spending my time and if I could be more productive and what the end goal of all of this is, I’m worrying less about it. I feel less tethered to home and have stopped thinking about what I might be missing out on. I’ve learned to plan less, say yes more, and have dinner with just about anyone in the world, even when we don’t speak the same language.

I recently mailed a wedding present to a former director and dear friend at home and we had a conversation about the beauty of all of these tangible little reminders of all of the other worlds out there. We talked about how pulling them altogether can sometimes feel like a great challenge, but also an immense gift. She wrote, “The world is just full of so many things. They do not fit together tidily. Which, I suppose, is partly why learning how to recognize yourself in many different situations, in all the changing landscapes, in the shifting configurations, so that you become your own throughline, ends up feeling like its own superpower. Knowing your eccentricities, and knowing your worth, and trusting yourself to evolve, and giving yourself permission.”

These words were just about an exact articulation of what I was feeling, and a perfect understanding of how this year has already so profoundly shaped who I am and who I will be for years to come. I have learned to recognize myself through my interactions with so many people, in many different time zones, in many different languages. I’ve learned what I need in order to feel safe, in order to feel happy, in order to contribute to my surroundings in a positive way, in order to feel like me. As I begin to slowly face the reality that I will eventually be returning home from this adventure, the possibilities for where I go from here seem vast and overwhelming. Sometimes I wonder if this year will just feel like a dream. What the idea of finding your own throughline does for me, is remind me that this year will always be an integral part of who I am, of how I think, and how I understand myself and others. It’s a superpower indeed.

I am excited, nervous, and a little tired when I think ahead to the next six months. I can only imagine they will continue to shape me in ways I can’t begin to imagine yet.

A thousand thank yous for this gift. I am learning every day.


Nell Bang-Jensen


-At Hunmayan's Tomb in Delhi
-At the Taj Mahal in Agra
-Sunlight in a Moroccan Medina
-In Sale, Morocco
-About to eat a Moroccan tajine (that I made!)
-With my family in Rabat, Morocco
-The Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca
-Street view in Leipzig, Germany

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Six Month Watsoversary

The Queen's summer palace in freshly fallen snow.

I'm writing this post from a frigid Copenhagen, looking at the lights reflecting on the harbor outside. I just arrived here yesterday and it seems appropriate to the spirit of the Watson that the halfway point of this year finds me facing a lot of newness in a country I had no idea I would end up visiting when I began this journey last July.

I absolutely cannot believe it's already been six months since I left the states. I absolutely cannot believe I have another six months of this to go.

I'm having trouble articulating all that I'm feeling as I think about what's past and what's to come, but hopefully my second quarterly report will help there. All I can say for now is that I'm one lucky lucky girl. As much as there are days I long to be home (namely to be in my own bed, or be able to pick up the phone and reach anyone I want to talk to, or eat a burrito... or ideally do this all at the same time), I am extremely grateful for this. For all of it.

In the past month I have:

-Welcomed 2012 in a Moroccan riad with people I love.

-Bought a lot of inexpensive saffron.

-Learned to make a vegetarian tajine.

-Spent days eating olives at every meal.

-Visited the third largest mosque in the world.

-Had an extreme bargaining escapade that ended in my purchase of a leather jacket.

-Drank a martini at the iconic Rick’s Café in Casablanca (cross that off the life bucket list).

-Said another hard goodbye. Bawled in a hotel lobby. (The Moroccan receptionist cried too because she said it reminded her of when she said to say goodbye to her son who lives in France).

-Set foot outside of Asia and Africa for the first time in five and a half months.

-Experienced a lot of culture shock.

-Adjusted to being in a country where I blend in. (I’m finding when you can’t pull the whole “I look like a tourist thing” and you still don’t understand what anyone is saying, you just end up looking really stupid).

-Thanks to Stefan’s employer and the generosity of the Fenchel family, I drove around a new BMW for a few weeks. I can’t tell you how good it felt to drive for the first time since leaving the United States. Let alone a BMW.

-Learned to make a German eierscheke (cake) and quickly became acclimated to the kaffeetrinken tradition.

-Rode in a car going 218 kilometers on the autobahn (that would be 135 jaw-dropping mph, my friends).

-Drank a beer in the passenger seat of a car on the autobahn.

-Successfully completed the above two accomplishments legally.

-Played countless games of hide and go seek. Spent a lot of time dancing. And tickling. And snuggling.

-Gotten to know the city of Leipzig, had a better understanding of GDR history

-Sampled a lot of German beer and wine. (As my uncle pointed out to me recently, this is probably a factor in some German parents’ naming decisions, after all).

-Tried (almost) every strategy for getting a baby to sleep.

-Went to several Anglican church services.

-Talked to a lot of moms about names. Visited a German standesamt. Found a university department with professors who offer classes about names and picked their brains for hours.

-Eaten a ridiculous amount of cheddar cheese (oh how I’ve missed you….)

-Read a lot of books about farm animals. Resultingly, learned the sounds that German farm animals make.

-Had a tour of the Leipzig BMW plant and test drove BMW’s first electric car. (Side note: I am pretty much the furthest distance you could get from a “car person” but I still found this extremely cool. Most things seem extremely cool in my new leather jacket).

-Set foot in two new countries (Germany and Denmark).

-Seen my first snowfall of the winter. (It’s about time).

Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Temporary Goodbye to Germany

With Kemba at the zoo.

There is a lot to say, but I am fading fast. I have some exciting research from the past week to share (and a watsoversary tomorrow, and a quarterly report, oh my). It's after midnight though and all that has to wait until tomorrow (or longer). There was frost on the ground for the first time last night and I'm already craving the warmth of my yellow comforter.

My last few days here in Wannewitz have disappeared into saying goodbyes to people I feel like I've been with much longer than two and a half weeks. I've gotten into such a pattern of coming and going this year that it feels very strange to be saying goodbye so soon. Tomorrow I'm leaving for a week sightseeing in Copenhagen before returning to Germany for more research, this time to Berlin.

Before that I need some sleep to prepare me for a bright and early train ride to the Berlin airport, and more importantly, to prepare me for a sleepy-eyed goodbye to this lovely family who has given me a warm & busy home for the past few weeks.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Birds, Bach & Bratwurst

I’ve spent the past two weeks going to interviews with families and officials about German names in between epic bouts of hide and go seek and baking adventures at home. Several days last week, Emma & I kept ourselves (and the girls) occupied by driving into Leipzig. Leipzig is the largest closest city to my temporary German home and I’ve loved exploring the cafes and cobblestone streets.

I hadn’t heard much about Leipzig before I arrived so I was pleasantly surprised to be so close to such a great city. Leipzig is one of the two largest cities in Saxony (Dresden is the other) and has a population of about half a million. (People tell me that before German reunification there were closer to a million people living in Leipzig, but once the wall fell many people chose to move west to find work). Leipzig has a history of being a major trade city and became a large urban center for the GDR after World War II.

This monument is a Leipzig icon and was constructed in 1913 to commemorate the Battle of the Nations in 1813 which took place in Leipzig between Napoleonic France and a coalition of Prussia, Russia, Austria and Sweden. According to Wikipedia, this was the largest battle in Europe prior to World War I and ended Napoleon’s presence in Germany.

During World War II Leipzig was partially destroyed by bombings (although nowhere near as much as nearby Dresden) and then it changed quite a bit when it became a part of the GDR in 1945. Walking around the city today, the different styles of architecture you can find are pretty amazing. There are countless 1950s-style apartment buildings built when Leipzig was East Gemany next to brand new modern houses that have been renovated from bombed ruins. Wandering the streets, it is hard not to fall upon buildings with a lot of history….

St. Thomas church, for example, is the place where Johann Sebastian Bach worked as a cantor and is also home to the renowned St. Thomas boys choir. This is also where you can find Bach’s grave.

St. Nicholas church is particularly interesting because it is said to be the site where the Peaceful Revolution first began. In October 1989, “Monday demonstrations” began leaving from here and walking around the ring road of Leipzig’s old town. The protests grew bigger and bigger each week, until finally, in early December, citizens occupied the Stasi central office and branches. In the months leading up to this, when police tried to enforce a curfew to have cause to arrest the protesters, those working at St. Nicholas church invited everyone to take refuge inside. The events in Leipzig were the most prominent mass protest against the East German state.

The so-called “Old Town Hall” was built in 1556 and is currently used as a museum.

Auberbachs Keller is the bar where Goethe spent a lot of time and where a scene from Faust takes place.

I also spent an afternoon at the Rounde Ecke museum with Chris and Anne, two new friends who are students at the University of Leipzig. They showed me some other sights around the city (with a stop for the all important German tradition of “kaffeetrinken”-- 3pm coffee and cake). Rounde Ecke became the home base for the Stasi (secret police) in the GDR and today it houses a museum devoted to artifacts and documents from this time. The museum was eerie and fascinating and gave me a lot more information about what life was like in the GDR.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the museum is that it’s all preserved in authentic surroundings. As a brochure at the museum puts it, “The linoleum floor, the lattice bars on the windows, surveillance cameras and, not least, the typical GDR smell, which still lingers today in the former offices, are all reminders of the former use of the building.”

Because people weren't allowed to travel in the GDR, they hosted their own Olympics in Leipzig called the "Spartakiaefeuer." At the time, Chris's father even won a medal for his high jumping.

Kaffeetrinken at Luise cafe.

Also interesting were letters from schoolchildren that had been taken by teachers and mailed to the Stasi because they thought these students showed signs of being against the state. There were countless tools for spies, complicated letter openers, photos of the guillotine that was used from 1960-1968 and so many fake mustaches. It is one thing to read about this time in history books, and another thing to see the stacks of cassette tapes of “western music” that the Stasi had confiscated in the mail.

Because Leipzig was a trade center, it is made up of “passages” (outdoor tunnels filled with covered shops and markets). The one pictured below houses a superstitious fountain that (with the right pair of hands) can be coaxed into making music.

Chris & Anne having a go.

Hannah & Kemba in a passage.

Besides touring these monuments and churches, there have been multiple stops at cafes that stretch into hours, many many pee breaks with the girls, and stops to look at fountains in department stores. The occasionally frustrating but surprisingly pleasant thing about exploring with kids is that it forces you to slow down. I'm finding that they are helpful reminders to not only look at the buildings and remnants of history, but also at the snowflakes, the bikes, the birds waiting to be fed.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Name Post: Discovering Kevinismus

While in Morocco, a friend who's a teacher there told me there’s an old joke that teachers are the people who have the hardest time naming their kids because by the time they’ve gotten around to having their own, there is no name left that doesn’t have some kind of negative connotation. This is one of the many reasons I really love talking to teachers about names. They’ve often seen a wide variety of names, and also get a new sample of students every year, making them the perfect people to notice how trends are changing. In the past week I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Birgit, a kindergarten teacher whose family has lived in Wannewitz for decades. I’ve been really interested in hearing her stories about living in the GDR and I finally got to sit her down the other evening to talk to her about names.

Birgit has four kids of her own: Caroline, Tobias, Claudia and Andreas (the last two are twins). While Birgit may have avoided naming her own child after students whose names held a negative connotation, she did name her second child, Tobias, after a particularly sweet kindergartener she had in her class. Birgit has taught at a Montessori style kindergarten in the nearby town of Delitzsch for years. She talked to me about how she noticed names in this part of Germany seemed to go in five year cycles. Particularly interesting recent trends she noticed is a return to old fashioned German names like Fritz and Bruno and Sophia which has replaced the "typically East German" trend that's been going on since the 1980s where it seemed like every girl was Jessie or Mandy or Cindy.

She talked to me about names in the GDR and how until the wall came down in Wannewitz, there was no television. She thinks that this was a large reason why the names tended to be pretty unoriginal. She says there were many girls named Birgit and boys named Andreas and people didn’t tend to think very creatively about their options. She also told me about how it took a long time post war for for people to start traveling again. She said that all of a sudden, 20 years later, names like Lars and Sven are popping up in Germany, and largely reflect that people are taking holidays to the north again.

One of many old and beautiful office buildings in Leipzig.

To be clear, in Germany, kindergarten is the term used for what we in the United States would consider preschool or nursery school. The school at which Birgit teaches takes kids who are a few months old up to age six. I asked her what she thought the kids she worked with thought of their own names and if--having seen a large sample of five year-olds--names actually matter to them. She responded that almost all of the five year-olds she’s taught are very particular and very devoted to their names. She thinks that people disliking or wanting to change their names comes much later in life. She told me that often kids are very particular that their classmates speak and spell their names correctly, hanging onto those letters, perhaps because a name acts as their bridge from who they are at home to who they are in this new school setting. She also told me about the opposite affect, where a girl named “Annalina” was always just called “Lina” at home, but insisted on her full name being used at kindergarten.

This conversation got me thinking a lot of about names and identity shifts. Names often change in context; sometimes we use our full names, sometimes nicknames, sometimes name change with marriage and sometimes they change just because people need a fresh start. It’s interesting to me that these kindergarteners were already recognizing that names can change in context, and perhaps a name is a way of separating these aspects of identity for ourselves; maybe Annalina just didn’t feel like a Lina at school. My mom likes to tell the story that when I was in elementary school, teachers would always compliment her on how well behaved I was, a story that didn’t always line up with the obstinate, argumentative daughter she knew at home. She talked to me about this one day and I then explained to her that there was “Home Nell” and “School Nell.” (Clearly, “School Nell” was miraculously better at accepting authority). In other words, from a young age, I was creating my own names for myself depending on how I was behaving (or felt like behaving) in different contexts.

Hannah & Kemba are providing me with great filler photos of quintessential beautiful German kids. This was taken at a cafe while people-watching (and rolling around) in a Leipzig Starbucks.

I also asked Birgit about her own perspective on these kids’ names. I’m always curious how much our names shape who we are, and I wanted to know if there was any kind of correlation she’d noticed between kids’ personalities or characteristics and their names. She told me there does seem to be some kind of correlation because often kids with the same name come from families in similar social circles. One year she had three boys named Nicolas who were all remarkably alike. She also told me there have been a lot of studies done in Germany about teachers’ own biases against kids based on their names. She told me that there’s a running joke among teachers in Germany that any kid named “Florian” is bound to be a trouble maker. She also told me it’s been interesting to her because the kindergarten where she teaches is right next door to a kindergarten for kids who are developmentally delayed and there are certain names in that kindergarten that you never find in the one she teaches at, and vice versa.

And then we talked about Kevinismuss. Kevinismuss is a phenomenon I read about before I came to Germany, but it’s been surprising to me how many people are quite aware of it here. I’ve heard that the term was first coined in an Austrian newspaper article. It refers to the phenomenon of Austrians and Germans giving their kids names like Justin or Cindy or Jason or, the most popular, Kevin. For whatever reason, in Germany it is most often parents with less education who tend towards American names. By some strange correlation, there ended up being a lot of kids named Justin and Kevin in Germany who spent their first few years in homes that had different values or practices that might be found in most German schools. As a result, they tended to do worse than their peers once they got there. This is happening so frequently, however, that now there are a lot of questions about if German teachers have come to be biased against certain names. Some studies here have looked at teachers’ gradebooks and there’s been an overwhelming correspondence between a child’s name and how well they do in school; overwhelmingly, kids with American names in Germany do worse.

Another Leipzig street.

It was very interesting to me that there was such a strong correlation here that “Kevinismus” is a term known by many in Germany. I was trying to think if there is an American equivalent, but I think perhaps in the U.S., there are fewer names chosen exclusively by certain demographics. There have been a lot of studies about prejudices based on stereotypically “black names” and “white names” in the U.S. but fewer studies on names and the socio-economic status or education level of parents. Teachers must make certain assumptions about their students from just seeing their class lists at the beginning of each year, but perhaps few in the U.S. admit it, or maybe the trends are less overwhelming in one direction or another.

I talked to one German mom about “Kevinismus” recently. She chose to give her kids two old fashioned German names (Albert and Clara). She said that the Kevinismus trend and the laws for German names didn’t really affect her and her husband’s decision about the kid's names too much, but, as she puts it, “If a teacher is going to look at a gradebook and be more likely to give my kid better marks because his name is Albert…that can't hurt..."