What's in a Name? A Breakdown of Somali Naming Conventions
New Year's resolution, anyone?
Ours was to evolve from a skincare company into something more! We want to forge a community based on a mutual exchange of ideas and dialogue with fellow qasil enthusiasts. As a Somali-owned company, it’s important for us to share and celebrate parts of the Somali culture that are otherwise absent from mainstream narratives. While all cultures share common milestone moments such as births, marriages, and even funerals, each of these milestones comes with its own set of customs, traditions, and quirks.
Something we all have and understand other people also have is a name.
Pretty straightforward, right? The answer is no. In Western culture, we’re accustomed to names following a precise pattern upon birth: first name, middle name[s] (optional), and surname. Typically, your first and middle names are usually chosen on the basis that your parent[s] like it, or because they want to name you after someone or something. A surname is a moniker that comes after your first name and is used to denote family lineage. Although surnames are traditionally passed down through the father, it is becoming increasingly common to pick a surname from either parent, or even to double-barrel it.
Other cultures, however, don’t follow the same naming conventions. Children in Bali, for example, are frequently given names that represent the sequence in which they were born, and those names are the same for both men and women. As a result, a firstborn child will usually be named either Wayan, Putu or Gede, while the second child will be called Made or Kadek, and so on. In Spanish-speaking cultures, children are generally given two surnames. Historically, the first name was the father’s first surname, and the second was the mother’s first surname. In recent years, parents have been able to choose which surname they wish to pass on as well as the order in which they appear.
As with any culture, Somalia has its own naming conventions that are steeped in centuries-old tradition. The following is the standard Somali name format: first name, the father’s first name, and the paternal grandfather’s first name. Somali naming conventions do not include surnames in the way we understand them in Western society. For this reason, members of the same immediate family may appear to have completely different names. For instance, if the father’s name is Mohammed Abdi Ahmed, his son may be Ali Mohammed Abdi, while his daughter could be Fadumo Mohammed Abdi. In Somali culture, it is not customary for women to adopt their husband’s name. It is considered a gesture of respect to her family genealogy and history that she keeps her birth name, which is a composite of her father and grandfather’s names. As such, it is unlikely that the mother will have the same name as her husband or her children – unless, of course, her father or grandfather shares a name with her husband’s respective counterparts.
Somali naming conventions place particular weight on patrilineal heritage. In other words, there is flexibility when choosing a son or daughter’s first (personal) name, but it is uncommon for their second, or rather, ‘inherited’ names, to originate from the mother’s lineage.
Although Somalis refer to each other exclusively by their first names, except in formal circumstances when respect must be shown, certain adjustments are sometimes made to adapt to Western naming practices for legal documents such as birth certificates and passports. In some cases, native Somalis and those of Somali origin may choose to hyphenate their two last names. To use our previous example, Mohammed Abdi Ahmed may go by Mohammed Abdi-Ahmed, with both names becoming his legal surname. In other cases, a person may choose to make their father’s name a middle name and assume their grandfather’s name as their official surname.
There are countless nuances in any culture’s naming conventions, and new customs emerge not only because of time, but because of people extending their family trees in different geographical locations, etc. We would love to hear about the current (and evolving) naming customs in your culture! Feel free to share them with us on social media!