We in the UK have a naming system which goes something like this: your family passes on to you one name, by which you are known in the wider world, and by which your faily is known, and your parents choose for you another name, by which you are known among your family and your friends.
What sort of society does this system make sense in? I’m not particularly bothered about changing it, or arguing that it’s bad, just considering why it is the way it is.
For a start, it works best if people have only one family and stay in it. If you keep getting married, then divorcing, then marrying someone else, then your name ends up changing, or getting hyphenated, or just growing ever longer. Which is inconvenient.
For another thing, it presupposes hierarchy in the family. That’s because families always (well, usually) contain members who come from different families – most obviously, two partners, with different parents. Unless you’re going to have family names doubling in length every generation, you’ll have to erase one family name and make that partner take the other partner’s name. Which makes sense if that partner is in practical terms becoming the servant and property of the other, but stops making sense if they’re supposed to be equal.
Thirdly, the division between the ‘public’ and the ‘private’ name makes most sense when the division between ‘public’ and ‘private’ spheres is strong and rigid.
Similarly, the fact that the public name is shared by all family members makes most sense if the family has only one public representative – let us say, for example, the woman. The woman has a job, goes to public areas, participates in politics, and is known straightforwards by her surname. This doesn’t get her confused with her husband, because he doesn’t enter those spheres, instead remaining at home to raise the children and wash the dishes. If both partners had public lives, then it would be confusing to have them both referred to by their surname, since it is the same.
So our way of giving people names makes sense if we have strong, stable family groups, with one member dominating the others and monopolising the public sphere. I.e. traditional patriarchy. What a surprise.
Audience participation: what might a naming system more appropriate to an egalitarian society look like?
EDIT: Good comments from people, thanks. It occurred to me that to appreciate the contingency of the public-private division, we might consider the phenomenon of affinity groups. These are activist groups based absolutely on ‘private’ personal connections, but which use that connection to enable ‘public’ political actions. It is an open possibility how structures showing these sorts of characteristics could play a larger role in social organisation.