Sunday, February 26, 2012

Name Post: Germany Retrospective

Taken on a trip to the Sanssouci Castle in Potsdamn

It is a gorgeous day in Istanbul. Bree just got on an airport shuttle and I’ve spent the morning wandering around, alone again, but completely content that it’s the first day in months where I don’t need to wear a jacket. Sundays feel a little quiet here, despite the size of the city. The grand bazaar, as well as many smaller shops, are closed and the only people out seem to be tourists and a small crew filming a Turkish TV show by the café where I’m currently sitting.

I’m not quite sure where the time has gone, but tomorrow I’m transitioning to my fifth project country. I thought that as I look ahead to names in Zambia, it might help to do a little looking backwards at Germany as well, to (at least try to) form some conclusions before I head out again.


Germany was, undoubtedly, the country that has been easiest to do my research in (at least in the way that I’m used to doing research). This is partially because out of all the countries I’ve been to so far, the academic structures and institutions in place are the most similar to those I’m used to in the states, and also because naming is a big topic of conversation there. It was thrilling to get to meet people who are in the field of onomastics (only after learning that it’s even a field to begin with). My research in Germany included a lot of interviews with professionals in this area, translating articles from the University of Leipzig, and time spent with parents and children in play groups and churches in Leipzig and Berlin.

Potsdam street.

I included Germany in my line up of countries because, before arriving, I thought that it would serve as my strictest example of name regulation from a governmental perspective. I think what I found when actually sitting down and analyzing the law (and interpretations of the law) with Germans was that in recent years, the law has come to mean a lot less. There is, I would argue, a lot of pressure to choose a certain kind of name in Germany, but I think the pressures may be more social than governmental. Although I do think it is easy to see the German law about names as a kind of national project (and I do think that it did originally fulfill this purpose), these days all parents have to do is prove that the name they want to use is a name somewhere. I wonder if there are any words or sounds left in the world that aren’t. I’m very curious to follow how the law may change in a few years, because, to be quite honest, I think it’s a law that’s unsustainable. When I was typing up the 2011 report on German names, I couldn’t help but wonder, for example, how there can be legal justification for the fact that “Pepsi-Cola” cannot be a name, but “Pepsi-Carola” is just fine.

To oversimplify where I’ve been so far, in Bali, names (first and foremost, anyway) seemed to represent your position within a family. They often represent who your ancestors are, and where you come from, and are imbued with religious purpose of what the gods and elders chose for you. In India, names come to represent stories. They stand for people but also for gods, goddesses, places, rivers and also, often, status. In Morocco, they similarly come to stand for different stories, for religious texts, for a struggle to define what constitutes a Moroccan (and I would add, Muslim,) identity, and who is and isn’t a part of this. In Germany, there seems a national struggle to place people based on name. Although you can give your child a name from any country, it is difficult and complicated to do this without also clearly indicating the gender of the child, which, according to the standesamts, is most clearly done with the addition of an obviously feminine or masculine (and therefore, most often German second name).

I wonder if in part, it is the German population, a population who is currently trying to figure out their own national and cultural identities in a changing world, that is fuelling this law. I was amazed that out of all of the parents I spoke with in Germany out of about thirty parents, only two felt that the law should be abolished and parents should have free rein to name their child anything they wanted. Most parents were concerned that without this law, people would give their children names that would lead to ridicule and/or be offensive in a German context. I think the question of what names are appropriate in a German context becomes very complicated, however.

One frequent comment I got from parents when discussing the German name law was that a foreign-sounding first name just “wouldn’t sound right” with a German last name. One of them used the example of a girl named, “Monqiue Chantal Müller.” One the one hand, I understand entirely what they mean. Despite my liberal biases, I sometimes question the naming decisions of American parents that often seem to exotify names from other cultures that they themselves don’t belong to. But I also wonder, in the example given, how many Americans actually would hear a difference in the name “Monique Chantal Müller”? How many of them would be able to articulate that the first two names were French, and the last name typically German, and together, and that together, the name was a strange mash up of cultures? Maybe that’s not giving Americans that much credit, but if I heard that name in the US, I wouldn’t think much of it. (After all, my own name is a strange mash up of old-fashioned English/Greek with an unwieldy amount of typical Danish thrown in there).

That most Americans (I think) wouldn’t question the cultural mash up of a name like “Monique Chantal Müller” is partially because, of course, most Americans are not as aware of linguistic differences in Europe as most Europeans are. But I wonder if this is also simply because most names in the United States are already cultural mash ups of some kind. We hear names like “Shanti Smith” and “Sheng Rodriguez” and for the most part, we don’t bat an eye.

This is not to celebrate Americans for their open-mindedness (although I have to say that nearly seven months out of the country will do wonders for cultivating the patriotic spirit), but to explain why, I think, in some ways I’m unable to understand these concerns. The idea of a first name “going with” a last name based on the criteria that they originate from the same culture or nation is an idea that I think is expressed in very few names in the United States.

I also can’t help but note that certain names, according to these parents, seem more “okay” with German sounding last names than others. One mother talked about how she gave her daughter a typically Scandinavian name, but in the next sentence, talked about how “foreign names” sound strange with German last names. I can’t help but wonder, how are we defining what names are foreign then?

This idea of foreign versus German names becomes even more loaded when we consider that so often we talk about if a kid “looks like” their name (“She looks like SUCH a Rachel”, You could be a Tess”, Well he was born and we just knew he wasn’t a Charlie after all”). When names cross cultures, questions of kids “looking like” their names get a lot bigger and a lot more complicated. If you meet someone whose physical appearance clearly does not match what you know to be the linguistic or ethnic origin of their name, you often have questions. But I shudder to think that this means this person should not have been given that name.

One German mother told me she thought that, “Some names would just looks strange on these kids…like an African bush name on a blond baby.”

There is clearly an element of race in this. And power. In every country I have gone to, I have heard “American” names. It is no surprise to people to be reminded that it is often our celebrities, our politicians, our priorities, that are being spread worldwide. But it is a reminder that these are also being reflected in names. In Bali, I met one guy who named his two kids “Amanda” and “Yoga”, because he knew these were words that westerners in Bali liked. In India, some middle/upper class parents choose American names in the hopes that if their kids went to the states, they’d have an easier time. In Morocco, French and American names are in vogue for similar reasons, and in Germany, it seems that American names may be more acceptable than other names (these so –called “African bush names” for example), because of the question of race.

In other words, the message I’m getting from people is often that it is okay for certain names to cross cultures, but not others.

If I had had the courage, what I would have asked that mother is if she would have the same discomfort with an Indonesian baby being given the name Amanda, or a Zambian baby being named Emma. We are used to certain names crossing cultures, and I think this is (indirectly) reflected in the German name laws. If the name a parent chooses is a name from outside Germany, you need to go to greater lengths to prove that it is a “valid name”, and also figure out a way to make the name indicative of a specific gender to a German population.

Not to take this to a dark place, but these comments are particularly eerie to me in a place that has such a tumultuous history of figuring out who belongs here and who doesn’t. This is not to suggest that parents who prefer the sound of names to be consistent (keeping “Monique Chantal” with a French last name, and sticking “Müller” with “Birgit”, let’s say) are not well aware of this. I also don’t think these mothers are suggesting that names from different cultures don’t belong in Germany, but once again, I am struck by Professor Gerhards' idea that often our taste for names is shaped by so much beyond our control, and controlled by so much history.

Frozen river in Potsdam.

The line for what makes a name in Germany is already rapidly being blurred. I think exceptions to the German law are becoming the rule. When I walked down streets in Berlin I saw dozens of Turkish donner shops and signs for Moroccan fruit and Vietnamese noodles. There were social activists all over the city who are fighting for redefinitions of gender constructs and argue in favor of people who don’t want to define themselves within those lines. Right now the law about names in Germany requests that people are easily identified by these lines: by gender, by nationality, by cultural background.

I wonder how much the German naming law will keep making exceptions for names that are unusual in a German context, and when they may realize that their battle might be futile.

1 comment:

  1. Take your time to explore new places. There is a lot that you can do outside and more places to be discovered. Though it’s not fun to do this alone, still, try to enjoy every moment. Time is precious, waste it responsibly.

    -Trudi Thorburn