Friday, 11 December 2009

Terms of Endearment

I've been thinking about nicknames and pet names. The people that mean the most to us usually have more than one name (see my post on Sliders). This appears to contradict the mutual exclusivity bias to have only one word for each object. That is, unless we see names as social tools we use to manage our relationships with people. Morgan et al. (1979) discuss the importance of managing social relationships with nicknames, for instance using a full name with your parents and a more informal diminutive with friends. Andersen (2006) discusses nicknames as adaptive innovations that serve the speaker’s emotive expressiveness. As Jhumpa Lahir puts it in The Namesake:
In Bengali the word for pet name is daknam, meaning, literally the name by which one is called by friends, family, and other intimates, at home and in other private, unguarded moments. Pet names are a... reminder that life is not always so serious, so formal, so complicated. They are a reminder, too, that one is not all things to all people... Every pet name is paired with a good name, a bhalonam, for identification in the outside world. Consequently, good names appear on envelopes, on diplomas, in telephone directories and in all other public places.
Perhaps, then, there is a way of linking bilingualism to social grooming theory. That is, language has taken over the social role of paying attention to significant others and the more 'effort' you put into innovation, the more attentive you are perceived to be.

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