17 January 2012

What’s in a Name?

The western mind-set causes us to think every name, or noun, refers to some objective reality. This causes us to start with the name then try to describe or define the category, to see who goes into it. This is very confusing when you find different writers using the same word to refer to different cultural or ethnic entities.

It can lead you in the wrong direction when you assume 2 different names must refer to two distinct people groups. This confusion can lead to inadvertent discrimination when one tries to forcibly place some ethnic or social community into a predefined formal category.

Others can use their poor grasp of the factors involved to coerce or mislead others to support their prejudices against some other segment of people, defined by location, language, physical features or even economic group. In the current financial troubles, for instance, we see various groups commonly blaming the problem on foreigners or speakers of some language or other demographic definition.

Labeling with a name does not tell you much.  A name can be used by multiple groups, and various human groups with separate self-identities may be broadly known by the same name.  Different ethnic groups may speak the same language, as we find in Europe, USA and Africa.

A more productive approach is to ask how a certain word or name is used by various individuals or groups. You can find overlapping usages by different writers or inconsistencies, older terms and newer ones, etc. Especially you need to be aware of the vague lines between what we would like to be clearly different people groups. Groupings overlap.

This was the problem with the Kurds, since many sources were published before extensive updates in 1996. Even our report is now somewhat outdated, since language analysis and updates continue constantly. There is still extensive and valuable information in the chart compiled at that time.

Check out my analysis of the Kurdish cluster of people and cultures. This shows how confusing and overlapping names can be. Some groups are referred to by the name of their religious sect, locale, tribe or language. All of these designations overlap.

See also our introduction to the Yazidi people and religion, a part of the broader sphere of culture in Turkey and Mesopotamia.

A listing by ethnic name and language can be a better reference point. This is what is meant by the term "people group." This basic reference identification can then be cross-referenced to country, town, language and sect for communication access purposes.

Check out these links to resources on my website to explore the relationship between names and ethnicities, ethnicities and languages and related factors.

This blog article includes some comments originally published in February 2001 in Research Highlights, a research and culture newsletter, published in Nicosia, Cyprus

01 January 2012

Your Hand - A Blessing or an Offense

A correspondent wrote to tell of an odd experience she had in Massachusetts. An African gas station attendant became incensed when she handed him her money with his left hand. She was puzzled and asked him to explain what was wrong. This only made him more angry.

Several years ago, a missionary friend in Kenya told me of an experience he had with a Maasai acquaintance. Working with a group of church musicians in a training setting, he was getting their names. As my left-handed friend wrote the name of one of the Maasai men, the man expressed with a mildly surprised tone, "You are writing my name with your left hand!"

Many peoples of the world consider the left hand a shameful hand. This was true for many African tribes we came into contact with. Likewise in Arab culture, you must be careful how you use your left hand.

In some cultures, it is considered an offense to hand someone something with your left hand. This concept is alive in Middle East. This ancient concept is demonstrated by the name of the biblical Jacob's favorite son, Ben-Yamin (Benjamin), the Son of my Right Hand, indicating this favored position.

Read more about this concept of the shameful Left Hand of Cursing and the honored Right Hand of Blessing:
Gas-Pumping and Finger-Pointing Fiasco
The Right Hand Of Blessing
Across Cultures
How to Learn a Language and a Culture
Analyze and Compare Your Worldview