REVIEW: What really is in a name?:Names by Tariq Rahman

Published November 1, 2015
Names: A Study of Personal Names, Identity and Power in Pakistan

By Tariq Rahman
Names: A Study of Personal Names, Identity and Power in Pakistan By Tariq Rahman

ASK anyone in Pakistan or elsewhere the process of how he/she was named, and there is a little bit of a history attached; often times simple, sometimes a bit complicated but mostly quite interesting. My father’s name for instance is an amalgamation of his two grandfather’s names, Azeiz and Aman, forming his, Azeiz-ul-Aman, followed by the family name, Zuberi. An additional personal name, Javed was also given as the former was unwieldy in everyday use.

Naming trends in Pakistan vary greatly amongst social strata, across provincial and ethnic lines, religious inclination, urban and rural divide, family lineage, and have differed over time. Unlike some societies around the world, there is no set naming pattern here and it is generally left to the discretion of the newborn’s parents, grandparents or other family members.

For several years now I have been interested in the increasing tendency in Pakistan towards adopting the husband’s or father’s first name as a surname, thereby, completely doing away with any family identity. But my research into this trend never came about. I did, however, get valuable information on this and several other aspects of naming in the recently published book: Names: A Study of Personal Names, Identity and Power in Pakistan by Dr Tariq Rahman, dean at the School of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, Beaconhouse National University.

A pioneer in the field of onomastics, the book is an attempt at identifying the various naming trends in Pakistan, especially amongst the majority Muslim population, an area in which there is very little, if any, literature available at all. In Rahman’s own words, this work is a small contribution towards a much larger, divergent research scope on the subject. It relies heavily on empirical data, especially collected by the author via personal interviews and questionnaires, in addition to obtaining name lists from schools, colleges, universities and national data across all provinces.

Written in the style of an academic dissertation, the introductory chapter outlines the literature review and methodology, following through to the analysis of the data collected and findings thereof in subsequent chapters. These have been categorised in terms of Islamic identity, power, class, modernisation and such.

The onomastics modernisation in Pakistan “has been influenced by the processes of urbanisation, ethnicity, and contemporary interpretations of Islam” in addition to Western norms and fashions. According to the data collected, “Arabic is the major language of naming in Pakistan” despite not being understood by almost anyone apart from some clergymen — having said that, a majority of the respondents knew the correct meaning of their names. Survey results prove that names given in the 1990s have more Islamic bearings as compared to those from the 1950s.

In first names, three trends, “Islamisation, Arabisation, and the quest for novelty” are evident from 1940-50 till 2000, especially amongst the urban populace. As in several other societies, in Pakistan too nicknames perform either of these two functions: “ego-boosting and ego-deflation”, but unlike in some other communities, nicknames never become formal names. Certain names relating to rural aristocracy and gentry, like Sheikh, Malik, Sardar and Chaudhry, whether of true origin or assumed, are taken in order to signify “social superiority and the right to control others.”

A marked effect of colonialism on naming practices amongst middle and upper class women has been the adoption of the husband’s name after marriage, and nicknames given “in the Westernised elite are quintessentially Westernised, both for girls and boys”. With a rise in religious extremism, minority Christian, Parsi and Sikh communities are increasingly taking on Muslim or neutral names in order to avoid instant branding and thus persecution in what the author terms as a “destigmatising strategy”. Rahman has woven these and many more interesting findings through literature studied, drawing parallels and comparisons which provide validation and substance. In some areas, while the commentary on the findings of the data itself is brief, it is comprehensive and methodical. Using the results of the data, he has attempted to answer Shakespeare’s iconic line from the play, Romeo and Juliet, “What’s in a name?” It is interesting to note that Rahman, a professor of linguistics, has used a famous work of literature as the starting point to his research and the analysis thereof, and aptly so, as it correlates to his ultimate findings.

Names in Pakistan, in contradiction to the view of some philosophers, are not meaningless, says Rahman. Instead, they are “constructors of identities and are indexed with religious, sectarian, class, rural and urban, gender, modern, conservative, and ethnic identities. And if one delves deeper into names they will reveal the social realities of Pakistan more and more to us.”

As mentioned earlier, this work only scratches the surface and keeps the reader or researcher longing for further study. Some findings noted are so fascinating that they make the reader want to take on further research. An excellent collection of references to literature available in the field of onomastics and the bibliography and appendices, which comprise almost half of the book, are a priceless starting point for further research in this field. And one genuinely hopes that scholars of onomastics in Pakistan take up more in-depth study based on Rahman’s findings. 


Names: A Study of Personal Names, Identity and Power in Pakistan

(LINGUISTICS)

By Tariq Rahman

Oxford University Press, Karachi

ISBN 978-0199402588

240pp.

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