In English, we have names like Matt, Mark, Luke, John, etc.. These are actual words too in English (ignoring spelling, just the sound):

  • mat: floor mat
  • mark: a mark on the wall
  • luke: luke warm
  • john: toilet

There are probably many others in other languages (Chinese, Spanish, conlangs of various sorts, etc..).

I would ask how do we tell these apart from regular words, but I feel like I've asked that already and it comes down to context and where the word fits into the sentence. But we don't have names like the F-word or SH-word, though Dick is a real name (surprisingly!). So even swear words can be names, not sure why we don't avoid that one. Rich is a name, Lance (my name, a dagger-like knife), they are "things" of various sorts.

I never associate my name Lance with the dagger, unless I am thinking of what it means in other contexts.

So what is the spectrum of how languages handle names (conlangs or natlangs). Are there any that keep them a disjoint class of words (i.e. completely separated), separated from "regular" words? Are there any where it's even more intense than English, and every name in some lang is a "real" word? What are some example languages and names, and where I can perhaps find more information on those? Is there ever severe problems with names mapping to real words (like Dick) in other languages?

Would it be a problem if even extra common words like "the" or "is" are names (assuming English, but in any language)?


1 Answer 1


Remember that names are given by people. Nobody wants to name their child "The" or "Is" because it'll just create confusion and problems for them. But even if there is a homophone ("Iz" short for Isabelle is not unknown), context generally makes it work.

Toki pona draws a strict division between "official words" (the lexicon) and "unofficial words" (names), with differences in how they can be used, but this is not especially naturalistic. I'm not aware of any natural language that works this way.

In most languages, names are just a subset of nouns. Even in English, think about how many nicknames are just words. The same is true for nicknames in most of the languages mentioned below, even if they have different systems that are more common for personal names.

In Swahili, many names are just words. For example, the name Zuri is just the adjective for "good" or "kind". However, names generally take the "class zero" gender marker (used for names and kinship terms); if you were describing a good person, you'd call them mzuri instead (with the class-one gender marker).

In Ancient Greek, most personal names were created by sticking two roots together. At first, these combinations generally made sense, but that wasn't a requirement: the child of Demosthenes ("people-strength") and Xanthippe ("yellow-horse") might be named Demippos ("people-horse"), using half of each parent's name to create something nonsensical on its own.

In Latin, there was a very limited supply of "standard" personal names, most of which had clear etymologies (Decimus "tenth", Spurius "bastard") but some of which didn't (Gaius, Aulus). But people went beyond this "standard" set all the time, using other nouns and adjectives.

In Akkadian and Egyptian, names tended to be full sentences, ideally ones that mention a god somewhere in them. "Nebuchadnezzar" is Nabû-kudurri-uṣṣur "may Nabu protect my firstborn"; "Ankhesenamun" (Tutankhamun's wife) is Ꜥnḫ-s-n-jmn "she lives for Amun". These would be trimmed down to the first couple syllables for casual use, and we also find names that are just single descriptive nouns or adjectives.

English is a bit of an outlier, in that most of our names have been borrowed from other languages for reasons of prestige, concealing their meaning. But it's far more common in general for names to be meaningful words or phrases. In fact, outside of English and a few other languages, it's common to develop folk etymologies of foreign names: the Hebrew name Moše (> English "Moses") likely comes from Egyptian msj, which was very common in theophoric names, but it's also got a folk etymology within Hebrew (where people are used to names making sense).

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