Naming practices as a measure of integration.

by Andreas Baumann

Measuring integration is no ease feat. Even concretising what we mean when we talk about integration can be difficult, and objective measures such as work-force integration does not consider the possible segmentation of workers. Intermarriage might be a good measure, but it doesn’t consider the differential salience of some cultural components, say, religion.

One such measure might be naming practices: well-integrated groups should tend to choose less distinct names, and some of their names should cross into the mainstream to some extent. This does not mean that minority in question abandons their group identity, but it reflects that well-integrated minorities utilise their identity differently from less-integrated groups.
An example might be the Danish Jews, an extremely well-integrated religious minority: most Danish Jews don’t name their children with particularly Jewish names – indeed, the chief rabbi is named Bent (i) and the chairman of the Mosaic Religious Society (Mosaisk Trossamfund) is named Finn, two of the most “Danish” names available within the pool of allowed names (ii). But even parents who might want to emphasise Jewish identity do so by choosing names that are shared by Danish and Jewish naming traditions: say David or Simon, instead of Yoav or Noach.

This is in essence my argument, that this behaviour should be reflective of good integration. You see the same behaviour in Asian-Americans, where parents have adapted almost WASPish naming practices to aid integration.

This certainly isn’t a perfect measure, especially for indigenous peoples who have lost their native language and as such are unable to mark their identity by naming practices; I suspect this might the case with the North American Indians, but I wouldn’t know.

We tend to think about integration as a continuing process, wherein a minority becomes more and more integrated over the years, but the reverse can also be true – one might ponder the idea that African-Americans actually segregated themselves from the 70es onward, as evidenced by the divergence of naming practices and the emergence of very strongly “Black” names (DeShawn comes to mind). Giving one’s child a name with such connotations is a very strong commitment to group identity.

I discussed this topic with my girlfriend the other day, especially with regards to the Danish Muslim minority (primarily of Turkish, Balkan and Middle-Eastern ancestry): when will their naming patterns converge to the majority, if ever? I was wondering about when a “Muslim” name would cross into the mainstream of names, and my girlfriend suggested that Yasmin/Jasmin had already achieved this, but I suspect that this stemmed from different sources.  I could imagine a name such as Aisha (with variants) might cross into the mainstream, since it has a lot of the characteristics of traditional female names, such as ending in a vowel. Obviously, time will show.

(i) Indeed, the former chief rabbi was also called Bent. His brother, who was a Danish MP, was called Arne, quite possibly the most Germanic name available within the allowed name pool. (ii) Naming is subject to regulation in the sense that an extensive list exists of allowed name, from which the parents might choose one.

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