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21 Januar 2005 @ 21:17
On the difficult matter of names  

"But I tell you, a cat needs a name that's particular,
A name that's peculiar, and more dignified."

—Old Possum  

I was quite surprised to read, on Language Log, a post titled "Lower Case Names?", in which ⊱⍼ claims that there is "no ethical obligation" for anyone to comply with the wishes of people who prefer that their names be spelled in ways that defy orthographic conventions. I was surprised partly because I had never thought about this as an ethical question before, and partly because ⊱⍼'s insistence on his right to impose the arbitrary conventions of English spelling on others seemed somehow out of tune with the generally descriptivist character of Language Log.

Poser (for that is how he actually writes his name) begins by making what I think is a reasonable distinction between merely unusual spellings that nonetheless "fall within the conventions of written English"—such as Bille instead of the usual Bill—and names that leap the bounds of the Roman alphabet altogether, such as ⊱⍼. Here, I mostly agree with him. To take the obvious example, when Prince changed his name to a symbol that I could neither type nor pronounce, I felt no particular obligation to use it in writing or in speech; I did not rush to add a character to my favourite font, as people did upon the introduction of the Euro. On the other hand, I really don't have anything to say about Prince, so my non-compliance didn't make a particle of difference. (The only Prince composition in my CD collection is Sinéad O'Connor's cover of his stirring tribute to the third secretary-general of the United Nations.)

Where Poser begins to surprise me is in declaring that lowercase names fall on the ⊱⍼ side of the line rather than the Bille side:

If I write Bell Hooks in spite of Ms. Hooks' expressed preference for bell hooks, does she have a legitimate grievance? [...] I submit that the answer is "no". [...] Capitalization is part of the social convention for writing English. Like the alphabet, it isn't something that the writing system makes available for manipulation by individual users. Declining to violate the norms of capitalization should be no more offensive to the bearer of the name than declining to write a person's name always at the beginning of the sentence, regardless of its grammatical role. That just isn't the way it is done in English.

I'm always wary when anybody makes an assertion about what "should not be offensive" to someone else. Sure, Poser has a right to write Bell Hooks if he wants to—but bell hooks has every right to be pissed off if he does. I think wolfangel's post on the matter takes the most sensible attitude: refusing to lowercase bell hooks is a discourtesy, and to the extent that we have an ethical obligation to be courteous, we have an ethical obligation to comply with hooks's preference for lowercase letters. There are some fairly obvious ways in which the strength of this obligation varies: when Poser writes Ms. Hooks on Language Log, this is not nearly as discourteous as it would be in the salutation of a letter addressed to hooks herself. But I think wolfangel has effectively settled the ethical question, so I'd like to take a closer look at the linguistic question.

First, I'd like to point out that it is not true that the English writing system leaves no scope for individual choice in the capitaliztion of names. Consider closely the surnames of the following Canadian politicians:

  1. Flora MacDonald
  2. Sir John A. Macdonald

I submit that MacDonald and Macdonald are two different names—a minimal pair distinguished only by capitalization. It would be an error, albeit a subtle one, to write *Flora Macdonald or *Sir John A. MacDonald. The general English orthographic convention is that only the initial letter of a proper name is capitalized, but there is a large and well-established class of exceptions beginning with Mac-; would Poser insist that he has a right to misspell one of these names, but not the other?

But perhaps Poser will insist only that the initial letter must be capitalized, and concede that internal capitalization is freely perMitted. Well, there are a few good old-fashioned English names that have, at least among some families, traditionally been spelled with a lowercase initial letter for generations. Here's the name of a person who works for ITP Nelson as a writer and proofreader:

  1. Kathleen ffolliott

Now, I have a dim memory of reading somewhere that the spelling of ffolliott (and ffoulkes, and a ffew others) had its origin in an orthographic confusion—somebody's single capital F looked to somebody else like a double lowercase ff, or something like that. But even if ffolliott is an error, it is an error that has become entrenched, and, in an arbitrary set of conventions like the English spelling system, any sufficiently entrenched error is indistinguishable from a correct spelling.

I also take issue with Poser's insistence on specifically English orthographic conventions. Poser writes that a merely eccentric spelling such as Bille should be respected because "it uses only letters that are part of the English inventory, the correspondence between letters and sound is canonical, and it is capitalized according to the rule that says that proper nouns are to be capitalized." Certainly, if I'm writing in English, I will transliterate names whose owners would write them in non-Roman alphabets or in non-alphabetic writing systems. But suppose I'm writing about this phonologist:

  1. Harry van der Hulst

This is a Dutch name, not an English name, but the Dutch writing system doesn't use any characters that aren't found in English. Should I "transliterate" Harry van der Hulst to *Harry Van Der Hulst if I'm writing about him in English? Nonsense! I should spell his name the way he does, and if I don't, then he has every right to correct me. He should correct me gently, because I am contending with an unfamiliar spelling, but if I insist that I have a right to capitalize him against his will and custom, would he not have a "legitimate grievance"?

I suspect, then, that the real source of Poser's resistance to spelling bell hooks's name the way she spells it is not the fact that it fails to conform to English orthographic conventions, but the fact that it does so for no reason other than that she wishes it. MacDonald and Macdonald and ffolliott and van der Hulst have history behind them; hooks is on her own. Perhaps Poser feels that to comply with hooks's preference would be to indulge her in a silly whim; although he does not say so, this attitude is implicit in his use of "⊱⍼" as a reductio ad absurdum.

A more vocally snide note turns up in a Semantic Compositions post titled "What's in a Spelling?". SC writes:

Although SC feels guilty for picking on him in the past, Redskins receiver Laveranues Coles pronounces his name as though it was spelled "Lavernius". This pronunciation can hardly be said to obey conventional sound-spelling correspondences in English. The situation may be different in African-American Vernacular English (your host is not familiar enough with literature in that regard to say), but assuming it isn't, what would it mean for someone to insist on holding Mr. Coles' name to the usual relationship between letters and sounds? What would it mean for a newspaper to spell his name "Lavernius"?

The situation "may be different in African-American Vernacular English"? Why, yes, actually—I'm surprised SC didn't know this, but AAVE uses a completely different writing system from other Englishes: ever since the issue of a decree jointly authored by Malcolm X and Prince Faisal in 1963, AAVE has officially been written in the Arabic script. As for what it would mean for a newspaper to write *Lavernius Coles, the answer is simple: it would mean that page A2 of the following day's issue would have to include a correction notice in a little box somewhere below the fold.

SC's post concludes with the following paragraph:

The point of all of these questions isn't to pick on any particular group of English speakers, although readers cannot help but notice that, by and large, these examples are drawn from the African-American population. For the most part, they violate conventional relationships between sound and spelling, and this may be as true for their own dialects of English as for mine, yours, or Bill Poser's. In turn, this raises an interesting question: if someone goes by a name that violates their own dialect's rules as much as your own, is it racially or culturally insensitive to ignore their preferences? And if we aren't consistent about applying our intuitions in this regard across minority groups, what justifies the exemptions?

The proliferation of African-American examples in SC's post may simply be an epiphenomenon of SC's familiarity with the names of football players. It might be an interesting exercise to attempt to recast SC's observations using such persons as:

  1. The Marquess of Cholmondeley

What would it mean for a newspaper to spell his name Chumley? Perhaps the situation is different in Received Pronunciation....

But again, we have a contrast between a very old unconventional spelling and a very new one. And the correlation between African-American ethnicity and novel names is not an accident. A great many African-American families have good old traditional English names that they have borne for generations—ever since they were given to them by white slaveowners. The names of their African ancestors are in many cases unrecoverable. So one reason for making up new names, or new spellings for old names, is a desire to have a name of one's own, a name that, even if it does not have deep roots in one's own cultural background, can nonetheless serve to distinguish one's cultural identity.

I believe in treating all unconventional names essentially alike, regardless of the ethnicity of the people who choose them: I think they should all be respected, as much as one reasonably can. (If you don't have Prince's symbol on your keyboard, don't sweat it.) To insist on misspelling anybody's name is an act of personal discourtesy. But I also think that there is an extra layer of presumption in insisting on referring to bell hooks as Bell Hooks, or to Laveranues Coles as Lavernius Coles, or to Malcolm X as Malcolm Little, especially if the insister is white, and especially if the insister is not also in the habit of writing Folliott for ffolliott, Van Der Hulst for van der Hulst, or Chumley for Cholmondeley.

Tishiewahooweena on 22. Januar, 2005 00:24 (UTC)
I think you make a very strong case, and I really like this post.
(Anonym) on 22. Januar, 2005 12:54 (UTC)
Van der Hulst
I don't really have anything to add to the debate (having sided with Poser long ago), but being Dutch I am in a position to comment on the capitalisation on the name Van der Hulst, which I think is really an argument against your position.

The point is that in Dutch, the capitalisation of this name is determined entirely by its position in the sentence. If it is found at the beginning of a sentence, or not preceded by the person's first name, the "van" in compound names is capitalised. When written as part of the complete name ("Harry van der Hulst"), it is lowercased. There are a few such prepositions ("van", "aan", etc.), and the rules are the same for all of them. It is never a matter of personal preference.

Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 22. Januar, 2005 13:43 (UTC)
Re: Van der Hulst

I'm not trying to suggest that Dutch names generally have unrestricted variation in capitalization; my point is that if I am writing about Harry van der Hulst in English, I follow the Dutch rule (to the best of my ability) and not the English one. And if I don't force English capitalization conventions on Van der Hulst, why should I force them on hooks?

Re: Van der Hulst - (Anonym) on 22. Januar, 2005 13:55 (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Van der Hulst - q_pheevr on 22. Januar, 2005 15:15 (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Van der Hulst - (Anonym) on 23. Januar, 2005 01:04 (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Van der Hulst - axel_mickyfinn on 16. Marts, 2005 21:01 (UTC) (Expand)
(Anonym) on 22. Januar, 2005 15:11 (UTC)
Regarding AAVE names
I'm not sure I'm as guilty of condescension as you think. I've raised the Cholmondeley example on my blog in the past. Ditto for another "ff" name, ffolkes. I could've mentioned Featherstonehaugh while I was at it, usually pronounced "fanshaw". I find this sort of disconnect between spellings and pronunciations pretentious, regardless of what people happen to look like.

But I didn't answer any of my own questions -- you've merely assumed that my own answers would show me as somewhere between rude and a bigot. Nowhere did I actually advocate that anyone should make a point of writing "Lavernius" in newspapers; I only asked readers to consider whether or not that would be genuinely insulting. And what their own answers say about their attitudes. I submit, though, that an attitude of less than total admiration for the creativity involved is not necessarily due to bigotry.

Some studies have found that people with unconventional African-American names suffer real economic disadvantages; it both suggests that someone comes from a background of lower economic status, and has been shown to result in lower callback rates for job interviews, in situations where the written name (and resume) is all a potential employer has to go on:


Obviously, the prejudice in cases like this is on the part of the employers, and doesn't reflect on the people who have these names. But this sort of evidence suggests that you can handicap your children considerably with displays of creativity like this. Would it really be so terribly harmful to any of these people's identities if their parents came up with unusual names that nevertheless conformed to standard orthographic rules?

Finally, why is convenience the standard for following people's wishes? Just because Prince's demands are more difficult to satisfy, why should that make his claims to a unique identity less deserving of respect than Laveranues Coles'?

Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 22. Januar, 2005 16:02 (UTC)
Re: Regarding AAVE names
But I didn't answer any of my own questions -- you've merely assumed that my own answers would show me as somewhere between rude and a bigot.
I'm not making any assumptions about how you would answer the questions you posed, but your speculation about sound-spelling correspondences in AAVE did strike me as condescending.
I submit, though, that an attitude of less than total admiration for the creativity involved is not necessarily due to bigotry.
I'm not accusing anyone of bigotry, nor am I insisting on "total admiration" for unconventionally spelled names. I'm saying that an adamant refusal to follow people's wishes in spelling their names is presumptuous and discourteous.
Obviously, the prejudice in cases like this is on the part of the employers, and doesn't reflect on the people who have these names. But this sort of evidence suggests that you can handicap your children considerably with displays of creativity like this. Would it really be so terribly harmful to any of these people's identities if their parents came up with unusual names that nevertheless conformed to standard orthographic rules?
I don't know; it's not my identity. Anyway, by the time one is old enough to apply for a job, one is old enough to choose one's own name; I see no need for parents to set the prejudices of potential employers over their own preferences in naming their children.
Finally, why is convenience the standard for following people's wishes? Just because Prince's demands are more difficult to satisfy, why should that make his claims to a unique identity less deserving of respect than Laveranues Coles'?
Well, the reason I didn't use Prince's symbol (when that was what he went by) was not disrespect; it was that I had no good way of writing it, and no particular need to mention Prince in the first place. If I had been a Prince fan, I might have put in the effort. In this post, I was trying to understand why anyone would refuse to write bell hooks's name in lowercase, and my own reluctance to take the trouble to write Prince's symbol was a starting point. So I brought in the other examples to demonstrate that lowercasing bell hooks does not appear to involve going to any more trouble than is already required by various other names that I've never seen anybody insist on misspelling as a matter of principle. Obviously, it doesn't take a lot of effort to not press the shift key, but it does take some effort to remember when to press shift and when not to; examples such as MacDonald vs. Macdonald suggest that this effort is one that is already being made. So I still don't really understand why anybody insists on writing Bell Hooks; if my standard of "convenience" seems arbitrary, I have yet to see a less arbitrary one.
iabervon on 22. Januar, 2005 19:58 (UTC)
There is a further issue, though. English normally doesn't have letters which are obligatorily lowercase, only letters which are uppercase and letters which are not necessarily uppercase. This would suggest that if bell hooks doesn't want to be capitalized, she should still start sentences as "Bell hooks" and appear in headlines as "BELL HOOKS". Certainly the behavior of "da Vinci" and "van der Hulst" support the idea that the owner may forgo the capitals normally given to a proper name, but one may not cause one's name to resist capitalization due to other effects.

While we're at it, I have to wonder if got his job fairly; the name smacks of nepotism and crooked ways (respectively).
Kimtheamyrlin on 7. April, 2010 05:30 (UTC)
This is exactly my beef with bell hooks. I can understand her position, but to not have her name capitalized at the beginning of sentences seems like her own personal preference should trump that of the rules of the English language.
Nicholasnwhyte on 23. Januar, 2005 00:53 (UTC)
I'm with you all the way. Of course, if van der Hulst were Belgian he would capitalise his name Van Der Hulst automatically...

There are a couple of other grey areas here, though. Some languages which use the Latin alphabet have different capitalisation conventions, such that only the first word in a proper name (other than of a person) is capitalised. So I don't think there is a problem with translating, say, "Srpski pokret obnove" as "Serbian Renewal Movement" rather than "Serbian renewal movement".

Some alphabets - eg Georgian - have no upper case letters at all, so in those circumstances if translating into an alphabet which does have them I think it's fully legit to impose your local conventions on the Georgian words. So "მიხეილ სააკაშვილი" is "Mikheil Saakashvili", not "mikheil saakashvili"
(Anonym) on 23. Januar, 2005 10:05 (UTC)
Eccentric capitalization and logos
Where I work, we are supposed to type the name of the company with nonstandard capitalization and half of the name in italics, to match the logo and letterhead: infoUSA. It's a matter of corporate identity.

Likewise, I take bell hook's own usage and the Prince symbol to be trademarks as well. They are welcome to use their preferred capitalization, fonts, and colors on their own output. But I don't intend disrespect by using more common English conventions when I write the name than the Wall Street Journal does when they spell my company's name.
the_deli: BOTTLE OPENERthedeli on 23. Januar, 2005 10:29 (UTC)
I am forced to wonder how Bill Poser feels about the whim and fancy behind the coining of pseudonyms and/or pen names?

Does he now insist on referring to Mark Twain as "Mr. Clemens", since Twain’s anonymity is no longer threatened? What should we do with Ms. Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone, who - in defiance of standard English personal naming traditions - shortened hers to just one word (Madonna) and then on a deeply religious whim, to another (Esther).
What about Lemony Snicket? No one should be forced to refer to this *fictional author* when the real one (Daniel Handler) is standing right there in plain sight. What about transsexual/transgendered people who are deeply insulted when you refer to them (or address them!) by their prior gender’s name?!

I am very confused about where my sense of obligation to others is supposed to go when I choose my arbitrary standards over the decisions of the very person(s) in question. It is not possible to concentrate on the notion of sticking to “standard orthographies” when you have this open can of worms spilled all over your desk.

From now on, to simplify, I am going to call everyone I know "Poser".
(Anonym) on 23. Januar, 2005 10:34 (UTC)
ee cummings dont care

fortunately google is case insensitive (bad discourteous google!)

(Anonym) on 23. Januar, 2005 16:07 (UTC)
Prince would probably be pleased with your choice
Part of Prince's reason for changing his name to the symbol he did was because the name "Prince" was owned by parties that he did not want to be working for, but also did not want to change his performance name.
His solution was to change his performance name to something that people could not pronounce, thus meaning that public references would have to take the form "The artist formerly known as Prince."
(Anonym) on 23. Januar, 2005 18:42 (UTC)
Given the number of linguistically inclined folks in the Perl programming language community, I'm surprised that none of them have chimed in here with a reference to brain d foy, a fellow who is so emphatic about the capitalization of his name, that he has a style guide on his web site to explain it:

(Anonym) on 24. Januar, 2005 08:59 (UTC)
Does he not object to brian being mutated to brain?
wolfangel78 on 24. Januar, 2005 12:35 (UTC)
There was a post at languagelog about pronoun use for transgendered people where the same odd sort of "this is the rule!" appeared. It is in fact not particularly confusing: you use the pronoun which people prefer. In any case, in the few months before a sex-change surgery, you will almost certainly be living as a (whatever you're changing to) and so you won't look like a (whatever you're changing from).

I continue to be amazed that people are so insistent that it is Bad to have oddly spelled or capitalised names, and that we should spell them normally, whether they want it or not. Certainly make fun of them in the privacy of your own home, if you like; brian d foy notwithstanding, you don't need to recast your sentences to be sure you don't start a sentence with their name and thus capitalise part of it.
acw on 24. Januar, 2005 15:09 (UTC)
A friend of mine uses an online moniker that has unconventional capitalization; namely, all its letters are lowercased except the last letter, which is uppercased.

The uppercased final doesn't bother me; it's just a special case of an embedded cap. But my friend insists that her name retain its lowercased initial even at the beginning of a sentence; to do otherwise, she says, is to misspell it. I think we would agree that this claim is more radical. I have adapted by keeping my friend's name out of sentence-initial position, as others report doing for bell hooks.

I feel that there is a continuum of onomastic pathologies, and I wonder whether our gracious host could illuminate just where on this spectrum he would give up on following the name-owner's preferences.

Would he, for example permit an irregular possessive? Suppose I insist that the possessive of ACW is not ACW's but rather ACW'b? No special fonts are needed. Would he humor me? Suppose I demand that my name is not to be followed with a word-separating space? I could say, "Other people's names have a space after them, but ACWdoesn't, and if you spell ACWany other way you are misspelling it and insulting me.". Would our host be inclined to respect this preference, or would he regard it as over the line?

My personal feeling is that one should be permitted control over the spelling and pronunciation of one's own name up to the point that the name does not start taking over its immediate environment. For example, insisting on an irregular possessive or a deleted space is unreasonable, because the possessive suffix and the word-breaking space are not part of the name. And (this is my crucial point) I don't think sentence-initial capitalization is part of the name either.
(Anonym) on 24. Januar, 2005 18:00 (UTC)
That's about where I draw the line. I would be unwilling to recast sentences and unwilling to ignore capitalisation at the beginning of the sentence: that is a different kind of rule, and one which I think isn't part of your name. I feel the same way about irregular possessives, unless someone comes up with something really clever. Perhaps someone with a cap-free name can explain why they feel that it shouldn't have caps, even as the beginning of the sentence.

wolfangel> (http://wolfangel.calltherain.net)
hmm... - bringerofchange on 24. Januar, 2005 18:58 (UTC) (Expand)
bringerofchange on 24. Januar, 2005 17:50 (UTC)
good grief
i don't know whether to be amused or appalled at this discussion. When i asked Geoff Pullum to spell my name in lowercase, it never occurred to me that a dispute on the matter would ensue.

Obviously, lesson learned: i was ignorant in assuming that English does not have rules/traditions/prescriptions as far as the lowercase formatting of a name; and likewise, ignorant in assuming that E. E. Cummings's name was a valid, uniformly-accepted example of a lowercase name. As such, i'm thankful to be set straight on those matters.

Moving forward... since i am not a linguist, or indeed any sort of academic whatsoever, i'm not qualified to counterargue Bill Poser's stance. Thus i appreciate the commentary in this journal, as q_pheevr and others have made a very good articulation. i find this issue does indeed revolve around "courtesy" moreso than "ethics"; while i agree with Bill Poser that nary a soul in the world is "ethically" obligated--or obligated, period--to honour my request, i disagree with the suggestion that an "ethical obligation" was even implied. It was never like that (and i'd have honestly expected Geoff Pullum to whack me upside the head with a copy of The Cambridge Grammar if i'd ever phrased it that way).

i simply have a preference, and feel it necessary to politely (even, gingerly) ask people to humour my preference, so long as it doesn't pose an undue inconvenience on their part. If they likewise politely decline on reasonable grounds, so be it; i don't lose anything in the matter.

(Why even ask in the first place? Well, odd as this may sound... my name just looks wrong in uppercase. [shrug] And on that note, i'm curious as to whether any other people with lowercase names, or lowercase in their names--e.g., van Dyke--feel similar.)
(Anonym) on 24. Januar, 2005 20:47 (UTC)
the hidden agenda of descriptivism
It's obvious to me that descriptivism is a shell game: given that the topic is matters of taste and no compelling rational argument can exist on either side of most of the issues, wannabe alpha tastemakers resort to the old appeals to authority and other bullying.

Your prescriptions are refuted by an appeal to golden descriptivism, but your decisions are refuted by my prescriptions. yadda yadda yadda

Poser's demand that he be known by that ludicrous moniker seems unassailable, but hereafter it shall be pronounced "felch".
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 27. Januar, 2005 09:28 (UTC)

Wow—this post has generated more comment than anything else that has ever appeared in A Roguish Chrestomathy. I'm sorry I haven't had time to reply properly, but thanks to everyone for their thought-provoking contributions.

(Anonym) on 31. Juli, 2007 13:39 (UTC)
Hello from Janek Makowski
I'd like to say hello to all people on this board.