Naming a South Asian Character
“I need a name for a South Asian character”
We’re going to need a little more information than that…
Please see the following maps of South Asia:
Image description: Two maps of South Asia. The top map depicts the South Asian region, including Afghanistan with color-coding of different regions by 8 color-coded language groups. The bottom depicts the official state/ province/ languages and scripts for countries in the South Asian region, excluding Afghanistan. See end of post for detailed image description under the cut.
(Links: Top Map, Bottom Map)
That’s a lot of languages, right?
Names in South Asian cultures are primarily dictated by religion and language. While there’s some overlap between cultures, we can make an educated guess of someone’s ethnicity & religion based on their name. For example:
Simran Dhillon … is a Punjabi Sikh.
Priyanka Ghosh … is a Bengali Hindu
Maya Srinivasan … is a Tamilian Hindu.
Harsh Patel … is a Gujarati Hindu.
Amin Usmani … is a Muslim from a traditionally Urdu speaking community.
Teresa Fernandes … is a Goan Christian.
Behind the Name is a good place to start looking as they state the specific language the name is from. As for religion, there are more factors to consider.
Sikh first names are gender neutral. The 10th Sikh guru designated Singh (meaning lion, for men) and Kaur (meaning heir to the throne, for women) as Sikh surnames. These surnames were designed to be equalizers within Sikh communities. However, many Sikhs keep their Punjabi surnames (many of these surnames are now primarily associated with Sikhs) and use Singh and Kaur as a middle name (eg. Ranjit Kaur Shergill, Amrit Singh Cheema). More devout Sikhs use only Singh and Kaur or use the same format legally but do not share their surnames.
Sikh first names are derived from gurbani (Sikh holy texts), so they are often uniform across cultures. Most Sikhs who aren’t Punjabi use Singh & Kaur or cultural surnames in the same format. The latter is usually seen among Afghan & Delhiite Sikh communities. While most changed their surnames to Singh & Kaur, some families still kept the surnames they had before they converted from Islam and Hinduism (eg. Harpreet Singh Laghmani, Jasleen Kaur Kapoor).
If you’re stuck on a surname for a Sikh character, Singh for men and Kaur for women is the safest way to go regardless of ethnicity.
Good resources for Sikh names can be found here:
South Asian Christians naming conventions depend largely on who brought Christianity to the region and when. For example, Christianity was largely brought to Goa by Portuguese Catholics so you’ll see Portuguese surnames, while many Christians in the Seven Sister States didn’t change their names. South Asian Christians will also often have Christian first names, either in Portuguese or in English.
Hindus, Jains, castes and gotras
Hinduism is the majority religion in India and the South Asian region overall. A key thing that many newcomers overlook when writing about Hindus is that rather like feudal Europe, a person’s last name can also tell you what their family used to do because of the caste system. Both Hindus and Jains employ gotras (or lineage systems) designed to keep people from the same patrilineal line from marrying each other. Thus, if your Hindu character is a Vaishya (tradesman/ merchant class), but you have chosen a last name for them related to farming, or if your Kshatriya (warrior) character has a last name that means bureaucrat, you’ve made a mistake. Most Hindus and Jains will have last names derived from Sanskrit, or a language with Sanskrit roots.
A note on middle names: in South India, Hindus will often use the father’s first name for the child’s middle name.
For what it is worth, South Asia is hardly the only region to have these particular features. Japanese society until the end of the Edo era was heavily segregated by caste, and to this day, many families with samurai last names occupy relative positions of privilege compared to other castes, even though the Japanese caste system ended with the Meiji Restoration.
A note of caution: Baby name websites tend to be inaccurate for Hindu names, often confusing Farsi and Arabic-derived Urdu names with the more traditional Sanskrit-derived names. Behind the Name is by far the most accurate website, but it doesn’t hurt to check multiple sources. For Hindu and Jain surnames associated with different castes, regions and gotras, Wikipedia is surprisingly thorough.
Islam is the majority religion in Pakistan and Bangladesh as well as the second largest religion in India, but the differing ethnicities and arrival periods of Muslims in South Asia over the course of history can have a significant impact on a character’s name. For example, think of when your character’s family will have arrived in South Asia or converted to Islam:
During the Delhi Sultanate, when Hindustani would have been spoken?
Under the Mughals when Persian was more common?
Are they from Bangladesh and thus speak Bengali?
Do they have ancestors from Afghanistan or Swat Valley, and thus have Pashto last names?
Does the family speak Urdu?
All of these will impact what their name might reasonably be. As a general rule, Muslims will have last names that are in Farsi/ Persian, Urdu, Arabic and Bengali. Bangladeshi Muslims may have Hindu names (both first and last) as well.
When discussing Buddhists in South Asia, we are primarily talking about Nepal and Sri Lanka. The majority languages in these countries are Nepali and Sinhala, respectively. Both languages are part of the Indo-Aryan language family, and like many Indo-Aryan languages, show heavy Sanskrit influence.
Don’t forget that India also has a large number of lesser known minority religions, including Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Tibetan Buddhism and a host of indigenous religions.
Judaism: There are a number of historical Jewish enclaves in India, as the result of specific waves of migration. Like South Asian Muslim names, Jewish last names will vary depending on the ethnicity and arrival period for each particular wave of Jewish diaspora.
Zoroastrianism: People who practice Zoroastrianism are likely to have Farsi last names.
Tibetan Buddhism: Tibetan Buddhists will obviously have Tibetan names and are often a part of the Tibetan diaspora who entered India as refugees during the Chinese government’s invasion of Tibet.
An in-depth coverage of name etymology in South Asia would probably be the size of an encyclopaedia. The above is hardly exhaustive; we haven’t scratched the surface of the ethnic and linguistic variations in any of the South Asian countries displayed on the maps above. We hope, however, that it motivates you to research carefully and appreciate the cultural diversity South Asia has to offer. Just like in any setting where issues of lineage are plainly displayed by a person’s name, names in South Asia tell stories about where a person is from, what language they speak, and what their ancestors might have done, even if this has little bearing on the character themselves. It may seem a little elaborate to try and imagine the ancestors of your character before you even decide who your character is, but the reality is that most South Asians know these things instinctively, and whether or not you do your due diligence will be part of how we judge your work.
Name a thing to fight over, and South Asians have probably fought over it at one point or another, whether it be religion, ethnicity, language, or caste. However, one thing many South Asians have in common is pride in our individual origins. Respecting this love of identity will be invaluable as you plan your story.
At the end of the day, there is no substitute for actually talking to people who share your character’s background. We will always recommend having someone from the community you’re writing about check your naming.
-- Mods SK and Marika
A disclaimer for our Desi followers
Detailed image description: 2 maps of South Asia: The top map shows South Asia including the countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Different colors show regions associated with 8 language categories. The language families by color are:
Indo-Aryan (Light green)
Iranian (dark green)
Unclassified/ Language Isolates (Grey)
Moving north to south, language distribution is roughly as follows:
Turkic at Afghanistan’s northern border
Tibeto-Burman at the northern borders of India, Nepal, and Bhutan.
Iranian for Afghanistan and the western half of Pakistan.
Indo-Aryan for the eastern half of Pakistan, the northern half of India, the southern half of Nepal, and all of Bangladesh.
Dravidian for the southern half of India and the northern portion of Sri Lanka, scattered clusters in central India, and an isolated region in south western Pakistan (Balochistan).
Austro-Asiatic languages are clustered on the eastern side of central India and the Indian states of Meghalaya and Assam to the northeast.
For Maldives island chain to the southwest of India: Dravidian language groups are spoken to the north, while Indo-Aryan groups are spoken to the south.
For the Andaman and Nicobar island chains to the east of India in the Bay of Bengal, unclassified/ language isolates are spoken for the northern half, while Austro-Asiatic languages are spoken in the southern half.
The bottom map shows South Asia, including the states, provinces and territories for Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, indicating the languages and scripts of major state/ provincial languages. From Northeast to Southwest, starting from the northernmost point, they are as follows (Format: state or province, language(s), country):
Gilgit-Baltistan, Urdu, India and Pakistan (disputed territory)
Jammu and Kashmir/ Azad Jammu and Kashmir, Kashimiri, India and Pakistan (disputed territory)
Ladakh, Kashmiri, India
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pashto, Pakistan
Balochistan, Balochi, Pakistan
Punjab, Punjabi, Pakistan
Sindh, Sindhi, Pakistan
Himachal Pradesh, Hindi, India
Uttarakhand, Hindi, India
Punjab, Punjabi, India
Haryana, Hindi, India
Rajasthan, Hindi, India
Gujrat, Gujrati, India
Nepal (whole country), Nepali, Nepal
Uttar Pradesh, Hindi, India
Madhya Pradesh, Hindi, India
Maharashtra, Marathi, India
Goa, Konkani, India
Bihar, Hindi, India
Jharkhand, Hindi, India
Chhattisgarh, Hindi, India
Telangana, Telugu, India
Karnataka, Kannada, India
Sikkim, Nepali, India
West Bengal, Bengali, India
Odia, Odisha, India
Andhra Pradesh, Telugu, India
Tamil Nadu, Tamil, India
Kerala, Malayalam, India
Sri Lanka (whole country), Sinhala/Tamil, Sri Lanka,
Arunachal Pradesh, English, India
Assam, Assamese, India
Meghalaya, Khasi/Garo, India
Bangladesh (whole country), Bengali, Bangladesh
Nagaland, English, India
Mizopur, Mizo, India
Manipur, Meitei, India
Tripura, Bengali/ Kokborok/English, India
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