Personal names in a Mande (Garo) village[1]


Anne Hvenekilde

University of Oslo


Caroline R. Marak

North-Eastern Hill University, Tura Campus


Robbins Burling

University of Michigan


1. Introduction


Names for people, like names for objects, can be used to accomplish two things: They can group some individuals together by calling them by the same name, or they can distinguish individuals by calling them by different names. In the west, family names group close kinsmen together, while given names distinguish the individuals within a family. Generally, western given names are chosen from a more or less limited set. Some European countries even have lists of acceptable names from which all parents are expected to select the names for their children. The stock of family names is often larger than the stock of given names, but most family names are shared by the members of many more than a single nuclear family. Given names alone serve to distinguish siblings from one another and family names are often all that are needed to identify the members of small groups of adults, but both names must be used together if individuals are to be distinguished within the larger community.

            In this article we will describe a strikingly different naming system, one that is used by a tribal people who live in the state of Meghalaya in northeastern India, and across the border in Bangladesh. These people are known to outsiders as “Garos”, but they more often call themselves “Mandes” (which in their language also means “human being”) and that is what we will call them in here. Unlike westerners, the Mandes in the village where we collected our data do not select names for their children from a well established but limited set. Quite the contrary, they deliberately choose given names that have never before, as far as they know, been used for another Mande. The result is vastly more diversity of given names than is found in the west. On the other hand, Mande “family” names, the names that indicate membership in a particular kinship group, may be shared by half of the population of a village, and by thousands of people from neighboring villages. Mande given names, then, are far more distinctive than western given names, but their “family” names associate them with much larger groups than do the family names of westerners.

            The Mandes are often thought of as a “hill tribe” because the majority of them, almost half a million, live in a hilly district of northeastern India. Some also live in the surrounding lowlands, however, and about 100,000 live in the very flat lowlands of neighboring regions of Bangladesh. The Mandes are just one of several dozen tribal people in northeastern India. Together with the other tribal people, they are distinct in several ways from the majority population of the plains. Most of the tribal people speak Tibeto-Burman languages, while the majority speaks Indo-European Assamese or Bengali. Most tribal people also lack the kind of social hierarchy that the caste system brings to most parts of India. Even in their looks, the tribal people are set apart, for they more closely resemble the people of southeast Asia than they do the other citizens of India and Bangladesh. The Mandes, along with the neighboring Khasis and a few smaller groups, are further distinguished by their matrilineal kinship system.

            Our data comes largely from the single Mande village of Rengsanggri. This village is located about 25 kilometers northeast of Tura, the headquarters town of the Garo Hills. RB studied the Mande language and the social organization of kinship in this village between 1954 and 1956 (Burling 1963, 1997a). He was able to revisit the village in early 1997, this time with AH. They took a new census and observed both the continuities and the changes that could be seen after the four decades since RB’s earlier research. RB has also done anthropological and linguistic field work among Mandes of two villages in Bangladesh (Burling 1997b), and we have supplemented our Rengsanggri data with some observations from those villages. CRM, who is a scholar of the Mande language, joined in the analysis of the material after it was collected.





2. Given names


2.1. A different name for each individual


In Rengsanggri, each given name belongs to a single individual. In January 1997, 672 people lived in the village. Of these, five were too young to have been named, but among the remaining 667 people no fewer than 655 have unique names. This leaves only twelve people, six pairs, who shared a name. One member of three of these pairs had been born in another village than Rengsanggri and moved in later. One of the names (Kinkin) is a nickname, probably not the name originally given by the parents[2]. This leaves only two “real” names that are shared by two people who were born in Rengsanggri. Clearly, the villagers make a deliberate effort to select unique names for their children, and indeed, there is a feeling that every person in the village should have his or her own unique name. This feeling seems to be widely shared among Mande villagers. In a Mande village in Bangladesh, a ten year-old girl once asked RB to tell her the names of his children. This is a stereotyped question among the Mandes, but this girl followed it up by another question that is less common. She also wanted to know the names of RB’s brothers and sisters. When she heard that his daughter and his sister shared a single name, she burst out laughing. She seemed to find this as ludicrous as would a westerner who learned of two brothers who had identical names. Like the western rule against giving the same name to two siblings, the Mande avoidance of the same name for a kinsmen or a fellow villager hardly has to be explicitly articulated. It seems to be taken so much for granted that it is rarely expressed.

           It is almost always possible to avoid reusing the names of a kinsman or fellow villager, even though these groups encompass several hundred people, but the world has over half a million Mandes, and it is impossible to know what every one of them is called. It is well recognized, therefore, that two unrelated people from different villages or different regions may turn out to have the same name, though this situation is sufficiently odd to attract attention. It is said that during the pre-British period warriors, on learning of a namesake in another village, used to challenge him to a combat to test his strength. The challenger felt that he alone merited the name. How often such challenges actually occurred is now impossible to know, but the story confirms the oddity that Mandes still feel when two people have the same personal name. Today, some educated Mandes who have the same name address each other as Mita , a word derived from Assamese. The Mande language even has a verb, mingtinga, that means “to have a name that clashes with another’s. Another, mingsika, means to compose a new name on the basis of parts of one or two other names, e.g. constructing the name Coleen from Lincoln by reversing the syllables and forgetting one n. Mandes who are familiar with western naming practices, sometimes say that there are “no names in Mande”, meaning that they have no standard and fixed forms—no names like “Robert” or “Mary” that are shared by hundreds or even thousands of English speaking people.

            The people of Rengsanggri not only avoid reusing the name of a living person, but they avoid the names of dead people as well. In the 1950’s, RB collected genealogies of all the Rengsanggri villagers, including the names of as many deceased ancestors as the people could remember. He recalls not a single instance of two related people, either dead or alive, who shared the same name. It is common in the west to name a child for a deceased relative, often a grandparent, but the Mandes in Rengsanggri follow no such practice. This is not due to any taboo on pronouncing a dead person’s name. Unlike some people, the Mandes have no more hesitation about mentioning the name of a dead person that about naming a living person, but in Rengsanggri given names are reserved for a single individual not only within that person’s lifetime, but even after death. Rengsanggri, however, remains a relatively conservative place and the prohibition of naming people for ancestors is not so strictly observed everywhere. We know people in Tura, the headquarters town, who have been deliberately named for their grandparents.

        A handful of Rengsanggri names can be linked to Mande myths and traditions, but even this is much less common than in the west where most given names have some sort of history. Among the 661 different given names used in Rengsanggri, we have been able to find only six that may have links to Mande traditions:


Songdi: This may refer to the river Songdu (Brahmaputra).


Singwil: Awil and Singwil are sisters in a myth, Singwil is a river which originates in the Ranggira region in the West Garo Hills.


Rangsi: This is the name of a god.


Rengta: This name may be derived from lengta ‘naked’. The initial l suggests that this could be a borrowed word, adapted to Mande tongues by changing it to r. Rengta was a Mande chief who ruled in the Mahendraganj area in South-west Garo Hills, on what is now the Bangladesh border, around the time when the British first reached the frontiers of Bengal in the 18th century. The name could have been given to the chief by non-Mandes, but the same name is now held by one person in Rengsanggri.


Kanjing and Waldison (Waldi) are characters in the oral epic called Katta Agana.


            These names that may be drawn from Mande tradition, make up less than one percent of the total number of the different names used in the village. The overwhelming majority of names have no link to oral history or mythology.


2.2. Phonological shape and spelling of given names


A major consideration in selecting a given name is its sound. Most names are meaningless, but people want them to sound nice. Exactly what “nice” means, of course, is a highly subjective matter, and we have never heard any explicit rules about what makes a name good or desirable. Nevertheless, by examining the names that have been given, we can gain a reasonably clear idea of what is considered acceptable.

            Mande names in Rengsanggri and elsewhere most often have two syllables. Only five Rengsanggri names were given to us in monosyllabic form--”Jem”, “Kin”, “Sen”, “Sil”, and “Ram”--and the last of these belongs to a non-Garo who moved into the village as an adult. To CRM, the native speaker among the authors, the four monosyllabic Mande names seem incomplete, truncated. More three syllable names are found than those with only one, and a few even have four, but the long names that are used for formal purposes, and that are offered to inquisitive census takers, tend in daily use, to be abbreviated to more familiar disyllables. A few names are reduplicated, (i.e. they have identical first and second syllables. See 2.6 below). Many of the reduplicated names probably began as joking-names but they have won out over more formal names in daily use. Apart from the numbers of syllables, there seem to be no restrictions on the form of a name, other than those imposed by the phonology of the Mande language. Even when names are borrowed from other languages (such as “Debi”, from Bengali Devi ‘goddess’, and “Jentilmen” from English gentleman) they are generally modified to fit Mande phonology. In this semi-literate community, given names are rarely written, and this probably eases the phonological adaptation of the name.[3]

            Most often, it is the parents of a child who choose the name, but parents sometimes ask a friend or older kinsman to make the choice. As in the west (Nuessel 1992:10), most Mande parents choose a name for their children primarily on the basis of its sound. In a few families a we can see a fondness for certain sounds and syllables, or perhaps the repetitive sounds are a way of giving unity to the group of siblings. The six siblings of one family were named: “Mentil-a” (f), “Re-pil-a” (f), “Kre-ni-ta” (f), “Rel-ip” (m), “Wil-en” (m), and “Ripja” (m). The three girls’ names have the same rhythm, each having three syllables, and the same sequence of vowels e-i-a. The three boys names have just two syllables. Other families have longer names for their boys and shorter names for their girls, and in still others no such general pattern can be found. Indication of gender by names will be described in 2.5.


2.3. The “meaning” of given names


Most of the names given to children in Rengsanggri are unique forms, newly contrived sequences of vowels, consonants, and syllables, and most of them carry no meaning, either for the speakers of the language or for the linguist who searches for etymologies. Not only do Rengsanggri people avoid names that already belong to someone else, but they also seem reluctant to use forms already used as meaningful words in the Mande language, or in any other language. In some other societies the semantic content of the name is believed to be so important that it can influence the child’s future. In the west, many names are linked to nature or to religious tradition. The Scandinavian names “Bjørn” and “Ulf”, for example, have transparent meanings (‘bear’ and ‘wolf’). English names such as “Katherine”, “John”, “Peter” and scores of others derive from the Christian tradition, and versions of these names are found throughout the western world. Even names that are no longer semantically transparent can generally be traced back to a meaningful origin, sometimes in Latin or classical Greek. Even if most westerners do not know a name’s original meaning, they are generally aware that the name, somehow, sometime, meant something. By contrast, most Rengsanggri names have no past history and they invite no search for meaning. With the exception of gender, any meaning that the name had in the donor language seems to be essentially irrelevant for the Mande borrowers.

            While the vast majority of the given names in Rengsanggri lack meaningful parts, we do find a few possible exceptions. The following forms that are found in a few names have meanings in the Mande language:


           -bat is a comparative suffix meaning ‘more’. This syllable is found in Chinbat, Rebat, Silbat, Salbat, Walingbat, and Wilbat, and it may convey a sense of ‘more’ in these names. Since the first syllables of several of these names have little obvious meaning, however, it is not clear what there is ‘more’ of.


            Chi ‘water’ is used in Namchi and Simchira. Nam means ‘good’ and sim means ‘dark, black’ so the names can be understood to mean ‘good water’ and ‘dark water’.


            Man - a truncated form of Mande meaning ‘person’ - is found in Tangman (see below), Rakman, Elman, Tuman, Tangman and some others.


            No means ‘younger sister’ or more generally ‘little girl’. It is one part of Noji, Norila, Nobi(na), Noleni, Nosen-i, Nomira, Nori-ta, and Norikchi. In Rengsanggri all the names that begin with No- are names for girls.


        Rak means ‘strong’, and it is used in Rakmi, Rakman, and Rakteng (teng ‘bright, shine’.)


        Rang means ‘gong’. Traditionally, gongs were prized heirlooms, and the names Rangan, Rangjang, and Rangsi may reflect the value of the gongs.


        Ring, when used as a suffix, connotes something that is straight and long. Possibly Ring brings this meaning to the names Ringmi, Ringnan, and Ringnon.


           Sal means ‘sun’, and it appears in Salnara (‘where the sun rises’), Salnak, Salme/Salmi, Salchi, Salseng (bright sun), Salbat (bat ‘more’),


            Seng’ means ‘bright’, and is found in Seng’mit ‘daybreak’ as well as in Salseng.[4]


            Sil means ‘pretty, handsome’, and is used in Sil, a nickname, Silba (becoming pretty), Silkami (forever handsome), Sil-o, Sil-ti-ra, Silak, Silbat (more beautiful), Silbi, Silbin, Silbira, Silcheng, Silchira, Silgra, Silmen, Silnak, Silni Teng’sil, and Teng’silbat.


            Sim ‘dark’ is found in Simchira, meaning ‘dark water’. This morpheme has been used by some Mandes in names for children with a dark complexion.


Tang ‘living, alive’ is found in Tangman and if man is taken to be an abbreviation of mande ‘human being’, it could mean ‘the person who lives’.


            Teng’a means ‘bright’ or ‘shine’, and it is found in Teng’chi, Teng’man, Teng’sil, and Teng’silbat.


            More names contain sil ‘beautiful’ than any other syllable to which it is possible to attach meaning, but it seems to be used mainly in names for children. Among the sixteen names that begin with sil, ten are for children who, according to our estimates of ages, are eight years old or younger. Sil seems to have enjoyed a wave of popularity. In addition, one of the names that was already mentioned in 2.1. as appearing in Mande traditions, also has a clear meaning: Rengta (naked).

            In sum, fewer than fifty of the 661 given names used in Rengsanggri have elements that, to CRM, might plausibly be interpreted as having semantic content. Some additional syllables, to be sure, are homophonous with meaningful words, but these are not, it seems, semantically related to that word. The phonotactic rules of Mande allow for only distinct syllables, and a large proportion of the possible syllables can be used as morphemes with readily identifiable meanings. With such a restricted range of possible syllables, and such a diversity of given names, some homophony is inevitable. Indeed, we find such a low proportion of given names that can plausibly be interpreted to contain elements that are meaningful in the language, that we suspect those who bestow names try, deliberately or otherwise, to stay away from meaningful words, just as they most often avoid personal names that have already been used. With so many syllables already preempted for the general vocabulary, however, it is not always possible to avoid them when inventing a name.

            Onomastic discussions about the relationship between names and other kinds of words, have tended to focus on the question of whether the meaning of names extends beyond their reference to the particular individual who is named. Do names connote as well as denote?


The question whether names have meaning in the way that other words have meaning has been central to most discussions of the relationship between names and other words (appellatives) for hundreds, if not thousands of years. The question found an extreme answer in Sir Alan Gardiner’s dictum: “The purest of proper names are wholly arbitrary and totally without significance,” although he admits that “the fact that ... names [like Smith and Brown] have some significance does detract a little, but only a little from their purity” (Gardiner 1954:19).

                                                                        (Nicolaisen 1995:388)


            In this sense, the given names in Rengsanggri are extremely “pure”. Nevertheless, the fact that most Mande names have no “meaning” does not imply that their given names lack significance for a person’s fortune in life. Now and then, people feel that their names have brought them bad luck. Occasionally when they have been seriously ill, or when they have survived some other grave difficulty, they attribute their misfortune to their name, and they then deliberately select a new one. After one Rengsanggri woman broke her arm, she changed her name, perhaps as a way of signaling a new beginning.


2.4. Names of foreign origin


While the majority of the given names in Rengsanggri are original creations, constructed for the individual children, a few villagers have names whose origin is foreign. Two non-Mande men who had married Rengsanggri women were living in the village at the time of our census. One is a Nepali Hindu, the other a Bengali Muslim, and of course, their given names, “Ram” and “Ali”, derive from their background. Several Mandes also have names of foreign origin. As far as we can tell, these foreign names have little or no cultural significance. Since the Mandes in Rengsanggri search quite deliberately for names that have never been used before, foreign names must have a certain appeal. They may have a pleasing sound and they will almost certainly be novel. The fact that the Mandes generally attach little cultural or semantic meaning to their names, probably makes borrowing easy. Of course even foreign names are adapted to the phonology of the villagers’ language, although the adaptation is not always complete. In older Garo words, for example, l occurred only as syllable final and s only as syllable initial, yet we find the names Lusi, Mohes, and Rakes among the names in Rengsanggri. The initial l and the final s’s help to reveal the foreign source of the names, English and Bengali, but even without such unambiguous signs, the origin of the names is often clear.


The following names show influence from non-Mande neighbors, primarily Bengalis.


Albin-at                      Indira                         Mal-i-ni                      Nori-ta

Bi-na                           Ja-mindro                  Mi-nal                         Pria

Bijonsing                    Jasinta                        Mi-nu                         Ra-kes

Bisonsing                   Jisinta                         Mi-ta                           Rahen

Bri-nat                        Jol-endro                   Mina                           Raju

Debi                            Jolmi-nat                    Mo-noronjon            Roji-ni

Diren                          Kabi-ta                       Mohes                        Ronjon

Hema                         Kiran                          Mo-nen                      Ru-ma

                                    Majobal-a                  No-mira                     Sa-mir



Here “No-mira” and “Nori-ta” seem to combine the Mande word No ‘little sister’ and with Mira and Rita from Assamese or Bengali.

            The following names show western influence. We spell them as pronounced in Rengsanggri, but their source should be clear:


Anjela                         Eljin                            Johon                         Pil-ipson

Bal-nadet                   Gos-pel                      Jo-nes                         Pil-ison

Benja-min                  Han-na                       Josi-pen                      Rubi-na

Bringston                   Jentilmen                   Lusi

Debid                         Jerom                         Nekson


In addition to the names themselves, some of the suffixes that distinguish gender (see 1.4) are borrowed from other languages. The most frequent suffix for male names is, -son, which was probably borrowed from English family names like “Johnson” and “Peterson”, while -ta as in “Mi-ta”, -dro as in “Jolendro”, and -nat (from -nath) as in “Jolmi-nat”, all have Indic origins. They may be joined either to genuine foreign names, or to invented sequences of sound.

            The borrowing of foreign names has been longer established in areas where literacy is older than in Rengsanggri. Literacy has come to Rengsanggri only since RB’s visit in the 1950’s, and at that time only three of the 148 married residents of Rengsanggri had names that appear to have been fully or partially borrowed (“Rujoni”, “Morison”, and “Wilson”). In 1997, the 43 names listed above, plus 63 others that have borrowed suffixes, show foreign influence, about half from Indic languages and half from English. The average age of the people with names borrowed from the Indic languages of the plains is higher than that of people with names borrowed from English, so a shift in the most frequent source of borrowing seems to have taken place.

            We have heard of a number of Mandes from other areas than Rengsanggri who have received the names of famous foreigners. One Mande has been named “Truman”, and another “Hitler”. We doubt if either name was bestowed in admiration of the original name holder. We know a woman named “Kohima” after an important town in the Indian state of Nagaland. None of her family had any connection with the town, but the sound was pleasing. We know a man who spells his name Division (pronounced Di-bi-son), a name that is probably safely unique. Other people have quite ordinary western given names, or names constructed from western parts, e.g. Wilson, Jackson (pronounced Jekson), Welington, Milikson, Robert, Natasha, Joanna, and Melissa. Mandes write their language in the Roman alphabet and literate people always spell these name according to English conventions, even if they pronounce them differently. Borrowed names seem always to be given to children of the same gender as foreign bearers of the name. The character of the earlier name holder may not matter, but the gender does.


2.5. Given Names and Gender


The conventional given names used in western countries generally indicate, unambiguously, the gender of the named person. We know that Gary is a man and that Mary is a woman, but the gender of someone with a made-up name such as “Dary” would not be obvious. For the majority of the names in Rengsanggri, however, it is possible to make reasonable guesses about gender, even though the names are made up. Gender is most often indicated by the name’s last syllable. By noting the names assigned to males and females in Rengsanggri, and by taking advantage of CRMs intuitive familiarity with Mande naming practices, we see that a number of final syllables indicate gender quite clearly.

            In Rengsanggri, the following final syllables, given in order of decreasing frequency, are used primarily in names for girls and women.





13 (+ 2 male names[5])


31 (+ 2 male names)


11 (+ 3 male names)








4 (+ 1 male name)










15 (+ 2 male names)




208 of the 323 different female names in Rengsanggri, 64 % of the total, have one of these final syllables.

            Other final syllables indicate male gender. None of these are used in any names of girls or women.



















































            180, or 53%, of the 338 male names in Rengsanggri have one of the suffixes in this table.

            If we consider the final phonemes of the names rather than the final syllables, even more general patterns become apparent. Among the male names in Rengsanggri, no fewer than 266 (88%) end in either -n or -ng, while only 13 females have names have these final consonants. Oddly perhaps, -m is not used in the way the other nasals are. Only 7 male and 3 female names end in -m. Only 1% of male names end in a vowel, but no fewer than 83% of female names do so, the most frequent vowels being -a or -i. It is odd, however, that -jak is one of the most common indicators of femininity in Rengsanggri. We have no reason to suppose that gender marking is a recent innovation. Even the oldest people whom RB knew in Rengsanggri in the 1950’s often had names that unambiguously fit their gender.

         Before we undertook the present analysis, CRM, who had not been acquainted with the inhabitants of Rengsanggri, guessed the gender of all the given names of the villagers. Her guesses about gender were correct for 232 female names and 246 male names. She classified only 34 names incorrectly, but she was uncertain about the remaining 149 and did not attempt to classify them. Altogether she was able to classify 72% of the names correctly on the basis of her native competence, intuitions and knowledge of Mande naming practice. Among the 20 male names that she classified as feminine, 13 ended in a vowel, and among the 14 female names that she classified as masculine, only one did so. Thus the intuitions of a Tura resident were quite good, but not perfect. Clearly there are regional differences in naming practices. One of the common feminine endings for Rengsanggri names, -ji, was not familiar to CRM, and she did not identify it as an indicator of gender. On the other hand, Mandes in a village in Bangladesh, much further from Rengsanggri than Tura where CRM lives, were also, more often than not, able to guess the gender of Rengsanggri names, so there appear to be widespread patterns within which local variation occurs. Just how widespread the individual gender markers are remains to be determined. Studies from larger sets of names and from other villages might reveal additional patterns.


2.6. Temporary names and Joking-names (mingkilakas)


Babies are not always named immediately after birth, and even after a baby has been given a name, people tend to avoid using it until the child is past the period of highest infant mortality. Even small babies need to be called something, however, and baby girls are often called Nono (from no ‘younger sister’) while baby boys are called Jojong (from jong ‘younger brother’). Babies may be called Nono or Jojong until a younger brother or sister arrives, often sometime after the older child is about two years old. Then, if the new baby has the same gender, the baby name will be passed on.

            Some Mandes have two or even three given names. These are alternatives and are never used together. One of the given names may be the “real” name, that is the name given by the parents or by someone else at the parent’s request. Another may be referred to as a mingkilaka, a ‘nickname’, or a bit more literally, a ‘joking-name’. Some mingkilakas are reduplications. In Rengsanggri ten names were reduplications (such as “Kinkin”, “Tiktik”, and “Benben”) and some of these may be joking-names. When taking the census we were not concerned with joking-names, so the exact status of the reduplicated names cannot be known without a return visit to the village. Most joking-names are acquired in infancy. Later, they are most often dropped in favor of the individual’s real name, but some continue to be used throughout adulthood, and they may be used more often than the more formal given name. A few individuals are referred to now by one name, now by another, apparently quite randomly. We have never been confused by a name that was used for two individuals, but we have often been confused by two names that were used, on different occasions, for the same individual.



2.7. When and how Mandes are named


Mandes in the Garo Hills have no tradition of formal or elaborate naming ceremonies, and not much significance seems to be attached to the act of naming in itself. RB noted that in Rengsanggri in the 1950s the midwife sometimes gave the baby a name, but by the 90’s the parents, or someone else who was invited by the parents, might give a name instead, and it seems unlikely that, even in the 50’s, naming practice was uniformly fixed. The decision about who is to give the name simply does not seem to be a terribly important matter. In a village a few kilometers east of Rengsanggri the two non-Mande authors of this article visited, quite by chance, a household where a baby had been born on the previous day. They had never before visited this home, or even the village, and they had not been acquainted with the family. Nevertheless, the father urged them to give the baby its name.

            In Bangladesh, Mandes who are Catholics are given baptismal names, almost always biblical. The priest, having a greater familiarity with biblical names, may select the name himself, and parents seem willing to accept his decision, though the priest may consult with the parents before the ceremony. Occasionally these baptismal names become the ordinary given name that is used for everyday purposes, but more often a quite different name is used in daily address and reference. In Bangladesh this everyday name is known by the Bengali term dak name. This term is sometimes translated as “nickname” but it is quite different from a mingkalaka which is more frivolous and more accurately translated as ‘joking name’. Dak names are simply the names used for everyday purposes. For most people, the dak name is used on all except the most formal, legal, or ceremonial occasions.

            In Rengsanggri no one seemed to have received a biblical name, or any new name, upon conversion to Christianity. The majority of the people living in Rengsanggri are now Baptists. The Baptists do not give the converts a new name at baptism, and the baptismal records of the Baptist congregation of Rengsanggri contained the same Mande names that had already been used by the people. The baptismal names recorded for the oldest people in the village were the same as those used when RB recorded them forty years earlier, well before the arrival of Christianity. The people reported the same names when our census was done in 1997.




3. Names for Ma’chongs and Exogamous Groups


In additional to their given names, Mandes all have two names that identify the larger matrilineal kinship groups to which they belong. These kinship labels are acquired at birth and they are retained, unchanged, throughout a man or woman’s lifetime. To describe the Mandes as “matrilineal”, is a way of saying that individuals are automatically assigned to the kinship group of their mother. As this implies, they also belong to the same group as their brothers and sisters, their mother’s brothers and sisters, their mother’s mother, and all other kinsmen who are related through women. The Mandes themselves do not call the words for their kinship groups “names”. More precisely, they do not call them bimung, which is the Mande word that most often translates “name”. When Mandes speak English, and often when they speak Mande as well, the words that label their kinship groups are generally referred to as “titles” although they have little in common with the “Mr.”, “Mrs.”, “Dr.”, and “Captain”, that are called “titles” by English speakers in Britain and America. To fully identify someone, Mandes use the given name followed by the “titles” of their kinship groups.

            Every Mande belongs to a named matrilineal kinship group known as a ma’chong. Several hundred Mande ma’chongs could probably be listed, though any single village generally has only a few, and in many villages most or all of the women belong to no more than three or four. Often, more than half the women of a village belong to a single ma’chong, the one one that is recognized as the central ma’chong of that village.

            Everyone, then, both men and women, belongs permanently to a ma’chong, always the mother’s. In addition, the ma’chongs are grouped into a smaller number of much larger named groups. The two largest of these are called “Sangma” and “Marak”, and in some Mande regions, everyone belongs to one of these two. This is the case in Rengsanggri. In such regions, it is, or at least it used to be, the rule that a Sangma was not allowed to marry a Sangma nor a Marak to marry a Marak. All marriages joined people from opposite groups. In other parts of the Mande area, other smaller groupings of ma’chongs have less restrictive marriage rules. The most widespread of these additional groups is called “Momin”, while two others, “Shira” and “Areng”, are even smaller. These groups all allow marriage to someone from any of the other four groups, but marriage within their own group is forbidden. The word chatchi has sometimes been used for the larger exogamous groups of Sangma, Marak, and the rest, but at least in some dialects chatchi has the more general meaning of ‘kinsmen’, so we will simply call them “exogamous groups”.

            Every Mande, then, has a given name, a ma’chong name (or title) and a name of one of the exogamous groups, most often either “Sangma” or “Marak”. For formal purposes, Mandes who live in the Garo Hills identify themselves by these three names. Thus a man might be known as “Jengnon A’gitok Sangma” and he could be married to “Ringmi Chambigong Marak”. “A’gitok” and “Chambigong” are names (or “titles”) of ma’chongs that belong respectively to the Sangma and Marak exogamous groups. Often the ma’chong name is abbreviated so that these people might be identified as “Jengnon A. Sangma” and “Ringmi Ch. Marak” (Ringmi sea-eych Marak). People readily refer to one another in this way, and this is how their names appear in official records. Even the given name is occasionally abbreviated to an initial, so that a list of Mande authors in a table of contents could include, J. A. Sangma, R. Ch. Marak, and B. N. Momin, followed by a few other Sangmas and Maraks with a scattering of Momins and others. In a few formal circumstances that come with modern life, people may even be identified and addressed as “Mr. Sangma”, “Mrs. Marak”, or “Dr. Momin”, but since neither men nor women change their ma’chong membership or any part of their name at marriage, Mrs. Marak is likely to be married to Mr. Sangma. In ordinary village life, such modern ways of talking are rare, though they are well known.

            People have surely been identifying themselves by their ma’chong and their exogamous group membership since long before the British introduced the written records that require formal names, but we do not know when people first began to join their three names in a string, as they so easily do today. Perhaps that practice began only during the British period, but it may be much older and it is certainly well established now. Superficially, these Mande names appear to conform closely to western practice. A given name comes first and a “family” name comes at the end. Even the middle initial looks strikingly western, or at least American.

            The apparent conformity of these names to western practice hides a deeper difference however. The ma’chong names and the names for the exogamous groups both stand for groups that are important in the daily life of the people. The number of ma’chongs represented in any village is generally limited, so that dozens or even hundreds of people in a village generally belong to the same ma’chong. The ma’chongs provide much of the social framework for village life.

            Because such a small number of ma’chongs are found in each village, the ma’chong titles are much less helpful in distinguishing people from one another than are western family names. Instead of distinguishing individuals from one another, the ma’chong titles bind the members of that ma’chong together. The members of a ma’chong who live in a single village or in a single group of neighboring villages depend upon one another. They are jointly responsible for one another’s behavior and they gather at times of crisis to solve family problems.

            The names of the exogamous groups do even less to distinguish individuals from one another. In many villages, exactly half the married people are Sangmas, and the other half Maraks. These titles hardly distinguish individuals at all, and with Sangmas and Maraks mixed together wherever Garos live, they cannot possibly act as independent social groups. Nevertheless, they do regulate marriage and they govern the use of kinship terms. All Sangmas of roughly the same age are, in an extended sense, regarded “brothers” and sisters”, and no Sangma should think of finding a spouse from among the Sangmas, even if no direct relationship can be traced.

            The Mandes in the two villages in Bangladesh where RB has lived use their titles in a slightly different way than those who live in Rengsanggri. In particular, they less often use “Sangma” and “Marak” as if they are family names. If they lived in Bangladesh, Jengnon and Ringmi would probably identify themselves simply as “Jengnon A’gitok” and “Ringmi Chambigong” and a few people in the Garo Hills do the same. Even in Bangladeshi villages, of course, people are clear about the exogamous group to which their ma’chong belongs, but in identifying someone, they rarely add the name of that larger group to the name of the ma’chong. Nevertheless “Marak” and “Sangma” do find their way into official government records in Bangladesh just as they find their way into Indian records (Singh 1996: 28).


4. Uses of names


Given names are not the only words that Mandes use to refer to others or to address them, and the several alternatives to the given names greatly complicate the choices that speakers must make. Ma’chong names such as “A’gitok” and “Chambigong”, and exogamous group names such as “Marak” and “Sangma” are not, of course, used when addressing familiar people, or even when referring to people in everyday conversation, but even given names may be avoided. Everyone addresses children by their given names, and older people can, without discourtesy, use given names when addressing people whom they know well or who are substantially younger than themselves. Good friends of about the same age can use given names with each other, though this is surely easier between two men or between two women, than between a man and a woman. Except with younger people or close friends, however, Mandes find ways to avoid given names in direct address. Indeed, it would be a distinct discourtesy, an unwarranted presumption of intimacy or superiority, to call someone much older than oneself by a given name. Even husbands and wives rarely call each other by given names. The few who do, are quite self-consciously defying the established rules and striving for some sort of modernity.

            Mandes even place some restrictions upon the use of one’s own name. It is mildly impolite to ask people directly for their names. People may prefer not to mention their name, and they will occasionally hesitate at a cautious inquiry and say, modestly “my name is not good”. It is more polite to ask a third person for a name, and, in this case, there is no reluctance to answer. On the other hand, there is no discourtesy in asking about another’s ma’chong, and it is difficult for two Mandes to deal with each other if they do not know each other’s ma’chongs.

            The two most important alternatives to given names are kinship terms and terms constructed from the name of one’s oldest child. When people first become parents, or at least when the oldest child first receives a name, others immediately begin to address them as “mother of so-and-so” or “father of so-and-so”. If the first child is a daughter named “Baljak”, the parents will henceforth be addressed as Baljakma and Baljakpa, ‘mother and father of Baljak’. Once they have become parents this gives husbands and wives a suitably friendly way to address each other, and it is generally these terms that they will use with each other for the rest of their lives. When asked what they called each other before their first child was born, some Mandes laugh and admit that the best that they could manage was oy!, approximately equivalent to the English hey! So regularly are older people addressed and referred to by their son’s or daughter’s name, that young people are often entirely ignorant of the real names of fellow villagers who are a generation or more older than themselves. The child’s name almost becomes the name of the parents. Sometimes even a mingkilaka may become the name of the parents. We know of a couple in a Mande village who are called “Dengguma” and “Denggupa”. Literally, Denggu means “naughty person” though it is often used for small children in a teasing and affectionate way. “Denggu” became the mingkilaka of this couple’s first child, and so, by extension, they became “Dengguma” and “Denggupa”.

            The second way to avoid a given name is to use a kinship term. Two Mandes can always find some sort of real or fictive kinship tie that unites them. They may find that their grandfathers had some relationship or one person may be able to find a distant cousin who has married into the ma’chong of the other’s uncle. If no closer connection can be found, people can always fall back on their Sangma-Marak membership. Two Sangmas of approximately the same age will count as siblings, and they can use sibling terms for each other. A younger Sangma can call a Sangma of an older generation mama, the term for mother’s brother, and a Sangma can call an older Marak man by one of the terms for father’s brother. A Sangma woman can address a Marak woman as sari ‘sister-in-law’ even if no real kinship tie can be traced. Someone who has attained the dignity of age can be addressed respectfully as ambi ‘grandmother’ or achu ‘grandfather’.

            Rengsanggri can be characterized as a semi-literate village. Many villagers have gone to school and cracked the code of literacy, but very few actually read, either for practical purposes or for pleasure. However, some Mandes from other villages and from the towns of the Garos Hills take part in local and national politics, give public speeches and publish newspaper articles, textbooks, and works of scholarship. The names used in these contexts often include only the author’s initials and the name of the exogamous group: S. A. Sangma, or J. P. Marak. Since the majority of Mandes are either Sangmas or Maraks, these public names seem almost to hide the identity of the authors. Ironically, the uniquely individual given names are obscured by being reduced to their initials. In spite of their apparent similarity to western names, therefore, the real information conveyed by Mande names is very different. For private purposes, westerners are content with names like “Robert” and “Mary” which they share with hundreds or thousands of other people, but for public purposes they become R. L. Mandelson or M. G. Carpenter, names that are unique or nearly so. Mande given names are close to unique. Their public names seem almost anonymous.


5. Closing remarks


Rengsanggri can be described as a fairly conservative village, and we do not know how much variation in naming practices can be found among villages or among the villages and the towns in the area. Studies of names used by educated Mandes of the towns might reveal different patterns and perhaps a higher proportions of names with a foreign origin than we have found in Rengsanggri.

            We do know that the Mandes who live in Bangladesh have come under more insistent pressures from other societies than have those who live in Rengsanggri. They have given up slash and burn farming in favor of wet rice cultivation, educational achievement is better than in Rengsanggri, and in addition to their native Mande, virtually everyone speaks Bengali reasonably well. One sign of these “modern” influences is that a high proportion of Bangladeshi Mandes have names of Bengali or western origin. Another sign is that a few Mandes in Bangladesh are beginning to worry about the loss of their culture and their distinctive identity. A few even begin to criticize the practice of giving their children “foreign” names. They would like to see more people selecting “real” Mande names.

            Two people in Bangladesh have asked RB if he could provide them with a list of Mande given names. One of these people is a well educated Mande woman who is much concerned with the preservation of her people’s culture. The other is a foreign missionary who is similarly concerned with helping the Mandes to maintain their identity and way of life. For both of them, the use of so many foreign names seems to symbolize the insistent pressure of the impinging cultures. Resisting these names seems to be one symbolic means of maintaining the Mande heritage.

           As this article should have made clear, however, a list of genuine and “traditional” Mande names would be very short. In Rengsanggri, most names are not traditional but made up, constructed anew each time a new child arrives. What is traditional is the search for something new and unique. The use of a Bengali or English name is one way of finding a name that, within the community, is unique. Mande villagers in Bangladesh seem to have preserved the idea that each person should have a unique given name. The ten year-old who found it so hilarious that RB’s daughter and sister had the same name lived in Bangladesh, and other Bangladeshi Mandes have expressed their dislike of the situation where two people have the same name. Nevertheless, giving their children names that they recognize to be Bengali or western, encourages the idea that names are drawn from a fixed inventory. It is then only a short step to wondering if there was not once a fixed inventory of Mande names as well.

            A few thoughtful and educated Mandes in Bangladesh have started to give “Mande” names to their children once again. These are names that sound like Mande words, or that at least do not sound obviously Bengali or English. Some are names of old Mande gods, and some are words that have easily recognizable meanings in Mande. Unfortunately, we do not know enough of these names to make confidant generalizations about them, but as time passes, it is not unlikely that a growing number of people will want to use the symbolism of their children’s names as a means of asserting their self-identification as Mandes. It is a clear and easy way signal their differences from the majority population. In their very urge to be “traditional”, however, they may loose the even more traditional inventiveness that allowed totally new names to be constructed for each new child. Is it more traditional, to give a child a Bengali name that no Mande child has ever had before, or to give a name with a transparent Mande etymology? What is traditional and what is innovative is rarely obvious. What is most striking about the Mande naming traditions that we have found in Rengsanggri, however, is the search for a unique name for each unique individual. This tradition is still very much alive.


5. Bibliography


Burling, Robbins 1963, 1997a: Rengsanggri: Family and Kinship in a Garo Village. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2nd ed. Tura, West Garo Hills, Meghalaya: Tura Book Room.


Burling, Robbins 1997b: The Strong Women of Modhupur. Dhaka: The University Press Limited.


Napbolani Tarik [Data of Baptism. Hand written records of the Baptist Church in Rengsanggri.]


Nicolaisen, Wilhelm F.H. 1995: “Name and Appellative”. In Eichler, Ernst; Gerold Hilty; Heinrich Löffler; Hugo Syeger; and Ladislav Zgusta (eds.): Namenforschung/Name Studies/Les noms propres. 1. Teilband/ Volume 1/Tome 1. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyer.


Nuessel, Frank 1992: The Study of Names: A Guide to the Principle and Topics. Westport, Co.: Greenwood Press.


Singh, K. Suresh 1996: Communities, segments, synonyms, surnames and titles. Delhi: Anthropological Survey of India, Oxford University Press.




[1] We are indebted to Professor Botolv Helleland for the useful comments he made, after reading an earlier draft of this paper. We would also like to thank Professor Milton Sangma, for many kinds of help, both formally in his capacity of Pro Vice Chancellor of the Tura campus of North-Eastern Hill University and informally as a supportive friend and colleague. And of course our greatest debt is to the wonderfully hospitable people of Rengsanggri who have taught us so much.

[2] Although a nickname, Kinkin has no more meaning than any other name.

[3] The Mande spelling conventions that we use in this article are close to the way in which literate Mandes now write their language. While this spelling is, on the whole, very well adapted to the language, it is limited in one way. Conventional orthography does not indicate syllable boundaries, even though these can be crucial to the phonology. Names like “Di-nil-a” and “Di-ni-la” are pronounced quite differently even though they would be spelled identically. We have, therefore, inserted hyphens whenever the spellings might otherwise give ambiguous readings When the phonotactic rules allow only a single interpretation, we omit the hyphen. Since the glottal stop can occur only at the end of a syllable, while b, d, g, ch [c], j [j] r, h and, except in some borrowed words s, can occur only at the beginning, the hyphen would often be redundant. Sequences of two consonants that occur between vowels generally have the syllable break between them. In the conventional orthography a raised circle, or sometimes an apostrophe, is used for the glottal stop, and we follow that convenient practice here.

[4] The glottal stop, shown by the apostrophe, always drops in the second syllable of a word.

[5] Rikchi is the name of a male character in the oral epic of Katta Agana.