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As a dabbling polyglot, I've found myself learning the basics of several languages over the course of my lifetime. One of the first things that is taught in any language is personal introductions. I was struck recently by the fact that English is the only language I have learned that uses the construction

What is your name?

Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Chinese all use some variation of

How are you called?

I'm told that Russian has something approximating "What is your name?" but it is sounds archaic to use it. The modern version is closer to "What are you called?"

So I'm curious. How did English end up with a phrase that is so different than the rest?

N.B. I am not interested in opening a can of worms regarding social conventions. Regardless of how blunt we may consider the use of "What is your name?" in a social context, English speakers would find it exceedingly odd to use "How are you called?" in its place. If it helps, let's forget the introductory aspect, and think of "What is his name?" versus "How is he called?"

UPDATE: So far it looks like Old and Middle English used a phrase similar to German and Scandinavian countries. Monica Cellio says that Modern Hebrew has this "What is your name" construction as well. Is there any evidence that this new phrasing might have been picked up in Early Modern English, perhaps after the introduction of the King James Version of the Bible?

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As far as I know, in formal speech English also tend to something like How should/can I call/address you. –  Philoto Jun 6 '11 at 12:39
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I don't really see how this question can be explored without mostly talking about social conventions. People's names are powerful things, and the way any particular language handles things in that area is likely to be circumspect, to say the least. –  FumbleFingers Jun 6 '11 at 12:46
    
It may be unusual but it's not unique to English; modern Hebrew also uses "what is [your, his, etc] name?". (Biblical Hebrew often has the "called" construction.) –  Monica Cellio Jun 6 '11 at 12:48
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Dutch and German have a special verb for this, heten and heißen, respectively. You could translate them as "be named/called", but that's really a different construction. Dutch: Hoe heet je? / Wie ben je? Wat is je naam [this is an emphatic question]? — Ik heet / ik ben / mijn naam is Cerberus. –  Cerberus Jun 6 '11 at 13:03
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@Kit. As a native speaker of Spanish, I'd say that "¿Cuál es tu nombre?" is pretty common and by no means archaic or contrived (it traslates literally as "which is your name", so the structure is almost identical to its English counterpart). –  Juan Pablo Califano Jun 6 '11 at 22:01
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4 Answers

up vote 20 down vote accepted

There are some reasons to believe that this peculiarity of today's English can be ascribed to the influence of Celtic Languages with which English has been in contact for the last 1500 years.

Celtic influence

Here are a few examples:

  • In Scottish Gaelic, you ask someone’s name by saying “Dè an t-ainm a tha ort?”, literally “What’s the name that's on you?”.
  • In Irish it would be “Cad is ainm duit?” (formal) – “What name do you do?”.
  • Or informally, in Irish again, “Cén t-ainm atá ort?”, lit. “What's the name on you?”.
  • In Breton (of France) “Petra eo da anv?”, lit. “What is your name?”.
  • CornishPuth yw dha hanow?”, “What is your name?”.
  • Welsh (formal): “Beth ydych enw chi?”, “What is name you?”.
  • Welsh (informal), “Beth ydy dy enw di?”, “What is your name from?”.
  • Welsh (informal), “Beth yw dy enw?”, “What is your name?”.

General Celtic Influence

Several linguists including J R R Tolkien have claimed that there is a British Isles Sprachbund incorporating English and the Celtic languages. For instance the “I am working”, “I was working” is common in Welsh and Irish, but you can’t say “Ich bin arbeitend” in German.
See the book "The Celtic Roots of English" for more of these.

The Old English way of asking "what's you name" was Germanic

If you had a kind of Rosetta Stone handbook to learn Old English what would you find? Well there are actually a few ones on the net. Here is one. And what do you think the title for the first question is? Sure enough: “Hu hattest þu?”. Literally "How call you" (In German the verb heißen can be both intransitive "Wie heißt du?", or transitive).
So indeed when the Saxons and the Angles landed in the south East of the British Isles they still used the Germanic construction, which other answers and comments have shown, is still in use today in many Germanic languages.
For instance, out of 91 riddles in the 10th century codex Exoniensis, I've counted 13 occurrences of “Saga hwæt ic hatte” (“Say how I[am] called”) and 5 “Frige hwæt ic hatte” (“Guess how I [am] called”).

When did it all change ?

This is trickier but it is supposed to be during Middle English, the period between 1066 and 1450. I'd like to cite two excerpts of the book Beginning Old English (Carole Hough and John Corbett ).

  1. The harrying of the north: The Norman French, themselves descendants of Vikings, led by William the Conqueror, over-ran the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and extended their territory throughout the Danelaw as far as the northern kingdom of Scotland.

    In their vicious land-grab the Normans depopulated whole areas of Northumbria, carrying out an ethnic displacement later called ‘the harrying of the north’. Refugees from the defeated Anglo-Saxon dynasty fled with their retainers and servants to the court of the Celtic-speaking Scots in Edinburgh. There the Anglo-Saxon Princess Margaret married the widower King Malcolm. The speech of Queen Margaret and the Northumbrian refugees would eventually spread out over the Scottish lowlands, and become the basis of the lowland Scots tongue.

  2. And a similar one taking place after the harrying of the north:

    For around two centuries after the establishment of Norman rule in England, English was spoken but relatively seldom written. Even so, the influence of English continued to spread. Although Scotland was a separate kingdom, King David, the heir of Malcolm and Margaret, established peaceful relations with many powerful Norman barons, granting them land in the Scottish lowlands. These barons brought with them many English-speaking retainers, mainly from northern England, where there was a strong Norse influence. A distinct variety of the language, first known as ‘Inglis’ and much later as ‘Scottis’, evolved. Today, the pronunciation and vocabulary of the lowland Scots language is often very close to its Old English (OE) origins, as in ‘hoose’, ‘moose’ and ‘coo’ (OE hus, mus, cu)

This is consistent with a change occurring in Middle English. I find other explanations of the Celtic substrate re-emerging less convincing because of the 5 century gap between the invasion of the Anglo Saxons and the Exeter Book.

Online Resources

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This is a really excellent answer. Thank you and thanks for the resources that will help me explore more on my own. –  KitFox Jun 6 '11 at 22:14
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In older versions of English we used the verb hight: hight (ht) adj. Archaic Named or called.

It would be parallel to the German construction, Er heisst Karl: "He hight Wiliam."

[Middle English, past participle of highten, hihten, to call, be called, from hehte, hight, past tense of hoten, from Old English hatan; see kei-2 in Indo-European roots.]

This doesn't address your question involving "What is your name?" But it does show that English did have a more "universal" way to say how to call someone.

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Thanks for sharing that @Robusto. I think it is a big help to me for trying to figure out when English picked up this phrase. –  KitFox Jun 6 '11 at 13:56
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I wonder if it is really that different.

After all, the name is that by which something or someone is called, and the two phrases have the same meaning.

There are languages that follow one pattern or another (with variations, such as 'how do you call yourself?' and so on). Also, note swiss German might say: "Wie isch ire Name?"

From the etymology of call we have a meaning "to give a name to" which is (from) mid-13c in English.

The word name, comes from Old English nama. Meaning "one's reputation" is from c.1300.

So, there seems to be a great overlap between the two phrases and the meanings. I don't know what determined one phrase as more adequate than the other (neither in English nor in other languages).

One theory could be that in medieval Europe, bynames were used to identify people. As these are not hereditary nor given at time of birth maybe other languages made a distinction between a name (that is given or hereditary) and the way someone is actually called (bynames).

Still, if this theory holds it does not answer why in English the same principle would not apply.

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I find your thought about bynames particularly interesting. Thanks for the input! –  KitFox Jun 6 '11 at 14:45
    
And don't underestimate the value of demonstrating that both phrases come from the same or similar origins. I am interested in how we got to where we are now, so it is good to know that at one time we had a construction that was similar to the others, but could easily have evolved into what we have now. –  KitFox Jun 6 '11 at 14:54
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Excuse the odd wording but I'm trying to be precise. The two questions seem to be between "how are you referenced\identified\called\named" and "what is your reference\identification\name". "what are you called" is this not nearly identical to "what is your name", perhaps just a little more general as in the difference between called and named as used in the US?

how -> I am referred to using the name Alan.
what -> My name is Alan. I am called Alan, this is because Alan is my name.
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