Historical dialogue and personal names

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Last time (http://richardabbott.authorsxpress.com/2014/10/09/historical-dialogue-and-social-position/) I wrote about the use of formality in dialogue, and some of the ways that modern English could and could not reflect that.

Statue, Delos, Cyclades islands
Today I am thinking about an easier area to capture – the use of personal names. In the UK (and I believe also in other countries such as the US), once you have said “hello Richard” as we start to talk, it would be rare to use it again in the same conversation unless you wanted to emphasise something. “Don’t be ridiculous, Richard“, perhaps, or maybe “were you listening, Richard“, or even “Richard! You won’t forget this time, will you?“.

But this is not the case globally. Even when English is used as a common language, some cultures use personal names very much more. Several years ago, when I first came across this, I found it a bit disconcerting; now I really like it, and enjoy the way it reestablishes the person-to-person link periodically in the conversation.

There is, I think, something satisfyingly engaging about using a personal name. It might signal intimacy in some situations, but does not have to, and can easily be blended with formal terms of address in those many languages that use them. It’s not just a way to identify who you are speaking to in a group, which could easily happen in English too. There is something affirmatory about the use of a name which, now I am used to it, is very satisfying.

Now, we have very limited access into casual speech in the ancient world, since most of the written records are necessarily formal. Where speech is included, it is probably representative of the occasion rather than a realistic attempt to capture it. So, in the kind of situation which I deal with a lot, where people are meeting casually and often cross-culturally, the field is open.

Varying the use of personal names between groups, and perhaps showing different reactions to this, helps these different groups to have their own identity. Not all groups have to use language – or personal names – the same way that we do in contemporary Europe or the USA!

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