Why do I have a name?

When did our species start associating specific strings of sounds (aka names) with people? Is there a history on names? Or at least a better-reason-than-other for why I have a name?

Reported for forum change.

There is no known factual answer to the OP. People probably started naming each other as soon as we started to speak. That could have been 100k years ago or 1M years ago, or maybe even longer ago.

A good secondary question is: do other species have designated sounds for individuals?

Humpback whales come to mind as do other members of the Hominidae (Great Apes) family.

Because “Hey You” doesn’t work well once you have more than 2 people involved.

No other Great Apes do. Some whales have self-identifying aspects to their songs, but I don’t think there are any that can say “Hey Charlie” when trying to find a specific individual or get his attention. Crows have some amazing vocal abilities, but not sure if anything rises to the “Hey Charlie” level.

My two dogs definitely recognize their own names at least in some contexts. If I call “Katie come.” usually she will come and Sarah will not. If they’ve been out running for a while they often both come, but I think that is voluntary. Katie will almost invariably wag her tail if you mention her name in a conversation even if she’s not apparently listening to you but just lying on the floor.

I think, though I’m not sure, that they recognize that “Mommy” means my wife. If I say “Where’s Mommy?” they get up and go to find her.

Of course, they do not use the names themselves.

I figured it would begin around the time the first written contracts were formed, or when people first started trading goods and keeping track of it. I don’t think people had a reason to name each other in tribal hunter/gatherer situations. Pointing and gesturing probably did well in small groups. Think about wolves: they probably don’t have names for each member of the group yet they still work cohesively.

Let’s try and go further than simply assuming that wanting to name someone else is something intrinsic.

I would believe it of prairie dogs. Apparently they have names for individual foxes.

I’m on board with the Larson “Look what Og do” timeline theory.

When did we start giving words to things?

We use words so others know what we’re talking about. Words are given to everything in the environment that is worth discussing. Individual people are obviously relevant things. A name is simply a word specific to an individual.

I expect people had names when we had words for things.

But they do also certainly recognize that the other wolves are distinct. I.e. they can have a conception of “that wolf, which I can recognize by his having distinct features X, Y, and Z is one that I want to behave differently towards that other wolves (because he is the leader, or is not from our pack, or will let me have sex with them, or something)”.

Once language shows up, giving that wolf a specific name is only a small step beyond that. I expect the only reason wolves don’t name each other is because they don’t associate sounds with objects.

No. Even if the name was just “first born son” or “number 3 daughter”, or “guy who lives in the next tent”, all extant h/g societies give names to people. There is no reason to think our pre-literate ancestors behaved any differently.

Over the years, scientific studies have appeared in the popular press citing evidence that a particular species or group of animals uses unique sounds to identify specific individuals – i.e., names. Each time one of these articles appears, the reporter mentions “this is the first time this behavior has been identified outside of humans…” although they occasionally throw in “or dolphins.” Even if the previous story was carried in the same paper! It is as if people intentionally block out their memory of these studies.

I can recall such stories for birds, dolphins, and prairie dogs.

So it’s almost certain that the use of names predates modern humans, perhaps even hominids.

I agree. I think names are just an aspect of language. When our ancient ancestors were assigning words to various objects (“That’s a rock, that’s a tree, that’s a cloud”) they also felt that individual people were distinct objects that each deserved an individual word (“That’s Bob, that’s Sally, that’s Uncle Fred”).

Even the most primitive human societies have social structures that are much more conplex than wolf packs. Much of human communication serves to inform us about the social interactions between individuals, in which case names (or some type of identifier) are important.

An interesting exercise is to go through the typical conversations you have in a routine day without using any names or identifiers. It would be a frustrating day, even if the only person you talk to that day is your wife.

I suspect that this is simply humans trying to anthropomorphize animals…

BUT if this is the case, then what evolutionary explanation explains why names exist in the first place? What is the ultimate purpose of names? Replace names with identification, if you want. The question remains: What benefit would an organism derive from being able to identify each other?

But again, I suspect that naming as humans use it is a human phenomena that was invented to hold people liable for business contracts / keep track of how many bushels of grain were traded for how many sheep.

AH yes, old what’s-her-name. :wink:

Can we see some cites for these studies?


Dolphins name themselves with whistles

Baby parrots learn their names form their parents

Sperm Whales May Have Names

Prairie dogs proved harder to cite. Apparently they have a surprisingly complex language, but so far I have not found a specific claim they use names for each other. They do appear to differentiate between predators in considerable detail.

Prairie Dog Language (names not mentioned)

More on Prairie Dog Language (names not mentioned)

Timmy fell down the well.
Johnny has killed a deer.
The Redhead one sure is good looking.
Go get Heals-Well, because Younger Wife is about to have a baby.
Dang, I broke another arrowhead, I wonder if TurnsRocksIntoTools has any extra ones. OldestDaughter, please go check.

You really can’t thing of any reason, besides contracts, to be able to specifically identify another person? You can only get so far in interpersonal interactions if all you use is me, you and them.