given names

Jon Aske jaske at SALEMSTATE.EDU
Sun Aug 12 07:03:35 UTC 2012

Re what Lourdes said about Basque names, I'd like to relate a personal story. When my son was born 20 years ago, I wanted to give him a non-Christian, Basque, genderless name. After doing some research, my wife and I came up with Alaitz, an uncommon name at that time which supposedly was gender neutral. It would seem, however, that much as with gender neutral names in sexist societies where gendered names are the norm (the English name Leslie comes to mind), the name Alaitz, which may have been gender-neutral at some point, ceased to be so after it became associated with girls. It does not seem that being named Alaitz has caused him the kind of trauma that being named Sue would in the US and he has never had any embarrassing situations when visiting that I know of. But Basque people who only know girls named Alaitz often show their surprise at learning my son´s name. -Jon

From: Discussion List for ALT [LINGTYP at LISTSERV.LINGUISTLIST.ORG] on behalf of Frederick J Newmeyer [fjn at U.WASHINGTON.EDU]
Sent: Tuesday, July 24, 2012 3:36 PM
Subject: Re: given names

Hi all,

The response to my query about cultures with gender-neutral given names was quite overwhelming. Such cultures do indeed exist. I'd like to thank the following for their replies: Søren Wichmann, Giorgio Francesco Arcodia, Harald Hammarström, Johanna Laakso, Grete Dalmi, Bart Jacobs, Clement Appah, Chao Li, Anvita Abbi, Ulrike Zeshan, Eva Lindström, Miren Lourdes Oñederra Olaizola, Siva Kalyan, Donald Stilo, and Kazuhiro Kawachi. Most people replied to the entire list. I paste in below those replies that appear to have been sent only to me.


Hi, calendrical names in Mesoamerica are composed of a number 1-13 and one of 20 day names. People were given names according to the day thy were born. So one can be called 5 House or 13 Reed or things like that, and these names are gender neutral. This is a feature of all of Mesoamerica. There would have been additional names based on principles varying from culture to culture and context to context, but the calendar names could clearly be used alone at least in some contexts, as we see in pictorial manuscripts, for instance.

Hi! I've wondered the same and I've looked around a bit, though not very hard. I was never really able to find a good example. I do remember that one Andamanese group (can't check which from where I am sitting at the moment) had the practise of naming
children before they were born. Since they did not have ultrasound, I took this to imply
that those names must be gender neutral. However, I could not assert that this was
the ONLY way to name children and that children did not get new names later.
all the best, H
Dear colleague,

Uralic has no grammatical genders, and thus it might be possible that given names were not gendered
either. However, the given name systems of the Uralic peoples are covered by latter-day layers of
(mostly) Christian name systems almost everywhere, which means gendered names, and the oldest,
pre-Christian layers are poorly documented if at all. (Typically, in the oldest documents -- tax
books, or the Livonian Chronicle from the 13th century -- only men's names have been recorded.)

For Hungarian, there is some material briefly described by Béla Kálmán ("The World of Names", English
edition 1978), and here the situation seems similar to what Giorgio F. Arcodia writes about Chinese:
there are some names that have obviously been given to men and women alike (for instance, "Vendég"
['Guest' or 'Stranger'] or "Ajándok" ['Gift']), and some names due to their semantics seem to have
been established as male or female. For instance, words for flowers or small, graceful predator
animals (marten, ermine and the like) were used as women's names.

In Finland, actually, some kind of gender neutrality is possible now, as the law (unlike in Hungary,
where there is a list of officially "licensed" names) allows the giving of completely novel,
unprecedented names as long as they are not "improper or linguistically unsuitable", whatever that
means. Although the law explicitly forbids giving male names to female children or vice versa, you
cannot always tell whether a beautiful word is "male" or "female". (A friend of mine wanted to call
his daughter "Timjami" ['Thyme'], and had some difficulties having the name accepted. It turned out
that the name had been already given to a couple of boys as well as to girls; flowers and plants are,
of course, perceived as "female", but the name can also phonetically be associated with men's names
such as Timo and Viljami.) A student of our department in Vienna has written a nice little essay about
this: .

Johanna Laakso
Wayan Arka, a Balinese linguist colleague explained to me that given names in his language are more like ordinal numerals.
They attach "i" in front of the name for boys. So his name is really I Wayan Arka, meaning the first child of the Arka family and a boy.
Likewise, I Komang is the third child and male, etc. Without "i" these names refer to girls. The problems begin if there are two Arka families in the village with the same number of children...

I hope this helps.

Grete Dalmi
Dear Fritz,
I don't have the answer you're looking for.  But just wanted to say, as for the European languages: French is typically quite nasty for us Germans. I'm thinking of names like René/Laurence, which are given to men usually in e.g. Dutch, but to both men and women in French. And there are several others of that kind in French where one really remains in the dark as to what gender he/she might have (can be problematic e.g. in blind email traffic). Of course, that's not the example you're looking for, but in any case I feel French is much more complicated (/unpredictable) in this regard than other Romance languages.


Bart Jacobs
Dear Colleague,
In Ewe (Kwa, Ghana) most given names are like that, "unisex".

I could ask a native speaker to provide a list for you if needed.


Dear Prof. Newmeyer,

In Basque gender-neutral names are relatively common (e.g. Izar, Oroitz, Izaro), though relatively recent for what I've been told. The funny thing now is that those names are "illegal" in the Basque speaking area of Spain, as the Spanish law does not allow gender-ambiguous names, so that an artificial -a ending for girls has been adopted by the Academy of the Basque Language (I am one of the several members not agreing with the measure) in order to comply with the Spanish conditions. That of course does not apply in the French Basque provinces.


Dear Professor Newmeyer,

My name is Kazuhiro Kawachi.

Kupsapiny, a Southern Nilotic language of Uganda, may be a fairly good example, though it is not a
perfect one.

Most names for people in this language are gender-neutral (probably, 80-90% of Kupsapiny names).
Newborn babies are given names after situations or locations where they were born (as in many other
African languages).

ceeliimo: born when the cows were brought back from grazing
cemtay: born at dawn
ceerop: born while it was raining
ceptooyek: born when there were visitors at home
cesoonkok: born when there were black ants around
cemmaket: born when hyenas were around
ceerupet: born when there was a famine
ceporiyot: born duing a war or after his/her parents were fighting with each other
kusuro: born on the second day of beer brewery
ceptekey: born on a veranda
cesang: born outside
ceerootin: born on a banana plantation
ceelakam: born near a cliff

cee- means 'people of' in these names.
It has the same form as the relative clause marker for plural head nouns, which could be used to form
a noun phrase without a head noun.
The remaining portions of the names are usually nous. e.g. mutay 'dawn', rop 'rain', sang 'outside'

Before around 1900, when Christianity and Islam became widespread, most people had single Kupsapiny
names like these.

However, nowadays, most Kupsapiny speakers use two names, a Kupsapiny name and a Muslim/Christian name
(usually, gender-specific).
Both names are given names, but some first-born children obtain their fathers' Kupsapiny names as
their Kupsapiny names, and most women change their Kupsapiny names to their husbands' Kupsapiny names
when they get married.

When Kupsapiny speakers tell stories, they tend to use Kupsapiny names, so it may be impossible to
know the gender of the people in the stories.
(This language has no grammatical gender distinction.)

Kupsapiny seems to be the only one language among the Kalenjin languages that has gender-neutral
names, and all the other Kalenjin languages (including Sabaot, a dialect of Kupsapiny), which are
spoken in Kenya, seem to make a gender distinction with prefixes on people's names.
They use cee-/ce- for female names, and kip- or ki- for male names.
(So all gender-neutral Kupsapiny names with cee-/ce- are used as names for women in these languages.)

cee-liimo: a girl born when the cows were brought back from grazing
kip-liimo: a boy born when the cows were brought back from grazing

I hope you find this useful.
If you have any questions, please let me know.


Kazu (from the slopes of Mt. Elgon)


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