Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Naming and Binding

Imannia and her parents--Mak Imannia / Siti Rokyyah Yaserie and Pak Imannia / Hisham Macrae.
They are pictured outside our accommodation.

Cocos Malay society recognises different roles that are tightly linked together. One aspect of this is names. Cocos Malays have two kinds of names. The personal name is a given name plus your father's name.  The teknonym is the name of your oldest child; this name changes as soon as you become a grandparent, when you take the name of the newborn baby. 

Naming systems can tell us a lot about a culture. Cocos Malays on Home Island have two sets of names: a personal name and a teknonym.

Personal name

The personal name is given at birth and appears on official documents.  The personal name is composed of a given name and a last name.

Your given name is  ‘original'; a given name your parents made up. I have not come across two people with the same first name on Home Island. Apparently originality is important. For instance, the generation born before integration with Australia was addicted to English-sounding names. Thus, we have people called  "Alias", "Desk", "Hotel", "Roger", "Darling", "Wedding", "Manager", "Boss", "Yet", and "Not". You can also have a bit of fun with these. For example, respective siblings were given a string Malay prepositions as names "Dari", "Pada" and "Mana", which, for translation purposes, the children's names could be rendered as "Whence", "From", and "Where". As I will describe below, these names are shed once you are married and have children, so perhaps that gives Cocos Malays licence to have a bit of fun with the names, sometimes at least. Nevertheless, the majority sound more serious in their context (e.g. "Remni", "Jenaty", "Melin", 'Suria", "Hamidah") and reflect a variety of origins (English, Arabic, and Malay). OK that's the first part of the personal name. What about the second part?
Your last name is identical to your father’s first name. For example:

Grandfather = Macrae Hadland 
Father          = Hisham Macrae
New baby    = Immania Hisham   

Cocos Malays rarely use the personal name in daily speech, preferring to use (if one is available) a teknonym.

Imannia and her grandmother.
 Nek Imannia (left) pictured with her first grandchild (Imannia).


The teknonym is from your first child’s first personal name. The first child of Hisham Macrae (the father) and Siti Rokyyah Yaserie  (the mother) is Immania Hisham.  So, Hisham Macrae also became known as “Pak Imannia” (literally, “father of Imannia”) and Siti Rokyyah Yaserie also became “Mak Imannia” (literally, “mother of Imannia”). When you have your first grandchild, you also take their name. Immania was the first grandchild for Yaserie Asmara and Zanie Anthoney. Both became known as “Nek Immania” (literally, “grandparent of Immania”).  Put simply, with the birth of Immania, her parents became Pak Immania and Mak Immania, her grandparents became Nek Immania:

Grandparents = Nek Immania 
Father             = Pak Immania 
Mother            = Mak Immania 
Baby               = Immania

Use of the teknonym is limited to daily speech and informal notices, such as notes the school sends home with students.

Imannia's grandmother also teaches at the Home Island school. On this notice, her name is shortened to "Imann". The spelling of names, generally, seems flexible.


In summary:
  • personal name = given name + second name (father's given name)
  • teknonym = ("Pak" or "Mak" + first child's given name  AND "Nek" + first grandchild's name)

Family tree

Look at the diagram below. This is a family tree otherwise known as a "family tree" or ”genealogy”. (If you want to pronounce “genealogy”, note it is “-alogy” not “-ology”.) Usually, anthropologists use circles to represent females and triangles for men. However, the program we are using, Genepro, symbolises men with a square. I’ve simplified this genealogy, leaving out brothers and sisters.

I’ve given the teknonym followed by the personal name in each case (except Immania; as she is a child, she has not married and produced offspring, so she does not yet have a teknonym). Each row represents a generation. On the bottom row, you’ll see “Imannia Hisham”. On the next row up, you’ll see “Pak Imannia” (teknonym), followed by “Hisham Macrae” (personal name). This is Imannia’s father. The line running across to Mak Imannia indicates that these two are married. Hopefully you can work out the rest, but if you have any questions, please leave a comment. 

Imannia's grandfather, Nek Imannia


I will discuss some of the important exceptions and implications of the two Cocos Malay naming systems another time. But for now a quick quiz to see if I’ve done a good enough job of explaining the basics of personal names and teknonyms:

1.    A man named Anthoney Abah took Pada Eman for his wife. The first name they gave their daughter was Zanie. What was her last name?
2.    When Hisham Macrae and his wife Siti Rokyyah Yaserie had a child, what was the child’s last name?
a.     Would you have a teknonym if you were a Cocos Malay? If so what would it be?
b.     What would your parents’ teknonym be.
4.    Do you observe any naming practices from your culture?

Answers are at the bottom of this blog

Imannia's great grandfather. His teknonym, "Nek Kyyah", comes from his first grandchild, Siti Rokyyah Yaserie (pictured below).

Teknonymy creates distinctions and connections

Let's focus just on teknonymy for the meantime. Teknonymy creates distinctions.  It distinguishes the childless, for example, from the parent, and the grandparent.  These statuses are significant in Cocos Malay culture. For example, in everyday speech, one common way to address a mother is "Mak". And you might use this term whether she is older, the same age, or even younger than you. Put another way, the terms are not relative to the speaker, they are absolute. So it is not necessarily used for someone who is older or of higher status. The term "Mak", for example, is only for someone who has a child  (e.g. you don't need to refer to a childless older woman as "mother" but rather as "auntie"). Thus the childless are distinguished from the child-bearing. Clearly, a tremendous significance is placed on having children. Teknonymy distinguishes those who have children and those who have grandchildren.

Also teknonymy connects people. In some cultures, you cannot tell who is in a family, just by looking at names. In Javanese culture, for example, a person might have a single word name "Suripto", for example, which bears no relation to the name of anyone else in Suripto's family. Moreover, Javanese sometimes change their names through the course of their lives. So names are not essential for having a family. Things like gift-giving (e.g. birthdays), ritual (weddings), residence (living together), and myth ( "blood is thicker than water") can provide a sense that you are 'related'. But where there are connections between names in a family, it may reinforce solidarity.

Without teknonyms, a new child will have no naming relationship with her mother; her mother's parents; and her father's mother. With teknonyms, mother, father, and grandparents are related. Importantly they are related through having a common descendant (the child) NOT through having a common ancestor.

The way names go down (personal names) and up (teknonyms) reinforces both distinctions and connections in Cocos Malay society. Teknonymy also reinforces connections through the generations. Your different names tell you whose child you are and whose parent or grandparent you are. By the time you are a grandparent, four generations are present in your different names. Ascending and descending names cuts society into pieces and provides the glue to connect them up again.

Imannia's mother. Mak Imannia / Siti Rokyyah Yaserie at work in the office.

However, it is important not to go too far with this. With teknonyms, if you are the second or subsequent grandchild, your name won't fo up to your grandparents. If you are the second or subsequent child your name won't go up to your parents. If you are female your name won't go down at all. So a lot of people miss out.

Individual and Community

The resulting system contrasts with the idea of the “individual”.  The individual was enshrined in the French revolution c. 1789 as free, equal and part of a brotherhood of humanity.  As a human, the individual is indistinct from others in terms of rank, role, status etc; thus, for example, the legal struggle to ensure equal pay, roles, and status for women in many societies. The idea of the individual operates in various ways in daily lives of Cocos Malays.

Yet their culture also enables them to think of, and interact with, humans in a different way. Namely, humans have a variety of statuses, with corresponding rights and responsibilities. These statuses are derived from one’s sex/gender, ability to procreate (within matrimony), and generational standing. Instead of the individual who is differentiated only in terms of a distinct personality and tastes, there are different roles; children, fathers, mother, and grandparents. Each group has their own set of rights and responsibilities. These rights and responsibility tie people together. 

In Bundoora, where I live in Melbourne, some people express their individuality through personalised licence plates ("U Wish" [i.e. "you wish you owned my car"] etc.). On Home Island, people express their relatedness and distinction through licence plates taking the names of children. (Cars are no longer purchased, you can only bring over a 4-wheelers or an Ezy-Go/Golf Buggy). So Mia's parents have a "Mia" licence plate; Izahan's have "Izzeee"; Muaz and Medina's have "M&M".

Mak Mia, Mia, and Pak Mia.

One aim in life is not so much to assert your individuality, but to successfully fulfil the responsibilities and enjoy the rights associated with your status. For instance, one such right you can enjoy, once you have grandchildren, is the right to be addressed with the respectful term "Nek".  I think that teknonyms are a crucial part of a way of seeing and interacting with others on Home Island. They create distinctions and they also bind people more closely than as separate individuals.

A huge “thank you” to Imannia, Mak Imannia, Pak Imannia, Nek Imannia, and Nek Kyya for allowing us to photograph and document their wonderful, beautiful family!

Imannia's great grandmother (left). Nek Kyyah, Siti Rokyyah Yaserie's grandmother. My co-researcher and bini (wife), Monika Winarnita / Mak Kiki and our eldest daughter, Kiki, are also pictured. 

Quiz Answers

1.    Anthoney. Zanie’s full name would Zanie Anthoney.
2.    Hisham. As in the above case, the child would take its last name from its father's first name.
a.    If you have children, you would take your eldest child’s name. If you are a father it will be “Pak...”. If you are a mother it will be “Mak...”.
b.    Your parents’ teknonym be “Pak + (eldest child’s given name)” or Mak + (eldest child’s given name)”
4.   This will depend on your culture. In my culture, naming often goes down through the father, in the English tradition. My grandfather, Ray Herriman, got his surname from his father. When he married, his wife became Mrs. Herriman and their children had “Herriman” as their surname. And when my father Michael Herriman married, his wife became Mrs Herriman, and the children were also “Herriman”. Thus, I am Nicholas Herriman. Anthropologists might say that this is a patrilineal naming system.

Spanish language naming systems are different. Raul Sanchez Urribari, my colleague from Venezuela, gets "Sanchez" from his dad and "Urribarri" from his mum. Another colleague Natalie Araujo Ipema, gets "Araujo" from her father and "Ipema" from her mother. The pattern her is: Original Given Name + Father's Last Name + Mother's Last Name.


 1. The practice of teknonymy, as I have observed it, was apparent to Gibson Hill, who, in 1941 spent ten months on Direction Island (Pulu Tikus). In his 1947 article, he writes of:
the custom, occurring fairly widely in this part of the world, of parents changing their name when their first child was born. The father would then become known as Рак followed by his child's name, and his wife as Mak followed by the child's name...At about the appearance of the first grandchild the old couple would both become known as Nek-nek followed still by the name of their own firstborn (169).
Teknonymy thus dates at least back to 1941. I wonder if it goes back to the original 'Malay' settlers of the island in 1827 and further? 


  1. Teknonymy among the Cocos Malays is flexible. For example, if person remarries and has a child with the new spouse; the person may keep their old teknonym or take a new one. And if the new spouse's child from a previous marriage provides a grandchild; again it seems up to the person to decide what they will be call. So in such cases, it depends on the personal situation and how the person would like to be addressed. Generally, however, the Cocos principle of teknonymy; taking the first child's name; and then the first grandchild's name, remains.  

  2. Another important point I forgot to emphasise is that it is only the first child and first grandchild who gets the naming connection. Younger siblings miss out. 

  3. Personal names are relatively unimportant. I spoke a couple of nights ago to an elderly informant who could not recall his mother's personal name, only her teknonym.

  4. Imteresting to note that Mak Imannia wears a baseball cap sometimes and a hijab at other times. Can anything be said about the wearing of the hijab and if there has been any changes? Looking at a photograph of cocos malay islanders from around a century ago there were no hijabs at all.