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Why We Do This.

Why We Do This.

Jun 01, 2020


George Redmonds defines names as “…special words that we use to identify a person, an animal, a place, or a thing, and they all have a meaning. In many cases that meaning will lie concealed in the name’s history; but in others, it will still be transparent.”

Names are not always circumstantial- drawing from events surrounding the birth of the child. Some names are supplicative, some names are aspirational, some names signify a change in status, and other names are chosen because the name-giver really likes the sound of the name.

Names are social identifiers. As identifiers, you could get a sense, wherever you hear a name, of the ethnicity of the bearer, beliefs, social standing, and even history.

So, I can speculate of a man whose name is, say, "Ume-Ohakaeze" that he is Igbo, probably from Anambra State or place around the Nri-Igbo influenced areas, has a forbear who (or himself) had taken one of the highest titles in the land and from whom the name was passed on.

Valerie Alia (1996) noted that Vygotsky saw words the way we now see DNA cells – as receptacles for the whole of information, with nuclei of names. For Vygotsky, the moment at which a child discovers names for things is the turning point at which ‘speech begins to serve intellect’ (Vygotsky 1962: 43). This we observe in Children that their first step to speech making and language proficiency is naming things- for some, it is “Papa” or “Mmii” or “Tata” and for some infants, every living person that moves and talks, irrespective of age is “Tata”. That is how the child identifies the individual.


Name as an extension of Power

Valerie Alia (1996) further noted that:

“The power to name is a politically charged power. The right to bestow names is a right which signifies that the namer has power. That said, it is not always the case that individuals who are given the right to bestow names are those most powerful in more general terms, across society. For example, women may be the namers and men the politicians or owners of property... Clues to how a person is to be perceived and treated often come from names, and sometimes survival itself depends on concealing or changing them. Cultural and political changes go hand in hand. Americans have rejected [at some points] German, Japanese, Jewish, Russsian sounding names simply because of the ENEMY CATEGORY that they represented.”

This experience is true of the Igbos. After the Nigeria-Biafran civil war, there were a lot of changes to the Igbo society, a certain clan of one of the major actors of the war changed name; place names were changed or disguised to not reflect an association with the Igbos who lost the war.

There ought to be a reason why the early Europeans in Africa as missionaries or as slave-dealers require that a convert or a captive accept in part or in full, a name change to reflect their acceptance of the new religion or their initiation into a new culture.

One imagines that for some of them who were victims of the slave trade, in addition to being uprooted forcefully from their cultural environment. A name change signaled an emotional point of no return for these sons of the soil.


It is therefore established that names are the important building blocks of language and language is an important tool for the transmission of culture.

In our assessment of Igbo names, we have found Igbo words not in common use but yet could be presented as a nuanced equivalent for many English words we would otherwise have struggled to find equivalents for and also words that represent an idea.

It is sometimes difficult to accept the political significance of names and the power dynamics that guide the adoption of names but even where we are afraid of admitting our perception of a certain culture superior to ours as informing our naming decisions or adoptions, the lie that our names don’t have meaning or “Primitive” (whatever that means) must be buried.

The aim of The Afamefuna Project through is to present the beauty of Igbo names; to contribute to the understanding of Igbo names, to encourage its adoption and use, and to contribute to the survival of the Igbo language.

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