Are there any languages or cultures that have genderless given names?

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In the U.S. where I live it is possible to be right almost all of the time when guessing the sex of a person from his or her given name: Ronald, George (Sand and Elliot notwithstanding), William, Michael (Learned notwithstanding), Warren and Chuck are all men's names, while Emily, Christine, Jasmine, Nancy and Camille are obviously female. Some nicknames go both ways (Chris, Sandy, Sam, etc.) but the full names are generally obviously on one side or the other.

In German, generally nobody thinks Karlheinz is female or Gisele is male. Cf. Spanish (Juan, Juanita, etc.), French (Michel, Michelle) and so on. Even in Latin, it was possible to tell Julia and Julius apart by letters alone.

Some languages have markers to indicate gender (see this Linguistics.SE question. That question discusses PIE affixes, but the scope is even broader. For example, in Japanese, -o or -ro endings indicate male names, while -ko and -e indicate female names. Note that my question is not limited to the scope of that question.

I don't know all the languages that have ever existed in the world, obviously, but all of the ones I have had contact with make a more-or-less clear gender distinction with given names. Are there or have there ever been languages that didn't make this distinction?

Robusto

Posted 2012-08-13T20:40:39.907

Reputation: 389

@Cerberus Romans could use numerals-derived names for women, such as Secunda etc. But they also were sex-dependentAnixx 2015-09-29T16:59:15.067

I'd say this might actually be quite a western-centric phenomenon and I'm not sure whether it's even mainstream in the world. Maybe more cultures give genderless names than not. It's just that when names are transcribed into western alphabets, western people won't be able to tell what they originally meant anyways, so they suppose that gender-specific names as such in their culture are the norm.JI Xiang 2015-10-01T19:59:38.477

Also your example about Japanese is not really correct. See detailed explanation in my answer below.JI Xiang 2015-10-01T20:12:44.453

@Cerberus: Marcus => Marcia?Robusto 2016-05-03T15:33:25.323

@Rob Hail thee! That is a very interesting example. I had to look it up, and it appears Marcia is the female version of Marcius, used for women of the gens Marcia. So I think it is like Julia, which is from Julius, not Julus (the son of Aeneas).Cerberus 2016-05-07T02:20:58.300

1Most names whose etymologies I know probably come from stems praising or describing the bearer. Since men and women are often praised and described differently, I would expect most language to have a considerable number of sex-bound given names. Note that Julia and Julius were not given names but family names, although your hypothesis may still hold for Latin. However, I don't think the Romans had many given names (perhaps none) where the same stem was used for a male and a female name. There is Marcus, but no Marca; and I believe women normally used the family name, not a given name.Cerberus 2012-08-13T21:52:37.123

However, I don't know much about plebeian given names. They must have had them.Cerberus 2012-08-13T21:56:03.203

There was a long discussion of this question on the LINGTYP mailing list some time ago, initiated by Professor Newmeyer. http://listserv.linguistlist.org/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind1208B&L=LINGTYP&F=&S=&P=965

Alex B. 2012-08-13T23:41:57.503

While it also has names that are gender-specific, Japanese also has a good number of gender-neutral names (though they may be written with different kanji depending on gender).Justin Olbrantz 2012-08-14T02:40:06.317

Robusto, are you asking for languages that also have genderless given names, or only those names? Because in the first case, I know an example.Alenanno 2012-08-14T08:17:42.397

@Alenanno: I gave cases where gender is ambiguous. We also see some names, in America at least, that are made-up and carry no gender connotation (River, for example). I'm happy to hear what you have, but I really want to know about languages that make no distinction in gender — preferably not deliberately, but because it does not occur to the speakers to do so.Robusto 2012-08-14T11:09:23.920

Answers

17

Check out the Punjabi language. Well spoken by the Sikh culture. Many, many, many names are genderless. Only in modern times (past 50–100 years) have there started to exist some names that are more associated with one gender than the other.

This website, Baby Names World, would fool you into thinking that's not the case. But I know many people whose names are registered there as female who are male and vice versa.

A Google search for "Sikh names" usually leads to results that mention how their names are genderless. The Wikipedia entry says, "Given names are not in general associated with a particular gender". If gender is to be indicated people say both their first/given name as well as their middle/last name.

Doing a Google search for the exact phrase of your question led to this Yahoo question from 2008 that states:

In Chinese it is normal for names to be for both boys and girls, because there isn't a specific group of "words" that are only used as names, where you can only choose your name from this group like in the Western World, eg. "Anna" isn't a word, but is something that can only be used as a (girl's) name. In Chinese you can use any word or words (max. 2 characters) you like as your name, provided it sounds good and you find it meaningful, just like the names of Native Americans commented above.

Of course, names that are flowers are generally girls' names and names with "strength" and such themes are generally boys' names, but other words are mostly neutral. In earlier times there was stronger distinction between genders, but today, where "flower" names and such are pretty much out of the fashion, you would not immediately know the gender of the person when you read their name. Korean names are also similar in this way.

Continuing on my Google search, I found this extremely lovely article about how Sweden is trying to pass legislature on allowing parents to give their child any name (like Jack or Lisa), saying that names should not be tied to gender.

So all in all there is at least three distinct groups of languages/cultures (and many more, I'm sure, are tied to these three groups) that either have genderless given names or are advocating for such a goal.

victoroux

Posted 2012-08-13T20:40:39.907

Reputation: 306

You mean Sweden doesn't already permit cross-naming? I wonder if Alice Cooper can even get into the country then.Robusto 2012-08-14T20:57:39.237

1But for Sikh names, going by the WP page, the gender is evident from the surname. I don't believe that this is the case with Chinese names. Interesting stuff :)coleopterist 2012-08-24T05:42:28.483

1that is correct. middle/surname. But the question was specifically for given names ;) unless it was edited... O_ovictoroux 2012-08-24T12:57:32.683

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Vietnamese names, like Chinese, have no specific name set. So the choice depends on the parents or the person who gives the name. They can choose any word they like to combine into the name. But of course there's a set of words that are much more common to appear in names because they are "more beautiful" words. However Vietnamese name have no limit in number of syllables like Chinese names, although most will have 3-4 syllables.

There's no restriction in gender of the name either, but most will have some bias in gender.

For example when hearing the names such as "Mai", "Lan", "Thúy", "Vân"... you can guess that they are a woman's name most of the time because they describe things such as flowers and birds... they feel more "feminine" and "soft", albeit there are men who were given those names too.

On the other hand names such as "Trung", "Hùng", "Dũng", "Mạnh"... would have 95% chance to be a man's name because they express vigor, strength.

Most other names are more neutral in gender. The possibility for "Phúc", "Tú", "Phương"... to be a man's/woman's name might be 50/50 whereas "Thanh", "Hà"... perhaps are a bit more "womanly" because in 55-60% of the cases they are a woman's name

In the past women often had "Thị" and men usually had "Văn" as a middle name so you could infer sex information from that. But nowadays those middle names aren't favorable any more, replaced with more "fashionable" middle names, and there are many names don't have middle names, so you can't get gender hints from that any more. But when going with an appropriate given name, sometimes it will make the gender bias stronger. For example "Anh" and "Thanh" are neutral names, but with "Vân" as middle name then "Vân Anh" or "Vân Thanh" would be a woman's name. Or "Dương" is more or less a man's name, but "Thùy Dương" would be a woman's name

Note that the percentages are only from the sense of a Vietnamese number, not any specific statistics so it may not reflect exactly the actual number.

Lưu Vĩnh Phúc

Posted 2012-08-13T20:40:39.907

Reputation: 507

I’ve read that many Vietnamese given names are derived from Chinese. If so, I wonder if the fact that they are written in quốc ngữ rather than with characters adds a degree of ambiguity gender-wise.neubau 2013-12-20T02:00:39.190

I do not see how writing the names in Chinese characters would make them any less ambiguous.fdb 2014-09-28T17:32:41.557

But thank you, Lưu Vĩnh Phúc, for a very instructive answer.fdb 2014-09-28T17:33:24.007

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Tibetan and Bhutanese names are genderless. I'm not a native of those countries, but travelled to both, and found the same names used for both men and women. I've had it confirmed as much as well that the names there do not confer gender, ie they're used interchangeably between genders. Worth doing some more investigation to be sure. Cheers.

Anonymous

Posted 2012-08-13T20:40:39.907

Reputation: 41

The Bhutanese language is actually called Dzongkha if I'm not mistaken.hippietrail 2014-09-28T14:16:21.170

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In Yoruba (and many other languages spoken in Africa) there is no gender distinction for personal names. Lukumi, a decendent form of Yoruba, has inherited the same feature.

In some IU languages, there is no gender distinction for some specific names or their forms. Here is a list of French unisex names

Manjusri

Posted 2012-08-13T20:40:39.907

Reputation: 1 829

What are "IU languages"?hippietrail 2014-09-28T14:16:50.207

4I'm guessing Indo-Uropean. ;-)René 2014-09-29T18:32:55.167

The link is dead :(sergiol 2016-05-03T17:20:12.987

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Just so you know, Camille is a gender-neutral name. It's French, and actually it's the most famous gender-neutral name in France. Nowadays, about 70% of Camille are females. However, during the 19th century it was the contrary: you had more guys named Camille than girls. So famous painters, writers, fictional characters from this period are mainly guys.

Camille

Posted 2012-08-13T20:40:39.907

Reputation: 11

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Turkish has many genderless names e.g Deniz "sea", Devrim "revolution", Yuksel "raise", Özgur "free", Ilhan "ruler", Ismet "ethical, honest", Fikret "idea, opinion", Ömür "lifetime".

I am sure there are more, but I am not aware of those. Some Turkish member can provide more examples. I guess the Turkic names are the ones that are usually genderless, unless they refer to something that is specifically female or male e.g Asena "she wolf".

Midas

Posted 2012-08-13T20:40:39.907

Reputation: 1 282

So male as well as female infants are equally likely to receive any of those names?Robusto 2014-09-28T23:16:21.137

@Robusto >> Statistically yes. However, unequal distribution (30-70%) is still genderless, as a significant percentage of the parents see the name fitting to any gender. Especially, if the name is neuter (e.g. as "hope" is in some languages) then there is no reason why to regard it as gender specific. There are examples though in Turkic languages where a "male word" becomes a female name e.g. Suna is a "male drake", but the name is given to girls.Midas 2014-09-29T06:51:27.527

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Almost all Indonesian names are gender-specific. Usually, you can tell their gender by endings. Names that end in -a, -Vti/-Nti (preceded by a vowel or nasal), -e, -iN, and -ah are usually feminine. Names that end in -o, -u, -di, -C (consonants; except -h), and -CCi (except -rni, -tri, etc.) are usually masculine. Exceptions are Yoga, Dirga, Rama, Fitrah, and Sakti (all are masculine); and Lulu, Betik, and Daniar (all are feminine). Some are genderless though, such as Riski, Andika, Aditya, etc. But you can determine their gender by their nicknames. A Riski is usually a male if it is called Iki, but it is usually a female if it is called Kiki. Andika can be male (Dika, Andi) or female (Ika). Aditya can also be male (Adit) or female (Tia or Tya).

But in Indonesia, you can find some names that is one masculine in a part but feminine in another part, or vice versa. Or one gender in a part but genderless in another part. Nana is usually male in Sunda (mainly in West Java), but female elsewhere. Nur is genderless in Java, but feminine elsewhere (also in Maluku Nur- part is almost always not separated).

Muhammad Hidayat

Posted 2012-08-13T20:40:39.907

Reputation: 1

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I'd say this (names indicating gender) might actually be quite a western-centric phenomenon and I'm not sure whether it's even mainstream in the world. It's totally possible that more cultures give genderless names than not. It's just that when names are transcribed into western alphabets, western people won't be able to tell what they originally meant anyways, so they still suppose that gender-specific names as such in their culture are the norm.

Coming to think of it, it's actually very weird for us Chinese to see that in western societies 1. there are strict distinctions between male names and female names which are not to be easily violated by social norms and 2. once a female gets married to a male, she changes her surname. Such things never happen in China. And also, your example about Japanese is largely incorrect. While the suffixes you listed are indeed common male/female names, there are also a whole lot of names which are neutral in the same manner as in Chinese. I'd say actually in modern Japan the later case might even be much more than the previous case. One funny historical fact is that during the sengoku period, there was a female lord named 井伊直虎(Ii Naotora), with 直虎 being a totally male and "strong" name (虎 is "tiger"). Well I guess the situation of this question(so many upvotes) reflects the fact that the majority of people here on SE are still westerners then :P

JI Xiang

Posted 2012-08-13T20:40:39.907

Reputation: 383

Lots of non-Western cultures have separate names for boys and girls, for example Arabic, Persian, most Indian cultures, most African cultures, etc. etc.fdb 2015-10-01T20:18:17.033

@fdb As you can see, many East Asian cultures don't have such a convention, and they constitute an important part of the world population. Also, although there might traditionally have been names more commonly given to male/female in the cultures you mentioned, unisex names have also been constantly present throughout the history. I'd suppose the fact that western Christian societies stick to gender-specific names to such an extent that they encode the practice into laws is not something common worldwide(I might be wrong of course), and this is what I want to express; I mean no offense.JI Xiang 2015-10-01T20:48:17.790

@Robusto I know. I guess I mostly just wanted to express my opinions on the question (and the way it's paraphrased). Maybe I should have written most of my points into various comments instead of writing it up into an answer here.JI Xiang 2015-10-01T20:54:27.010

Please update your answer and remove all mention of cultures other than the far-east ones. As many other people have pointed out, you have been quite inaccurate about them. Instead, write about the cultures you do know well.prash 2015-10-03T07:21:42.417