Thursday, June 02, 2005

What's in A Name: Taxation, Warfare and Class Struggle!

The fifth richest man in the world, reports Forbes, is Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdul Aziz al Saud- a name which literally reads: Alwaleed son of Talal who is the son of Abdul Aziz who belongs to the Saud clan. Or consider the name of the writer of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra. In the Anglo-Saxon world we find typically today names that are truncations of latinate derivations. (In PULP FICTION by Quentin Tarantino, in one of the scenes where Bruce Willis' character kills a boxer in a knockout game - the taxi driver, named Esmeralda, asks him, "what is your name". Willis grunts and says, "Butch". She retorts, "What does it mean?" With his trademark smirk WILLIS replies, "Our names don't mean shit these days.")

Casual empiricism leaves one to conclude that across humanity there is a wide variation in how individuals are identified. That is, there is a question of why do certain cohorts (identified usually on a spatial dimension) have longer names than others. A more anthropological question is, are names solely bonds across generations as in HRH Alwaleed's case; and if so, why does that practise die out say in the West? Two harder questions are: (1) Are naming strategies optimal reactions to changes in underlying socio-economic conditions? (2) Empirically, can variation in naming strategies be decomposed into within group and between group variations.

(To wit, A personal anecdote: In India, there used to be names like Mohandas, Jawaharlal, Subramanian etc etc. These days, it seems (I am most likely wrong) every second male child born is a Rahul or Raj or Karan, every girl is a Ria or Dia or Piya... Am I mistaken???)

Consider the following conjectures.
(1) In preliterate societies, where population is typically low - i.e., and population mobility is very limited the name typically has little relevance in terms of network hierarchy. As population sizes increase, there emerges a pecking order and a "Big Man" emerges. ("Big Man" in modern development economics is a pejorative; see Robert Kaplan's "The Ends of the Earth: From Togo to Turkmenistan, from Iran to Cambodia, a Journey to the Frontiers of Anarchy " to read a visceral description of the catastrophe the "Big Men" induce in modern societies.)There continues to be a great premium on claiming relationship with the elite few in an agricultural society. Names come to then include markers that signals where in the pecking order individual belongs to.

However, if a name is considered as a technology to record the past; a more specific and elaborate name is typically more costly for an individual who belongs to the group that was originally in the low-wealth (thus low-human capital) group in the agricultural regime. If wealth, or access to wealth is proxied by name size, then a caste-intensive society like India it is perhaps not surprising that in equilibrium -- high caste individuals typically have longer and more descriptive names. For example, see the Tamil Brahmins. In contrast, for a society that also has a long continuous historical tradition; but has not developed a critical agriculture induced size; (eg., Aboriginals in Australia) names as identification mechanisms over generations serve little purpose.

(2) Consider, alternatively a situation where tracking an individual involves a cost to the searcher and all individuals are symmetrical and identical on all dimensions other than their names. When the size of the population (and thus the political entity (the State)) increases; coupled with two key factors (1) mobility of population (2) specialization; the identification strategy that every individual ought to find in equilibrium is to adopt longer names that distinguishes them either on basis of family, guild or employment based markers. Not surprisingly, Francis 1 (1494-1547), the king of France issued royal orders that all his subjects take up a surname. Similarly in Henry VIII issued imperial edicts to the same effect. What is perhaps not surprising, is that the two were contemporaries and both France and England were at comparable stages of economic development. However, when an individual's talent are an outlier on one dimension; like Leonardo or Dante or Gretzky a single name suffices to transmit relevant information efficiently through a society's cultural meme. In societies where warfare is incessant between two literate, agrarian and religiously heterogeneous societies; names become a memory device which prevents oneself from homogenization. In Spain, where the Muslims and Spaniards jostled; or Arab tribes that fought amongst each other -- names are inevitably become long and elaborate. (See Jacques Barzun's "From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present. 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. pg. 113)

(3) If the technology to identify individuals, despite mobility and burgeoning populations, is such that it enables tracking effectively either by individuals or the State with barely any cost. Then name lengths inevitably shrinks. This, I think, has happened in the West -- while in places Multan and Tanjore you end up find babies named Jalaludeen Muhammad Akbar and Srinivasa Venkata Ramanujan.

(Rushdie mentions G.V. Desani's translation of Mahatma Gandhi's name: Action-Slave Fascination-Moon Grocer)