Karen Pennesi

Associate professor, University of Western Ontario: What Can We Learn from Studying Name Conflicts?


What can we learn from studying name conflicts? In this keynote address, I discuss four types of conflicts involving personal names and demonstrate how each has roots in competing onomastic ideologies. Examples and case studies come from my own research on personal names in Canada and from recent international onomastics literature.

One type of recurrent conflict is identity-based tensions, in which name choices and meanings are constrained by social locations such as race, gender, class and ethnicity. In the second type of conflict, names figure in the reproduction of systemic inequality and injustice such as microaggressions and discrimination in hiring, housing and education. The third type is institutional conflicts concerned with laws, policies and traditions that regulate the form and structure of names. The last type of conflict results from the intertwining of indexical, referential and existential functions of names, which makes them useful for taking stances on other issues. That is, current public debates about names are fundamentally about topics like governance, collective history, racism, identity, and social values.

Onomastic ideologies are treated as language ideologies: largely implicit ideas about the nature and function of names/language, based in moral and political positioning, which vary across social and cultural groups. Onomastic ideologies relevant to the four types of conflicts discussed concern the purpose and significance of names for identity-formation, the meanings of particular names, the degree of durability or permanence of names, the qualities of “good” or “suitable” names, the possibility of multiple names for a single entity, and ideas about right and wrong ways to treat names.

Research on name conflicts increases understanding of connections between language and identity forged within inherently unequal social processes and structures. Identifying patterns in name conflicts and the ideological factors contributing to them can inform advocacy for effective name policies, and more just treatment of marked and minority names.