Rajend Mesthrie… The Professor of Linguistics and research chair in the School of African and Gender Studies, Anthropology and Linguistics at the University of Cape Town. Picture: Supplied.
Opinion - The first names of Indians are fast losing their Indian identity to modernisation.

This is so especially to a large extent within the Tamil community and to a lesser extent among those of Hindi background. 

The bestowal of non-traditional names is not an act of cultural betrayal. 

Creativity, modernisation and mediation between the old and the new have led to the onset of a new collection of Indian names.

These are the findings of a seminal study by linguistics guru Professor Rajend Mesthrie whose many decades of work in language and linguistics has focused on the significance of sociolinguistics in understanding heritage, culture and social change in a multilingual society.

The professor of linguistics and research chair in the School of African and Gender Studies, Anthropology and Linguistics at the University of Cape Town recently presented a paper based on his study of changes in personal names among Indian South Africans at the International Congress of Historical Linguistics in San Antonio, Texas.

Professor Mesthrie’s study has found that first name choices within the Indian community are influenced by social variables like tradition versus modernity, gender, and class. The naming patterns reflect the intricacies of heritage, change, and identity. 

The research shows that since the 1970s, the effects of education and urbanisation have led to linguistic assimilation as the new generation gradually, imperceptibly and involuntarily shifted to English as the dominant language.

“From this period on there was a greater degree of proselytisation that saw many working-class Indians convert from Hinduism to Christianity.

“Today marriages across former barriers of language (such as Tamil and Hindi) are no longer rare. 

As far as religion is concerned, however, a salient barrier remains between Islam versus other religions,” said Professor Mesthrie, adding the changes in terms of naming patterns involve modifications of traditional Indian names, adoption of Western and Christian names, as well as adaptation of Western names.

Tracing the background to naming, he said in Tamil Nadu, the area which produced the largest number of Indian immigrants to South Africa, a person is given a personal name at a naming ceremony, held 12 days after birth. 

The name is formally bestowed after consulting the priest. 

This is the raasi name, whose first syllable is determined by the priest, in accordance with the constellation at birth. 

However, for Tamils, the surname comes first. For North Indians, unlike the South Indians, the personal name comes first, with the surname last.

The naming patterns prevalent in India changed for indentured workers in South Africa. 

Traditional village Indian naming systems which had persisted for a considerable time in South Africa had to eventually give way to the bureaucratic needs of state and commerce, which required fixed surnames in the western style.

In many cases, the personal name of the father became the surname: thus Moonsamy, Ramsamy, Lachman, Tulsi, Harilal can be first names or surnames in South Africa. 

Some surnames homed in on the village or area of origin: thus Bangal, Bihari, Madurai, Karodia, Valodia and Randeria are surnames in South Africa that refer to a district or wider area of origin.

Many adopted surnames show a caste or occupational affiliation such as Ahir (cowherd), Mistri (artisan) or Chetty (businessperson, agriculturalist or banker).

In other cases, a caste title was adopted as a surname: Maharaj (Brahmin title), Singh (Kshatriya title), Naidoo (caste title of Tamil Nadu), Ayar (Brahman title of Tamil Nadu) and Reddy (caste title of Andhra Pradesh and to a lesser extent Tamil Nadu). 

Mesthrie was quick to point out that the caste titles that are used as surnames are now bleached of original caste connotations. 

At best, they might be cited today as a kind of ancestral pride, rather than arising from strict caste relevance or awareness.

For the study of personal names, Mesthrie used the national matriculation results of the years 2010-2013 which gave the full names of students and their results. 

A sample was constituted by considering all schools in the city of Durban and environs up to a 48km radius, this being the acknowledged hub of Indian life in South Africa, and once occasionally dubbed “Little India”.

It was found there were no first name changes among Muslims, who retained recognisably Islamic names. 

There were almost no name changes among Hindu Gujaratis, who used modernised but recognisably Hindu first names. 

The study found there were a large number of innovations among people of South Indian background. 

Here, Christian personal names were increasingly common, going beyond the proportion of converts to Christianity.

There was a strong trend to invent Indian (either Tamil or Hindu-sounding names) names. Only 18% traditional names occurred among South Indians, while another 28% were neo-Indian names, and 54% western. 

The new or neo-Tamil names were identifiable by two criteria; namely, they did not have a traditional meaning in Sanskrit, Tamil or Telugu, and they were rarely or never found in India.

Traditional names for Hindus are those that are found in one or more parts of India; they typically have an origin in Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, or Hindi.

The study found that North Indians of Bhojpuri-Hindi background showed a significant degree of name changes, but not as much as those of South Indian ancestry. 

The sample showed that 63% of traditional names occurred among Bhojpuri-Hindi speakers, with 17% of the names in this segment being neo-Indian and 20% Western.

Mesthrie’s study has deduced that while conversions to Christianity in the Indian community have been high, many of the Western names in the data base were bestowed upon Hindus, “who have become flexible in the matter of tradition versus innovation”. 

One of the most striking characteristics that emerged from the data base is the use of neo-Indian names. Parents from the 1980s onwards created new names (wittingly or unwittingly) by processes of rhyme and analogy.

An established name that was felt to be “modern” was used as a prototype to generate new names. 

Once a new name proved attractive, it spawned a set of analogical rhyming and other variants. These suggest a kind of linguistic competition and dialogue between names, or at least among those bestowing them on children.

Some examples of such new North Indian names are Rivania, Ruvanya and Ravanya; Livania, Luvanya and Lavanya; and Sivanya, Suvanya and Savanya.

Innovative names, mainly in South African Tamil and Telugu communities, include Terisha, Terusha and Tirosha; Lerisha, Lerusha and Lerosha; and Verisha, Verusha and Verosha.

It is estimated that 50 to 70% of Hindu families still consult the priest for the raasi syllable. The suffix -olan or -alin is added to create a modern feel, for example, Yolan, Sholan, Shaylin and Vishaylin.

“Young people find the neo-Indian names modern, in keeping with their identity. Thus, one youth called Shalen decried any connection with the more traditional name Shalendra, even though his parents must have used the latter name as the source in their act of naming,” said Mesthrie.

His study has concluded that descendants from different ancestral areas merge loosely into a new community. 

There is ample evidence of cultural maintenance versus innovation in a post-shift community. 

There is partial retention of names with due regard to traditional niceties, but there is also evidence of the freeing up of some of this tradition to give rise to new fashion trends in personal names.

* Yogin Devan is a media consultant and social commentator.