Names and Systems of Naming

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Something that we don't always think about is that names don't come by themselves but are part of a system with a certain structure. This is brought out by instances in which the names and the system of which they are a part come to be separated.

Carrier people used to have names that were wholly or partly meaningful in the Carrier language, but these died out very quickly once a resident priest arrived in 1865. The church gave people French saints' names on baptism, and these names immediately replaced the original Carrier names. Children ceased to receive a Carrier name.

The sound system of French is quite different from that of Carrier, and only a few Carrier people ever learned French, so the Carrier versions of the French names are often modified to the point that their origin is not obvious. Probably the most common are Mali "Marie" and Za "Jean". Carrier had no /r/, /ʒ/, or nasalized vowels. Other examples include: Belzeni "Virginie", Biel "Pierre", Meljan "Marianne", Gamel "Camille", Gadulen "Catherine, and Badis "Baptiste".

Eventually English exerted its influence and Carrier people began to use names adapted from English and then English names without adaptation, so the French names are largely a thing of the past. However, since Carrier people did not use family names until European contact, and their family names tended to be assigned by the priest or taken from their father's given name, many Carrier people today have family names that are the same as English given names, such as "John", "Peter", and "Joseph". The family names are spelled as in English, but one can occasionally discern their French origins. I was puzzled for quite some time by the number of people with the family name "Seymour", which seemed quite out of character with "John", "Peter", and so forth. It turns out that "Seymour" is the anglicized spelling of the Carrier adaptation of the French given name "Simon".

There are a few family names of Carrier origin. There are a great many people named "Ketlo", which is the anglicization of /ketloh/ (English speakers can't hear the final /h/), which is the contracted form of /ke dʌtloh/ "squishy shoes". The progenitor of the family was called by this nickname because he was always getting his feet wet.

As I mentioned, the idea of having both a given name and a family name was an innovation of the late 19th century, and to Carrier people it wasn't terribly clear which was which or how they were passed on. As a result, some children would take their father's first name as their family name and some the second. The little village of K'uzche, for example, is populated mostly by people named either "William" or "Austin". They are actually the same family: the patriarch was named "William Austin".

The other aspect of the naming system that was not initially acquired along with the names was the system of nicknames. Imagine my surprise when I first encountered the brothers Andrew and Andy Cahoose. In mainstream English-speaking society, some people these days do have nicknames such as "Andy" as their legal name, but it is still recognized that such nicknames are in some sense the same name as their full counterparts, so you can no more name brothers "Andy" and "Andrew" than you could name them both "Andrew".

On one occasion my failure to realize that Carrier people had adopted English names but not the English system of nomenclature was actually the cause of some trepidation. I had been invited to visit an outlying village that was reasonably accessible only by boat. A friend advised me to ask a man named "Bob" to take me. Not realizing that "Bob" was not the same person as his brother "Robert", I engaged Robert to take me. I later learned that my friend had recommended Bob because he had a nice, big boat with a powerful engine. Robert had a little boat with a relatively wimpy outboard motor. The weather was fine on the way out, but turned sour on the way back. The wind became quite strong, the lake very rough, so rough that we couldn't head directly in to the dock but had to beat. I had beaten before in canoes and sailboats, but never in a motorboat. Stuart Lake gets very rough – boats capsize and people drown with some frequency – so I was getting nervous. I am a good swimmer, but when you're several kilometres from shore in cold, rough water with no life preserver, that doesn't help very much.

Did I mention that we had no life preservers (here in Canada called "personal flotation devices")? Not part of traditional Carrier culture. We did have a rifle, in case we should encounter a moose, but no life preservers. As it turned out, we got to shore a little slowly and indirectly but without incident, but it would have been nice to be in a big, powerful boat.

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