A University of Southern California professor said Tuesday people’s names and governmental restrictions on them can have political significance.
Alison Renteln, professor of political science and anthropology at USC, lectured at the University of Wisconsin Law Building on her ongoing study of the legality of names and the reasons some governments impose restrictions on them.
The study encompasses a wide range of topics regarding names, including restricting names parents give children, adults changing names and how names can be used to intentionally reflect certain ethnic and religious groups.
Renteln said Jewish people were not allowed to change their names in the early 20th century.
“The conflict of verbal representations of identities reveal a great deal about the power relations in various countries,” Renteln said.?
The level of restriction on names varies from country to country, Renteln said. Restriction of names can be part of a wider effort by a government to culturally assimilate ethnic groups into the majority culture.
For example, Renteln said Haitian immigrant children are not allowed birth certificates in the Dominican Republic.?
Another example is Turkey, which banned the use of Kurdish names in 2001. The Turkish government sent police to Kurdish villages to hunt for invalid birth certificates.
“The right to a name is part of the international human rights law,” Renteln said.
However, not all restrictions on names reflect an attempt of assimilation. According to Renteln, various examples of parents trying to give their kids unconventional names show why some governments restrict them.?
Some governments will restrict names if it “violates public policy,” she said.
Renteln said Denmark has the strictest restriction measures. Names have to be sanctioned by two agencies and also need to be chosen from a pre-approved list.
Two parents in New Zealand wanted to name their kid “4 real” but were not allowed. Officials deemed numerals were inappropriate in a name.?
Children’s names can sometimes be so bizarre they are cruel, according to Renteln.?
She cited the recent example of the couple that named their kids “Adolf Hitler” and “Aryan Nation” in the United States. They were allowed to register their children with these names, only to be denied having the names written on a birthday cake at Wal-Mart.
“There might be some rationale to limiting names,” Renteln said.
No U.S. federal law exists restricting names, but a law states newborns must have a name.?
Renteln said “folk law” can rule in hospitals. Hospital employees may tell people certain names cannot be used when filling out birth certificate forms the day of a newborn’s birth. However, no formal law justifies this informal restriction.
According to Renteln, the rationale for restricting names is to protect children from ridicule. However, she is not sure any evidence exists that it is effective.
UW law student Marcie Anderson attended the event.
“I thought it was very interesting,” Anderson said. “I didn’t realize Denmark was so strict with [name restrictions].”
Anderson said she especially was interested to learn about the human rights aspect to restrictions on naming.