Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

So, for one of my classes, I’ve been doing some research on the Samoan language and culture. It’s a truly fascinating language, built on a very small sound system, and nearly everything is done through syntax and word-order in the grammar. Given my past interest in name usage around the world (and in the galaxy), I thought I’d drop a quick note about one of the really interesting ways that names and titles are given in their culture.

The Samoan culture is heavily based on titles and prestige, and often, when a man becomes a matai, or ‘titled person’ (only men are eligible for this sort of title), he is given a name held by a well respected person in the past. The really interesting thing about their particular way of doing things is that in their culture is that the name remains independent from the person, and is instead a standard to be lived up to. In American culture, a name can be “sullied”, or disrespected to the point of disuse (ask any Manson whether they would name their child “Charles”), and the actions of a person carrying the name can result in the name being viewed negatively.

However, in Samoan culture, these matai names are independent of the actions and life of their holders, and the names can’t be disrespected, only the people who use them. In a situation where a matai is acting inappropriately, it’s not uncommon for people to remind them of their name, and thus, of the standard they must strive to reach. It’s a very interesting division, placing the person below his name, and making his very name another method of motivating him to do the right thing.

So, perhaps it’s not a bad idea to name one’s child after somebody famous. Let’s just hope, though, that there’s never a little Charlie Manson born in Samoa.

(Much of the information in this section is from Alessandro Duranti’s book on the Samoan Fono, a fascinating read for any budding Linguistic Anthropologists in the crowd)


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