In Ethiopia, people have long used something called “house names.” They’re nicknames that family members give to one another. Traditionally, they have symbolic meanings. But the nature of those names is changing.
Kalkidan Hailemariam, a 19-year-old broadcast journalism student at the University of Addis Ababa, says her parents started calling her by her house name, Mitu, when she was about one year old.“I didn’t know the meaning. Even my parents didn’t know what it means,” Kalkidan says.
“I really like [my house name]. When someone calls me Kalkidan, I don’t even turn my face,” she says.
Zelealem Leyew, a professor of linguistics at the University of Addis Ababa, says Mitu is a fairly typical house name for someone of Kalkidan’s age.
“We have these short and precise home names, like Tutu and Chuchu,” Zelealem says.
“And this, in linguistics, we call it reduplication – you just reduplicate or double a syllable,” he says.
Reduplication is common in many languages – from Chinese to Finnish to Maori. But Zelealem says it’s a new phenomenon in Ethiopia.
For centuries, Ethiopians have used long and colorful names, with symbolic meanings. They often bestow blessings or well wishes, or define the relationship between parent and child. Zelealem says that’s still the case in rural villages.
“If you go to the rural dwellers, they still enjoy giving names—these long names with meaning, with expressive power,” Zelealem says.
“They call them, Yene Geta, My Lord; Yene Gasha, My shield; Yene Shegga, My Beautiful or My Pretty,” he says.Zelealem says no one knows exactly why these traditional house names are being replaced by shorter, cutesier names. But he suspects it has to do with Western influence. Ethiopia was relatively isolated from the West for centuries, but Europeans started coming here in large numbers in the 20th century.
“When they came to Ethiopia as missionaries, visitors, travelers, or scholars, they came with their languages,” Zelealem says.
“As a result of contact among speakers of different languages, we inherit names from other languages, and we donate, probably, names to other languages,” he says.
Zelealem says it’s a shame that so many Ethiopians are now using house names that don’t have meaning, and don’t have Ethiopian roots. But he acknowledges that there is a practical advantage to the shorter names – and that might explain their popularity in the cities.
“It is easier to call your baby girl Titi or Lili than Yelf Wagash or Yat’re Ida, which is relatively very long,” Zelealem says.
Eyosias Girma, a first-year student at the University of Addis Ababa, says all the kids in his family have short house names.
“My brother is Sweet,” he says.
“It’s because my mom used to eat a lot of sweet things when she was pregnant. My sister, she is Amen. Amen – let it happen.”
Eyosias says his own house name, Pio, doesn’t have a meaning. It was just something his sister started calling him. But the fact that it has no meaning doesn’t bother him. And he says it certainly doesn’t make him feel any less Ethiopian.
Note from Patrick Cox: listen to the audio file above for more from Linguistics Professor Zelealem Leyew, who himself has four house names. Also in the podcast, a proposed new marriage law would bring new rules for surnames.