Culture: Madagascans And Their Tongue-Twisting Names

by Duke Magazine

Upon the election of Madagascan President Hery Rajaonarimampianina into office in 2014, he made it into the record books as the head of state with the longest family name. However, this tickled people’s interest in why the island country has a history of long names. And not just names of people, but also names of places are quite long to the extent that they are difficult to pronounce. 

Unless you speak Malagasy, you might struggle to remember the name above, after all, Madagascans themselves have trouble with such names. And if you thought Rajaonarimampianina was such an incredibly long name, what about Andrianampoinimerinatompokoindrindra?

To date, it remains the longest name that has ever existed in the island country in the Indian Ocean. Formed of 36 characters, the name belonged to the King of Imerina, who reigned from 1787 to 1810. Otherwise known as Andrianampoinimerina the Wise, he is recognized as the father of the Madagascan people. Andrianampoinimerinatompokoindrindra means“the prince who was given birth by Imerina and who is my real lord.”

In fact, since time immemorial, particularly the 17th century, kings and princes from the Imerina Kingdom had long names. Andriantsimitoviaminandriandehibe, one of such names, meant “the noble without equal among great nobles,” while his brother was Andriantsimitoviaminandriandrazaka, meaning “the noble without equal among his brothers.”

In 1896, when French colonization began, names like these, which will not fit into a passport, were reduced. Yet, when you visit Madagascar today, you would still find tongue-twisting names, and even some of the shortest names have a minimum of 12 characters, Rakotonirina, Andrianjafy, and Rakotoarisoa.

The lingering question asked is, why the long names?

It is because each part has meaning and traditionally relevant to be included in just a name.  Historians have it that traditionally, separate first names and family names do not exist for people in Madagascar. An individual is given a single name which is a mixture of both, and that name more often than not reflects their history. Usually, the more prestigious the individual, the longer their names as evident in Razafindrandriatsimaniry, a 24 letter name that means “the grandson of the prince or nobleman who is envious of no one.”

Now, with European influence, the idea of having separate names has been adopted by some of the Malagasy population, even though there are still some long names especially among people originating from the central region.

What is more, most names in Madagascar are now a particular mix of foreign names (mainly Christian, French, or British but sometimes Muslim) and Malagasy names, according to a study by Denis Regnier, Naming and name changing in post colonial Madagascar. Building on a study by Gueunier (2012), Regnier writes that the spread of the Christian faith in the nineteenth century gave rise to people being given names from the Bible.

“These biblical names were often modified to follow the phonological and morphological rules of the Malagasy language (e.g., John becomes Jaonina or Jaona), and often the honorific particle Ra-, the word andriana (lord), or both were added to them (e.g., Rajaonina and Randrianarijaona),” he writes.

He adds that even though most Malagasy people traditionally still had only one name at the start of Christian evangelization, gradually the most common structure of names became “binomial.” 

“In this case, a Christian name (or other foreign name) is often juxtaposed to a Malagasy name, although sometimes both names are of Malagasy origin or, more rarely, both names are foreign.”

The binomial structure of names is probably the most widespread today, according to Regnier. He, however, admits that there are still people who have only one name or others who have more than two names.

With informality being the order of the day to facilitate daily discussions and operations, giving nicknames to people is a common practice in Madagascar. Its long names of places such as Antsohimbondrona have also been shortened, including its capital Antananarivo, which is now simply referred to as Tana, the shorter version of its French version, ‘Tananarive’.

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