Academic journal article Ethnology

Personal Names as Narrative in Fiji: Politics of the Lauan Onomasticon

Academic journal article Ethnology

Personal Names as Narrative in Fiji: Politics of the Lauan Onomasticon

Article excerpt

In every society, proper names, as well as all words that are being used to make reference to a specific object rather than a class or category, are a point of contact between the language and the local, concrete reality of the world. Culturally specific systems of language and meaning constitute, in a broad sense, the differences among societies, while concrete, physical, and biological reality represents a starting point of commonality from which some degree of commensurability is attainable. Perhaps this is an underlying basis for the idea that "the understanding of names and naming [can provide] the most valuable key to the elucidation of ... social systems" (Maybury-Lewis 1984:2).

One way that naming systems of various communities can be compared concerns the pattern of interactions each creates among three basic elements of discourse: onomasticon, lexicon, and history. The onomasticon is the body of names used as identifying and individuating labels, lexicon is the body of words used in general reference, and history is the body of narratives that define individual and collective identity. When personal names are considered as words, they link individuals to general, descriptive categories of meaning in the group, and when names are considered as narratives they link individuals to politics and social control. Names form linkages among these discourse elements in all societies, but the emphases placed on such connections can vary widely.


The relationship between name and word has provoked considerable discussion among students of language and meaning in the western tradition of language philosophy. One appealing functional distinction has it that a "word has meaning" while a "name has reference" (Gasque 1991:219). The widespread, perhaps universal, form of verbal art based on the possibility of meaningful names - names that exploit the play between particular and general and the dynamic tension among the indexical, iconic, and symbolic senses of the name - requires such a distinction. But while practitioners of language have enjoyed this ambiguity, philosophers of language have struggled with it.

In the Augustinian tradition, the meaning of every word is the object that it names. Wittgenstein (1922:47;3.203) says (or shows) that words can be analyzed into primitive elements he calls names, and he asserts that "the name means the object," and "the object is its meaning." Meaning and reference thus being equated, the distinction between word and name on this basis collapses. Wittgenstein's (1958) later work also implies that word and name cannot be distinguished on the basis of meaning, but now the reason is that neither one has any. For Wittgenstein, both are game pieces, distinguished by the uses to which either may be put under the rules of socially constructed language games.

The pragmatists, too, led by James and Peirce, tend to question the concept of meaning as something that exists on its own, and they view it instead as a social or psychological effect produced by the use of a word or name (James 1907; Peirce 1934:5.411-34). Peirce's discussion of the index as a particular type of sign that points something out by virtue of a cause-and-effect relationship with its object provides another way of distinguishing a personal name from other kinds of words, but Peirce (1931:2.274-302) insists that there are no pure indices, icons, or symbols; every sign is mixed and combines in some degree the characteristics of each type. It follows, perhaps, that there are no pure names and that names and words continually cross and recross in the process of usage, whatever boundaries one tries to draw between them.


Usage, context, and convention, then, are central to the problem of the relationship between word and name. For this reason, the question cannot be fully framed and answered in the discourse of language philosophy, which is located in the imaginary, universal object domain - a domain outside of history and social context of usage - that might be called language in general. …

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