Is there a reason why it's so common for different people to share the same given name?

This seems to be a normal pattern in most languages. Names like Anna, Mohammed, Wei along with their variations are homonymous to millions of people.

In contrast, places with the same name are much less frequent. Homonymous nouns with more than a few distinct meanings are exceptional. Furthermore, when people design a new product these days, they are very careful to choose a new (untaken) name.

  • It makes it easier to remember people's names, maybe. – brass tacks Oct 20 '15 at 10:09
  • interesting point. Welcome to Linguisics SE! As for places with the same name, pretty much every American town and city have the same street names, and in Melbourne every suburb has a large set of shared street names. Drives me up the wall. – Ivan Kapitonov Oct 20 '15 at 12:09
  • Well, because in most cultures, given names are not just random words. If you check their etymology, you'll notice that given names represent some virtue like power, glory, luck, beauty, or other dignities. For instance, Anna < Heb. hanna, "gracious". Since the number of virtues is naturally limited, the same applies to given names. This number is however multiplied if the same word comes from different languages, consider Hebrew Anna vs. Latin Grace vs. Slavonic Milla. – bytebuster Oct 20 '15 at 14:49
  • Also, there are cultures where given names are random words. For example, Thai nicknames (not the official passport names) can be Fish, Bird, Blue, Chicken, Crab, Ant, Little, or anything else. – bytebuster Oct 20 '15 at 14:55
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is about culture not language. – curiousdannii Oct 20 '15 at 22:07

First names are subject to Zipf's law of distribution (see this paper for some examples). This means that the most frequent name is roughly twice as common as the one after that and so on. The same applies to frequencies of all the relatively frequent words in the corpus of any language.

But it's not clear what causes this type of distribution because it appears in a lot of systems where human intentionality cannot play a role.

With names, it's obvious imitation plays a key role (like fashion) - so not surprisingly the most popular names always happen in clusters over a period of time. (For instance, my first name was incredibly rare in the Czech Republic until the growing fame of the hockey player Dominik Hasek - now, while still not very frequent, it is much more common. In Albania, for instance, you have a relatively lot of people born during a certain period called Lenin.) The sorts of names being imitated will vary a lot across cultures.

You should also keep in mind that there's huge cultural variability of what a 'given' name means. From no special given name (first son, second daughter, etc.) to ones chosen (and changed) to indicate quality or some events (Sitting Bull). As far as I know, no frequency studies have been done on these non-Western style naming systems.

The current US African American preference for novel names referencing African patterns would also make an interesting case study. Would a system where the main aim is to be different still be subject to Zipf's law?

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The main cause of uniformity in given names is religion. Many Muslims are named Mohamed (and spelling variants) and many Christians are names Mary for obvious reasons. Forces of linguistic change give rise to local variants like John, Jean [ʒɛ̃], Sean, Shawn, Johann, Ivan. When you say that common for people to name the same name, that means you can take all the given names and count up the number of people with that name, and rank then in order of frequency. If there is a small set of culturally-available names like John, Ali, Ram, then you expect most names to be drawn from that set. There are cultures where children are given names meaning e.g. "(death) doesn't know you", but the chances of many (i.e. millions of) people picking Tilumanya as a given name is nil. Religion has been the most influential source of this cultural uniformity.

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    I think you're overstating the role of religion based on a few cultures where it's prominent. Across languages and cultures, I'd say religion will play a varying role as the origin of names. Or it will do it in unpredictable ways. For instance, naming after spirit animals (rather than deities or saints). Look at China, where it plays no role whatsoever. – Dominik Lukes Oct 21 '15 at 6:35
  • When billions of people select from a small pool of names favored by religion, it follows that there must be many people with the same first name. It's not relevant that this is "a few cultures", what matters is that this is what billions of people -- most people on Earth -- do. – user6726 Oct 21 '15 at 16:03
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    Your approach only answers the question, where do most people's names come from and not why they choose the most frequent ones so much more commonly than the others. The 'it's religion' approach could just as easily predict everyone having a Biblical or Koranic name but they all being equally common. There are probably more people named Wei than Jesus or Mohammed, so even the raw numerical approach does not work. To discover the principle behind why the common names are SO common, you need to sample across cultures and times - and then imitation/fashion are more likely to appear as factors. – Dominik Lukes Oct 22 '15 at 6:21
  • You are probably also mistaken about the prevalence of religion-derived titles. From en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_most_popular_given_names: E.g. in the US some of the most popular names are Liam, Logan, Jayden (with some tenuous biblical connection), Jack, Robert, Mason, William. If religion was so prominent, you'd expect Adam, Noah, etc. to be clear winners. Also, recent female favorites such as Olivia, Sofia go against your hypothesis. Some popular names in Slavic countries Artem, Maxim, etc. Names with religious connections are also very common but not clear it's WHY they're chosen – Dominik Lukes Oct 22 '15 at 6:36

You're effectively also asking "Why do people have names?"

It's simply a tradeoff - too many names would be hard to remember, and too few names leads to too many clashes ("Which John?"). In situations where there are fewer names, people end up adding modifiers (eg "Little John", "Big John"), modifying the names (eg "Johnny") or giving nicknames.

As for why it's slightly more varied for towns and cities, it follows much the same principles. However we mention far fewer unique towns and cities in our daily lives, and the lifespans of their names are much longer, so the exact distributions are different.

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