Vanuatu Personal Names

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Understanding customs used in surnames and given names can help you identify your ancestors in records. Learn to recognize name variations and see clues in names.

Online Tools[edit | edit source]

Given Names[edit | edit source]

Under the law of Vanuatu, a child's name registered at birth should include "the family name, the Christian name, if any, and the Melanesian individual name", the latter of which is also known as a "traditional name" or "custom name".

Naming customs differ between the various islands which comprise Vanuatu. The decision whether to give a child a custom name and/or "foreign name" may be tied to the parents' expectations of the child's future life path: whether he would remain in his village and inherit his ancestors' property and social roles, or whether he would leave to pursue a career elsewhere. Dickinson Tevi of the Mama Graon Project has expressed concerns that due to Western influence, the use of traditional names is dying out; he described traditional names as a vital link between children and their cultures and customs.

Traditional names may be given at birth, or bestowed in adulthood by chiefs. Chiefs may also remove a traditional name so bestowed; in 2012, the chiefs of Tanna and then-President of Vanuatu Iolu Abil came to an agreement that Abil would no longer use the traditional name "Kaniapnin". Land tribunals may look at custom names as one factor in attempting to determine who has the right of usage of disputed custom land, as custom names are also sometimes tied to toponymy. For example, in central and southern Vanuatu, men's custom names make reference to the place where their clan's founding ancestors first appeared, known in Bislama as stamba.[1]

Surnames[edit | edit source]

Surnames Historical Development[edit | edit source]

  • Before record keeping began, most people had only one name, such as John.
  • As the population increased, it became necessary to distinguish between individuals with the same name. The problem was usually solved by adding descriptive information. John became John the smith, John the son of Matthew, John the short, or John from Heidelberg.
  • At first surnames applied only to one person, not to the whole family. After a few generations, these names became hereditary and were passed on from generation to generation.
  • Surnames developed from several sources. For example:
    • Occupational (based on a person’s trade, such as Carter or Smith)
    • Geographical (based on a person’s residence, such as Drayton or Debenham)
    • Patronymic (based on a person’s father’s name, such as Jones, son of John)
    • Descriptive or nickname (such as Joy or Child)
  • The nobility and wealthy land owners were the first to begin using surnames.
  • Merchants and townspeople then adopted the custom, as did the rural population. This process took two or three centuries.

Surname Changes of Immigrants in the United States[edit | edit source]

As Immigrants moved into English-speaking countries, their surnames were impacted in a variety of ways.

  • Most of the time the surname spelling changed to accommodate the different phonetic spelling in the English language. In other words, the recorder tried to write the name the way he heard it.
  • Surnames may also have been translated outright into English, sometimes with a slight twist.
  • Within the community, such as the local parish, immigrants may continue to use the original name, while at the same time using English-language equivalents when dealing with local government, census takers, and other English speakers.
  • Different branches of the same family may adopt various surname spellings.
  • Prior to 1900, formal surname changes documented in local court records are relatively rare.
  • During the early 20th Century, especially the World War I era, surname changes are recorded more frequently, as immigrants or, more often, their children, tried to adopt more neutral surnames.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. "Ni-Vanuatu name", in Wikipedia,, accessed 11 August 2021.