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Distinctive African American Names: An Experimental, Historical, and Linguistic Analysis of Innovation

Stanley Lieberson and Kelly S. Mikelson
American Sociological Review
Vol. 60, No. 6 (Dec., 1995), pp. 928-946
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2096433
Page Count: 19
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Distinctive African American Names: An Experimental, Historical, and Linguistic Analysis of Innovation
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Abstract

Many African American parents create unique names for their children. Although in the United States there are no formal "rules" limiting the sounds parents may combine in creating a child's name, innovative names are not simply free-floating imaginative acts; they actually incorporate certain implicit practices found in the culture of both Whites and African Americans. Consequently, on hearing an innovative name, a stranger usually can guess the sex of the child. We are able to infer the linguistic features that influence innovations because these features appear more appropriate or less appropriate, depending on the sex of the child. We interpret our observations in terms of a cultural perspective on innovation which argues that the existing culture operates as an independent force to set bounds on creativity and imagination, independent of the influence of organizations or institutions. We also evaluate an alternative perspective. We analyze innovative naming patterns in the past 75 years and then consider both the influence of African heritage in America and the thrust toward African roots in recent decades. Here too we find a naming mechanism whereby adopted African names are modified by American linguistic conventions.

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