The People’s Names Research Network (PNRN) is a newly established international network of social scientists and others interested in the study of personal names. It was founded by Jane Pilcher in 2021. New members are very much welcomed, as are ideas for the development of the network.
Read on for our mission statement, for news about our activities, and to meet our members. If you are interested in joining our network or finding out more about it, please use this form to get in touch. You might also want to follow our Twitter account: @names_network.
People’s Names: Identities and Inequalities
This research symposium was the first public facing event for the PNRN, held on Wednesday 14th September 2022. You can access an edited recording of the event here.
Theme: Personal names are core components of identities – and therefore are also inherently linked to issues of equality and social justice. This free online symposium featured a range of international social scientists at different stages of their careers. Their work showcases the opportunities the study of names presents for our understanding of people’s identities and experiences, and how the social science of personal names can help promote social and democratic inclusion and transformation at global, national and local levels.
“Personal names are core components of identities. Their study informs understandings of the construction, communication and negotiation of unique (self, and/or civil-legal), and of shared (familial, and/or socio-cultural) identities.
The social science of personal names analyses names as linguistic symbols, and examines the intersections of people’s names with complex and diverse social, cultural, political and psychological processes and contexts.
Through a critical examination of what names are, and how and why names matter for people’s identities, well-being, relationships, experiences and opportunities, the social science of personal names promotes social and democratic inclusion and transformation at global, national and local levels.”
Terhi Ainiala, University of Helsinki, Finland
In the fields of onomastics, the most central areas for me are socio-onomastics and folk onomastics. I’m especially interested in identity construction through naming, social and situational name variation and the various functions of names. Furthermore, the stances and perceptions towards various names are fascinating. Personally, I have studied place names but also personal names. As a supervisor for several doctoral and master thesis I’ve been involved with many kinds of personal names, both official and unofficial, both historical and current.
Emilia Aldrin, Halmstad University, Sweden
My research interests centre around social positioning and identity creation through naming. I have studied for example parents choice of first names for their children as an act of identity, name choices in multilingual families, gendered patterns in name innovations, teenagers positioning through usernames, the effects of name based stereotypes in school assessment, and name use in educational materials as representation of society.
Kathryn Almack, University of Hertfordshire, UK
As a family sociologist, I am interested in naming choices and decision making and what it can reveal about issues of family identity, best interests of the child and the relative positioning of, and negotiations between, biological and social parents. I have written about this in relation to lesbian parent couples having children in the context of their relationship and making decisions about their children’s surnames. The negotiations and working out of family lives involved for lesbian parent couples made all the more explicit, and thus more visible, some of the more common processes undertaken by all families.
Anna-Maria Balbach, University of Munster, Germany
I am a linguist of German philology studying the interdependence of language and society, culture and especially religion in diachronic and synchronic perspective. I am interested in onomastics of personal names and their influence by these external factors. Who chooses what names for what reasons at what times? What do personal names, especially given names, tell us about a person’s values and various affiliations within his or her society and culture? So far, I have studied German given names of the early modern period as well as African-American names and their development from 1600 to the present. Currently, I am planning a research project on given names in Europe and their historical and contemporary development.
Ivona Barešová, Palacký University Olomouc, Czech Republic
I have been mostly working on various aspects of Japanese given names, including the recent phenomenon of non-gender-specific names. I enjoy exploring how names reflect the period in which they were bestowed – the values, needs, wishes and aspirations of the parents, and various contemporary events. Recently I have been also working on some comparative analyses of Japanese and Taiwanese names and naming practices.
Katrine Bechsgaard, University of California, Berkeley, USA / University of Copenhagen, Denmark
My research focuses on sociolinguistics and socioonomastics – on how language and names are used in and reflect contemporary society. I am interested in naming practices, especially in terms of how name choices are related to identity. I have studied Danish parents’ choice of first names for children, written a book examining cultural, sociological, linguistic, and psychological aspects of naming, and my current project focuses on surname choices, family practices, gender, and identity.
Jane Bryan, University of Warwick, UK
I am a Reader of Law at the University of Warwick and the Academic Lead of our Community Values Education Programme. I am interested in dialogue in several contexts: as a way to develop reflective teaching practice through peer dialogue, as a way to engage students in their learning through supporting the student voice and as a way to resolve conflicts through mediation and restorative approaches. My interest in the importance of names and correct pronunciation arises in part from my wider attempts to remove barriers to dialogue that can arise in the teaching space and beyond.
Elian Carsenat, Namsor, France
I am a private researcher on names and created NamSor applied onomastics software in 2012. The idea was to apply various machine learning algorithms to names. For example, we train a probabilistic model to distinguish personal names from place names, brand names etc. which is mostly used to clean data. Also, we have a model to infer gender from names, combining baby name statistics and morphology, which provides accurate probabilities in all regions / alphabets which is used in large gender studies (EU SheFigures ; Elsevier’s reports on gender in research). Finaly, we work on models to classify names by ‘race’/ethnicity or country of origin and apply those models to the complex and important problem of estimating ethnic biases in external algorithms (recruitment, credit allocations etc.)
Francesco Cerchiaro, Center for Sociological Research, KU Leuven, Belgium
I am a cultural sociologist with a specific interest in the intersection of family, migration and religion. I came across the study of names during my research on Christian-Muslim families in Italy, France and Belgium. Although mixed couples are often interpreted as a marker of the gradual loosening of traditional ties, naming practices, on the contrary, show parents’ attempt to pass down their racial, ethnic and faith backgrounds. Moreover, naming practices open up a new perspective to analyse how partners mediate with the expectations of the family of origin and with the social context characterised by a growing islamophobia.
Hannah Deakin-Smith, Nottingham Trent University, UK
I am a social scientist, and my earlier research focused on international student and academic mobility. More recently, I have researched people’s names and identities. As a researcher on the ‘Say My Name’ project, I examined experiences of the pronunciation of student names within higher education in England in the context of culturally diverse student identities. I was also a researcher on a project on long term trends in name changes via analyses of enrolled deed polls. From September 2022, I will be working on the Leverhulme Trust-funded project ‘Name stories: experiences of names & naming in adoptive family life’.
Thomas Ditye, Sigmund Freud University, Austria
Together with my colleague Lisa Welleschik I am interested in the psychological mechanisms of the inability to call others by their personal names. Concerned individuals report to experience anxieties and emotional stress in situations in which calling someone by their name is intended. Our data show that the problem is getting more severe the closer the relationship, linking it to identity and attachment. We have started referring to this condition by “alexinomia” which means “no words for names” and are currently exploring the topic using quantitative and qualitative research methods.
Birgit Eggert, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
I am an onomastician and Nordic philologist. I am interested in personal names as a mirror of cultural currents in society. I mainly use quantitative data from censuses and church books to describe the changes that have taken place in naming over time, and how these changes have manifested differently in relation to time, place and social position, i.e., how innovations spread in society. My research is primarily historical, but I have also worked on trends and changes in today’s baby names, both in terms of the names and of their spelling.
Federica Guccini, University of Western Ontario, Canada
As an anthropologist interested in the intersections of migration, language, and identity, I study personal names in plurilingual contexts. I examine how naming practices change when people migrate and experience shifts in their language(s) and identities. I have applied this to contexts of historical Hakka Chinese migration from southern China to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean as well as contemporary Chinese international student mobility. Informed by decolonial understandings of language, I am currently conceptualizing a translanguaging approach to naming practices that seeks to detangle names from monolingual and raciolinguistic ideologies.
Lasse Hämäläinen, University of Helsinki, Finland
My primary area of onomastic research are online usernames, i.e., names that people choose for their personal user accounts on various websites. I am especially interested in how usernames represent the identities of their owners and the cultures of online communities, as well as how they influence the communication between website users. Moreover, I have studied Finnish given names using a large given name corpus provided by the Finnish Civil Registry.
Petros Karatsareas, University of Westminster, UK
I specialise in the sociolinguistics of multilingualism with a focus on contexts of transnational mobility. Working on/with/for minoritised groups of migrant origin, I examine the central role language plays in the construction and projection of individual and community identities, diasporic relations, bi-/multilingual education as well as in processes and experiences of discrimination, precarisation, deskilling, and downward occupational mobility among people on the move. One of my current investigations centres on (re)naming practices among Greek Cypriot migrants in the UK and Albanian migrants in Greece coupled with religious practices such as (in)voluntary baptisms as strategies to counter the effects of racism, xenophobia, and social inequality.
Sophie Kihm, Nameberry, USA
I am the Editor-in-Chief of Nameberry, the world’s largest website about names. Nameberry analyzes name trends and popularity, as well as works with expectant parents and others to choose names for their children and themselves. I am particularly interested in the intersection of names and identity, such as how a parent’s personal identity affects their choice of baby names, and how children’s names can define a family identity.
Sofia Kotilainen, University of Jyväskylä, Finland
I am a historian and a sociolinguist. My onomastic research focuses on personal names and the (long-term) cultural and social name-giving practices in the local communities. I have been analysing the motives of the choice of inherited first names and inherited surnames in Finnish family networks, godparenthood (namesakes), identities and mentalities of naming, as well as nicknames in the social networks. I have created a methodological concept of onomastic literacy (see Kotilainen 2022). I am also interested in royal names and naming traditions.
Francis T. McAndrew, Knox College, USA
I am an evolutionary social psychologist who studies “namesaking,” which is the naming of a child after a parent or other relative. I am specifically interested in how namesaking is employed as a strategy for advertising personal and group identity, for optimally positioning a child within the historical and political framework of the kinship group, and for bonding fathers more strongly to their children. I am also interested in how namesaking and birth order interact in the formation of stereotypes about the personalities of namesaked individuals.
Rexhina Ndoci, Ohio State University, USA
As a sociolinguist I focus on the relationship between language and ethnic identity. More recently I have become interested in names with a goal of exploring the indexical meaning of ethnically marked names, name adaptations, and name changes among minoritized groups such as migrants. Moreover, I am interested in questions pertaining to the adaptation of ethnic names into majority-passing names and how those adaptations, or lack thereof, affect candidates’ chances in the job market.
Idowu Odebode, Redeemer’s University, Nigeria
I am a Professor of Onomastics, Sociolinguistics and Pragmatics in the Department of English, Redeemer’s University, Nigeria. My interest has been in the different aspects of names/naming in Africa, particularly among the Yoruba, where the socio-cultural context(s)/circumstances (of the name-givers and, or bearers) are considered before naming a child. I have worked on multicultural aspects of names and naming in Nigeria, literary onomastics (of selected African writers like Wole Soyinka), anthroponyms on Facebook, socio-pragmatics of names, African zoonyms (in polygamous homes), names and identities among others. I am the founding president of the Society for the Study of Names in Nigeria (SSNN), the first winner of the prestigious American Name Society Emerging Scholar Award, and a Professional Commonwealth Scholar (onomastics) mentored at the University of Glasgow.
I am an expert in African literature, Cultural studies and Literary Onomastics. I have dedicated most of my studies to unearthing the postcolonial significance of personal names in popular Nigerian literature underpinned to the literary and sociocultural contexts. I seek to connect the personal names to processes within the Nigerian society, culture and literature. My current projects border on naming, ecology, identities, and religion and explore naming practices in different contexts and settings.
Liam Ó hAisibéil, University of Galway, Ireland
I am an Assistant Professor in Irish at the University of Galway, Ireland, where I teach modules on onomastics and medieval Irish literature. I have been involved in onomastic research since 2006, and my research typically involves the study of place and personal names in Ireland. I am interested in naming practices and the lexical analysis of names in medieval Irish literature, and also in current naming trends, particularly in tracing the anglicisation process and the adoption/translation of personal names in Ireland over time, and in the revival and restoration of Irish-language forms of personal names in official records since the early 20th century.
Karen Pennesi, University of Western Ontario, Canada
I began my research on names by investigating the experiences of people whose names do not fit into the legal, institutional and conventional frameworks for the structure, spelling and pronunciation of names in Canada. As symbols of identity, I explore how names influence self-perception and the unequal treatment of others. Given how names are especially important to social integration and belonging, I have published recommendations for treating names respectfully in a linguistically and culturally diverse society. I am currently developing a critical theoretical approach to public discourses in which names serve as objects for displaying stances toward immigrants, Indigenous people, and other racialized groups.
Jane Pilcher, Nottingham Trent University, UK
I am a sociologist and use names to analyse, understand and deconstruct identities and inequalities. I am interested in naming practices in terms of identities and bodies, and in relation to greater diversity and flexibility in contemporary gender identities and family relationships. My current projects include the pronunciation of names in higher education in the context of culturally diverse student identities, names and naming in adoption, and long term trends in name changing via an analysis of enrolled deed polls.
Eugen Schochenmaier, Baden-Württemberg, Germany
I have been researching onomastics since 2002 with a wide range of interests: from textual analysis of proprial units and modified proper names to their semantics, from mapping surnames’ landscapes to high/middle-frequency family names’ studies. Working in cooperation with various scientists and new media in pursuit of names-related information, I am trying to improve the connectivity of onomasticians worldwide. For my part, I set a goal to clarify to what extent the typical surname-driven motives are similar throughout the world. Besides that, my dream would be to discuss the substantiation of the “Applied onomastics” as a new sub-discipline. With a Doctorate from the University Paris X (2009), I am the blogger behind e-Onomastics, the most visited blog dedicated to name research (more than one million visits). In 2017, I was elected to the Board of Directors at ICOS (International Council of Onomastic Sciences).
Julia Sinclair-Palm, Carleton University, Canada
I am an Assistant Professor in Childhood and Youth Studies in the Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies at Carleton University. My research with young trans people explores how young people forge new identities, imagine futures and navigate structural inequalities. I am interested in how trans youth choose a name, the narratives they draw on to describe their naming process, and the factors that influence how they chose a name.
Xiaoying Qi, Australia Catholic University, Australia
I am a sociologist. In conducting research on transformations of family life and family structure in contemporary China [see Qi, Xiaoying (2021) Remaking Families in Contemporary China, Oxford University Press], I came across an emerging surnaming practice. This is the provision of the mother’s surname to her child, rather than the father’s. What appears to be a demonstration of feminist power, the practice in fact operates to preserve the patriarchal line of a daughter-only family. Through development of the concept of ‘veiled patriarchy’ I demonstrate how surnaming is influenced by a number of factors, including inter-generational relations, gender cultures, and the power of property within and between families. I also examine the emotional dimension of surnaming, which is under-researched in this sparsely examined sociological space.
Peyman Ghassemi Pour Sabet, Curtin University, Australia
My interest in onomastics lies in the link between socio-political changes and changes they cause in the naming practice in society. Being more than just a personal choice, naming can manifest the socio-political inclinations of any society. Any significant changes in these inclinations will bring about changes in the naming practice too. The current research project I am contributing to is a study of the link between changes in Chinese given names and social changes over a period of 200 years.
Rachael Robnett, University of Nevada, USA
I am a psychologist and in my research I am interested in links between marriage traditions and the decisions people make about surnames.
I am a licensed clinical psychologist studying the experiences of name-based microaggressions within racial and cultural minority populations in the United States. “Name-based microaggressions” constitute a specific category of microaggressions that capture the subtle discriminatory comments that minority individuals experience due to their first and last names of cultural origin. Examples of name-based microaggressions include: assignment of an unwanted nickname, assumptions and biases about an individual based on their name, and teasing from peers and educators due to cultural aspects of a name. My research uncovered the mental health impact of name-based microaggressions and the coping mechanisms that minority populations utilize to combat these discriminatory experiences. It also provides treatment recommendations for mental health professionals and educators who are working with minority individuals with names of ethnic origin.
Elizabeth Suter, University of Denver, USA
Jana Valdrová, University of Innsbruck, Austria
I am a gender linguist, and an associate researcher at the University of Innsbruck. I am interested in how the system of female and male names supports and legitimizes the binary perception of gender. Gender-neutral names are “intruders in the system” – they embody a critical reflection on the gendered world, but in patriarchalist regimes they are seen as a threat to “traditional values”. As a forensic expert, I focus on gender-neutral names in Czech legislation and Czech onomastics. I am currently analyzing onomastic literature and legislation in terms of equal treatment of names.
Stephen Wu, Hamilton College, USA
I am an economist and my research spans the fields of higher education, health economics, labor economics, and the economics of subjective well-being. I am interested in studying different ways to measure name fluency, and also studying discrimination due to name pronunciation. Among my current projects, I am researching the impact of difficult-to-pronounce names on job outcomes in academic labor markets.