Kendra Willson

junior fellow
EURIAS cohort 2018/2019
discipline Linguistics
Researcher Turku Institute for Advanced Studies

Research project

Control of Personal Names: Identity and the State

 

I analyze discourse surrounding legislation on personal names from a linguistic and ethnographic standpoint, focusing on how name law discussion relates to broader societal changes in views of ethnicity, gender and family structure, and language. The geographical emphasis is on Northern Europe and the work seeks to place current debates in historical context. Personal names are simultaneously linguistic artifacts, identifying labels used to keep track of citizens, and markers of identity on many levels. Historically, regulation of personal names is part of the consolidation of the state. While the state remains the main domain of name law, national policies which often have roots in Romantic ideas of the nation-state have had to adjust to increased mobility, multilingualism and pluralism. Assimilationist policies have yielded to multiculturalism. Gender roles and normative family structures encoded in name practices are increasingly questioned - for instance, how surnames are transmitted in families; whether a given name should indicate the sex of the bearer. A general trend toward liberalization reflects the above changes.

Freedom in name choice is viewed as a human rights issue, often with reference to article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. However, gradual changes occur within a preexisting framework and, like all reforms, are attended by anxiety and debate. Legal, scholarly and popular discourse reflect different facets of this discussion. Government representatives, language experts, and the general public often see the issues in different terms and seem to talk past each other. By understanding the dynamics of this frequently dysfunctional discourse I aim to help resolve impasses and miscommunications. For administrative purposes, it is seen as desirable that names have a consistent form, e.g. well-defined given and surnames, and be written with a uniform character set. Language planners may focus on the desirability of consistent orthographic practices or the declinability of names. The public often views name choice as a matter of personal freedom of expression and the main argument for restriction a perceived risk of ostracism or inconvenience for the bearer of an unusual name. Concern for preservation of a language may also be expressed. As name law refers to linguistic entities but is often formulated, interpreted, and debated by non-linguists, the discourse has aspects of folk linguistics, but also relates to changing models of language used by experts.

I focus on issues relating to ethnic minorities and migration, surname transmission within families, gender-neutral names, and implicit and explicit models of language. The material studied includes legal, scholarly, and popular writings. Methods are based in discourse analysis. The project incorporates linguistics, history, law and folkloristics.

 

Biography

 

Kendra Willson holds a Ph.D in Scandinavian languages and literatures from the University of California at Berkeley. She has held teaching and research positions at the University of Manitoba, University of California, Los Angeles, University of Helsinki, University of Turku, and University of New Mexico. Her teaching areas include Old Norse-Icelandic language and literature as well as Modern Icelandic and Swedish.

 

Kendra Willson’s research interests relate to the juncture between language and culture and cultural contacts in the history of the Nordic region. Her dissertation concerns nickname formation and use in Old and Modern Icelandic. Her current project focuses on the discourse of personal name law.

Another research project concerns historical language contact in the circum-Baltic region, including runes in Finland and Finno-Ugric elements in runic inscriptions. In addition, she has worked on aspects of grammaticalization, historical syntax and standardization in Icelandic, Finnish, and early Norse and on aspects of poetic translation into and out of Icelandic.

 

 

Selected publications

 

''Foreign' in the Icelandic name law debate', in U.-P. Leino et al. (eds), Namn och identitet, NORNA, Uppsala /Tammerfors, 2017, pp. 161-184. 

 

'Conjunction renewal, runic coordination and the death of IE *kwe', in B.S. Sandgaard Hansen et al. (eds), Etymology and the European Lexicon, Reichert, Wiesbaden, 2017, pp. 515-528.

 

'Linguistic models and surname diversification strategies in Sweden and Denmark', Onoma, vol. 47, 2015, pp. 299-326.

 

'Grammaticalization, productivity and analogy in Finnish converbs', in J.-M. Tirkkonen & E. Anttikoski (eds), Proceedings of the 24th Scandinavian conference of linguistics, University of Eastern Finland, Joensuu, 2013, pp. 105-114.

 

'A putative S├ími charm on a 12th c. Icelandic spade: runic reception, magic and contacts', in C. Hasselblatt & A. van der Hoeven (eds), Finno-Ugric Folklore, Myth and Cultural Identity, Shaker, Maastricht, 2012, pp. 267-281.

 

institut

junior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2018/2019
Polish Institute of Advanced Studies (PIASt)
discipline Cultural Studies
2018
junior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2018/2019
Polish Institute of Advanced Studies (PIASt)
discipline Cultural Studies
2018