Eritrean Names, Towards Cultural Identity

About Eritrea - History & Culture

One of my favorite very common and interesting old Tigrinya saying is Shim Ymerh Twaf Yebrh, which is roughly translated “A name gives a lead and a candle gives light.”

Name can be defined in simpler term as a group of alphabets or words or just a phrase that indicates a particular person, place or some other thing. It is an identification that sets someone or something apart from a crowd. This article specifically focuses on Eritrean names that are personal in respect to culture. Names lead you to the entity, uniqueness, and specificity of an individual.

Apart from identifying an individual, a name represents and reflects the cultural identity, uniqueness and historical background of a specific society. It depicts religion, sex, place of origin, time and others. For instance, if someone’s name is Mohammed or Ali or Hassen, he should be a Moslem and if someone’s name is Sara or Mary she is a Christian.

In the old times names were considered to be extremely powerful representing the attitude, behavior and manifestations of supernatural beings. In those times you did not simply give a name to someone. It had to have some meaning such as hope, delight, attainment, ambition, sorrow, love, patriotism, nationalism and so on. For example, our ancestors used to name their children Lulbahri, which means pearl of the sea; this name is very expressive, simple and unique to the ancient civilization of Eritrea. Deglel, Nabutabay, Shumbahri and Asberom are titles of the aristocracy commonly used as names for children of ordinary people.

Tigriyna names are simple and easy to understand and usually have intense meanings. People usually choose names to represent their entity and their essence in ways they believe. In the old days Eritreans used to name their children Tesema, Kahsu, Lu-ul, Lelti, Ellta, Tberh, Asmerom. These names can have the following meanings: the famous, the avenger, the prince, the princess, the cheering, the one that gives light, and the unifying respectively. All these names and some others have survived to this day and are still used which shows the strong foundation of the identity of Eritrea as a whole. All this are traditional and old yet meaningful, keeping identities.

Modern names are also common, especially those that relate to the national struggle and patriotism. Adulis, Beylul, Semhar, Dahlak, and Eritrea are place names commonly given as names to people. They reflect the love and honor the Eritrean people have towards their history and country. Names such as Naxnet, Rahwa, Qsanet, Selam, Lwam, Awet, Xnat, Yohana, etc. express people’s desire of liberty, freedom, peace and success in life and show Eritreans’ wish during the thirty-year armed struggle for independence.

Nowadays many people are choosing foreign names for their children. What is tragic is some people belittle traditional names, which have survived for centuries carrying the identity and cultural beauty of Eritrea. This may be due to their ignorance about how important names are for one’s cultural and national pride. If we go to foreign countries and hear names such as Ghebrhiwet, Tewelde, or Letekidan, all we think is that they are Eritreans or maybe Ethiopians.

These days I often hear unfamiliar names such as Aminadab, Amielon, Amiliya, Belah and so on. I do not know the meanings of these names. A month ago I went to a family baptism celebration. When I asked the name of the child, who was a boy, they told me it was Miracle. I was accustomed to this name as it was my third time. But I was asking myself why on earth they would want to call the child Miracle when there is a name with more or less a similar meaning in Tighrighna that is Ta-amrat, quite simple, plain and expressive.

There is a famous riddle in Tighrighna “Aboy zhabeni werqi member: wediqa aytsber; moyta neytqber fletuley”. The whole idea is our names are precious and our prestige which remain even after we die. Understanding the value of names as national heritage and effective expressions of self-identity, lets engage in developing them and expressing ourselves as Eritreans using our cultural values, as names are one.