(“A good name reaches far, but a bad one reaches farther” – Yugoslavian Proverb)

Humans are social creatures. We don’t like being on our own over long periods of time and we have a strong tendency to gather in groups. Sometimes these groups represent our kin, sometimes they are formed of friends and sometimes they involve only strangers. It doesn’t matter, as long as they include more than one person. But, as with all large numbers, some sort of shared language is required for a group to function properly at the most basic of levels.

At first, this language would be formed of basic sounds and gestures only (or emoticons, nowadays). Then it would evolve into an increasingly nuanced form of expression that may go far beyond what comes out of our mouths. And all this could happen remotely, without even the need for face-to-face interactions and by means of endless strings of 1s and 0s.

However, despite being so attracted to socialising, human beings also feel the need to be clearly identified as separate individuals. This may be achieved by different means, with the easiest one being that which we all have and take for granted. Yes, you guessed it, I’m talking about the two (or more) “labels” we each get at birth: our family and given names. Some of us could care less about them. Others cherish them. Some change one or both as soon as they are legally allowed, while others end up turning them into worldwide trademarks. Whichever the case, these always come with a certain weight. Your family name may indicate your origin, sometimes literally, should you have a toponymic, patronymic or Spanish surname, the latter of which can go as far as disclose your entire family tree for the past three generations. On the other hand, your given name merely singles you out from the mass of people represented by your (close or distant) relatives. Your names can identify you as the member of a certain social group/ethnicity or as a national of a certain country (especially in the case of smaller countries that don’t have a very long history of immigration). They make you belong and stand out at the same time and they’ve experienced all sorts of strange trends across history. For example, during rougher times, parents would choose fearsome, bloodcurdling names for their newborns, in order to make the youngsters seem imposing and intimidating. Later on, such names would be softened to a mush by Christianity, which brought about a wave of saint and flower names, in particular, as they allegedly promoted peace.

But who invented this naming system? Obviously, someone who needed it. Before the age of IDs and chip passports, people required a way to prove their identity and set themselves aside from others. As such, the concept of a “surname/given name system” first emerged in China, as a trend only accessible to the rich. And it’s only natural for this particular land to be the birthplace of such a concept, since it has always been a very populous country and it very quickly reached that point where people needed some sort of way to show their affiliation. Moreover, the Chinese were also among the first to use their names for something more than identification purposes. For example, imagine that you are a Mongolian horse breeder and you happen to meet, somewhere along the Silk Road, a random Chinese person. You can’t really understand what they are saying and there is no one around that can help you. However, if you happen to hear a certain name (that you are familiar with) coming out of their mouth, you might just understand that they are actually a potential customer. You don’t understand Chinese, but thanks to the significance of that name and the power behind it, which reached your distant lands through word-of-mouth, you understand that the foreigner wants to do business with you. And that’s how trade relationships are started and, at a wider scale, how the “world turns”… but only after someone hires an interpreter, obviously.

Even now, thousands of years later, this relatively simple “labelling system” is still used worldwide, probably representing the only thing on which we all agree on, as a species, and it has also been translated into almost all fields of knowledge, from Latin names for the flora and fauna to computer systems. Just imagine what your life would be like if you could not be able to differentiate folders or files at first sight and would have to open every single one of them just to discover which one you needed.

But even names, as far-reaching as they are, have their own limitations. Whether they belong to individuals or have achieved the “trademark” status, names alone cannot provide a fully functional and successful method of conveying messages. The power of a name stands in the people that know and use it. Sometimes, a person taking part in a conversation may fail to comprehend the power of a name, for whatever reason. In this kind of situation, that name is rendered ineffectual and the entire message that should have been conveyed through this particular conversation becomes corrupted.

Regardless of the exact nature of the circumstances surrounding the birth of names, they eventually led to the creation of a structure (which later on turned into grammar) that could express much more than just living beings and objects. They became the cornerstone of languages, these extremely complex monsters that are so vital to our lives. Despite the fact that we are currently attempting to obtain simpler and simpler means of communications, for now, any kind of universal language, be it formed of images, letters or figures, can only do its part up to a point until it runs into the same obstacles that names did: it remains highly referential and requires resources that not everyone may have at their disposal. And, as we all know, humans come in all shapes, sizes and abilities. We’re not exactly the “one-size-fits-all” kind of species…. planetarily speaking. For example, working on software code alongside a programmer from a distant country might be a piece of cake, but something as simple as actually talking to them could prove to be quite challenging.

But that’s where linguistics comes in and saves the day.


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