I was researching on the topic of representation of ethnic minorities in the dominant ethnic group's media, when this question came up. What I'm trying know more is whether and to what extent translation of languages imposes some particular view of the translators on the ethnic minorities, or do people from ethnic minority groups really see themselves in those terms. I can definitely say that the former exists when everyday language is translated in the (non-English speaking) place that I'm from, so I'm focusing instead on names.

The issue was partially mentioned in this post, where the OP mentioned some very interesting examples. Taking the name Crazy Horse (Tȟašúŋke Witkó in Lakota), for example. From the perspective of the language's native speakers, does the name really stresses the imagery "Crazy Horse" when spoken, or is that just the unimportant, frequently-overlooked meaning behind a "normal" name like Tȟašúŋke Witkó?

To draw an analogy: in English, everyone can understand the origin of the name "Christian", and perhaps can make some guess about the background of the individuals with such name, but I believe nowadays, no one, without some particular reason, would assume those individuals are literally devout Christians. Does this also apply in Native Americans' languages?

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    There's a related question Why are Native American names translated? and my answer there can well be an answer to your question, too: I think, the names in the other languages like Greek or Arabic that have their meaning in those languages are standardized, for example 'Abdullah' meaning 'God's Servant' was and is given to millions of people, while the Native American names are unique and individual, they are given to just one person each.
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Jun 6, 2020 at 11:10
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    That is, There are millions of people with the name 'Christian' which automatically blurs the meaning of the name, detaches its meaning from the individuals that are named with it, while as for Crazy Horse, there's just one and only Crazy Horse, it's impossible to forget what it actually means.
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Jun 6, 2020 at 11:15
  • Thanks for the input. Unfortunately there seems to be a scarcity of literature on this topic. Hopefully others can contribute more to the discussion.
    – ensbana
    Commented Jun 6, 2020 at 11:32
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    This got me thinking a bit further. I agree that if a name is more or less unique, then whatever imagery or meaning the name conveys would likely be invokved when it is spoken. But that might be true only at the beginning of the individual’s life. Just as a word seems to “lose” its meaning if it is repeated out loud several times, the actual meaning of an image-invoking name might be blurred over the course of the life of the individual.
    – ensbana
    Commented Jun 6, 2020 at 20:52
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    @YellowSky that's also true of Chinese names (other than the family name at least), but when was the last time you heard of Chairman Hair Pool-of-the-East or the current President Flutter Near-Peace?
    – Tristan
    Commented Jun 8, 2020 at 9:44

1 Answer 1


This question ties into a wider sociolinguistic discussion of the cultures, traditions and customs around naming in general. The balance between conventionalisation and uniqueness / identifiability in names is a sociological construct, a function of how names are perceived in a culture, whilst the transparency and "salience" of a name is a more purely linguistic property. I'm not aware of neurolinguistic studies on naming salience though.

In many Western cultures, both Kris and Chris are diachronically derivatives of Christian, but their transparency (from a synchronic perspective) is fairly low. On the other hand, Rosie is a derivative of Rose, and its transparency is relatively high. But the question of whether these can be assumed to be the same names (referents of the same person), that is related to societal (and indeed legal) aspects of the linguistics. Would Chris and Christian, Rose and Rosie, Kris and Christian be perceived as the same person? What about Rosa and Rose?

For the specific example of 19th century Lakota, we have some clear evidence in Tȟašúŋke Witkó (lit. Crazy Horse) as to the conventionality of his name - both his father and paternal grandfather bore that name too. It could even be described as a family name of sorts.

It must also be understood that having multiple names in Lakota culture was a given, part of a wider cultural precept among indigenous North American cultures, that has been summarised as "names change as the individual changes". In the Lakota example, Tȟašúŋke Witkó was given the name Čháŋ Óhaŋ (lit. Among The Trees) at birth, and had the nicknames Pȟehíŋ Yuȟáȟa (Curly) and Žiží (Light Hair); he only received the name Tȟašúŋke Witkó after his teenage victory at war, transferred to him by his father, whilst his father thenceforth assumed the nickname Waglúla (Worm).

With this panoply of names, how can we know what the "perception" by Lakota and other Native American speakers is? Analogies with the relatively high transparency of modern Chinese names simply acknowledge that transparency and conventionality are not directly correlated. Records of Navajo in the early-20th century suggest that names based on appearance that changed over time were not conventional, but descriptive; the use of kinship terms were more usual in trading situations; the 'sacred' personal name is also cited.

Hence, the trivial answer is that the "naming culture is different". How it differs though, is a considerably more interesting question, and rather a bit outside the scope of the answer.

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