From the outset personal names are linguistic objects with great specificity since they are chosen rather than imposed by language. They follow specific rules and are endowed with enormous potential for creating identity, personal and social. They evolve through time and contain precious elements of information on the history of human groups.
How do personal names (henceforth PN) create identity? This addresses the problem of the functional value and meaning of PN. Several anthropologists, including Geertz and Lévi-Strauss, have suggested answers. Mine, based on a previous study (Macdonald 1999) , is as follows.
PN do, ideally, two things.
Function 1- They enable individuals to possess a singular identity, a label that makes them unique and can be used to identify them while speaking about them (reference) and while speaking to them (address).
Function 2- They qualify individuals usually by incorporating them in a class or group, sometimes on the basis of a quality, virtue, or some other trait.
One must see both functions as the foundations of a theory of PN. Empirical observation will have to confirm and develop the understanding of how these principles work.
The next step in understanding the fundamentals of PN is to recognize their systemic nature. Several labels are used to name individuals. We will say that there are several name types (henceforth NT) present in every system. Name types are for example "family names", "nicknames", "first or given names", etc. Observations conducted so far show also that one NT is somehow more salient than others. This is what I call the autonym. European systems are, since the middle age, based on a binomial reference (first name + family name). Most if not all societies in Southeast Asia do not originally have such a binomial system but were forced to adopt it. Chinese and Vietnamese systems are binomial or even trinomial. Many small tribal societies have uninominal systems based for instance on an autonym using a specific NT, plus several other NT (including nicknames, friendship names, prestige names, necronyms, and many other NT). Comparatively then naming systems differ with respect to two main aspects: the composition and structure of the autonym, the number and nature of NT.
Therefore the study of PN is the study of
1- the nature, composition, and use of the autonym
2- the nature, composition, number of other NT
3- the relationship between 1- and 2-.
Relevance of naming systems
We have so far outlined very briefly the general characteristics of naming systems but their special significance for our project is that naming systems offer indications on the type of social structure and cultural ethos with which they are linked. I have demonstrated that two distinct groups of Southeast Asian societies, each with specific socio-cultural traits (whether stratified or not, with a value-loaded notion of ‘honour' or not, with significant reference to ancestrality or not) had each a different type of naming system (Macdonald 1999). This is an indication that naming systems reflect essential values and important traits in their respective social organization. My aim is to develop and expand this result.