Головна Філологія Київського національного лінгвістичного університету UKRAINIAN NICKNAMES IN SCHOOLCHILDREN’S DISCOURSE: SEMANTIC AND PRAGMATIC PERSPECTIVES
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UKRAINIAN NICKNAMES IN SCHOOLCHILDREN’S DISCOURSE: SEMANTIC AND PRAGMATIC PERSPECTIVES
Філологія - Київського національного лінгвістичного університету

CHKHETIANI T. D.

Kyiv National Linguistic University

В статті розглядаються прізвиська учнів київських шкіл, у зв’язку з чим автор ставить ряд питань соціального, психологічного та прагмалінгвістичного плану на кшталт: Чому діти кличуть одне одного на прізвисько? Чи існує мода на прізвиська? Які функції виконують прізвиська? Які фактори впливають на вдалий / невдалий вибір прізвиська? Що обмежує звертання на прізвисько? Чому люди так чутливо реагують на свої прізвиська? Поряд із дериваційними, розглядаються процеси семантичних змін, що відбуваються в прізвиськах. Особлива увага приділяється розкриттю метафоричної та метонімічної природи прізвиськ.

В статье рассматриваются клички учеников киевских школ и в этой связи автор затрагивает широкий спектр вопросов социального, психологического и прагмалингвистического плана, а именно: Почему дети зовут друг друга по кличкам? Существует ли мода на клички? Какие функции присущи кличкам? Какие факторы обусловливают удачное / неудачное наречение кличкой? Что ограничивает обращение по кличке? Почему люди так чувствительны к своим кличкам? Наряду с деривационными, рассматриваются процессы семантических изменений, происходящих в кличках. Особое внимание уделяется выявлению метафорической и метонимической природы кличек.

The paper explores the nicknames of school-age children in some Kyiv schools and raises a wide range of social, psychological and pragmatic/semantic questions like Why do children give (or are given) nicknames? Do nicknames come into fashion and go out of fashion? What functions do nicknames perform? What factors affect the success of a nickname? What limits the use of a nickname? Why are people so sensitive about their nicknames? Alongside derivational issues, trends and processes of semantic changes in nicknames also come under investigation. Special attention is paid to their metaphoric and metonymic nature.

The relationship between children’s intra - and inter-personal perceptions of each other presents a variety of socio-cognitive developmental variables. The analysis of the material is drawn on some past empirical data picked up in Kyiv schools during KNLU students’ pedagogical practice and brings forward problems of name-calling and nicknaming children of school age within peer groups. Schoolchildren responded to the questionnaire (aimed as a nicknames assessment survey) which comprised several categories of nicknames and related attitudinal questions. Schoolchildren were asked to indicate their responses by checking one of five categories: offensive, not funny, very funny, humorous, amusing. Teachers were provided with information specific to: how nicknames are perceived by school population; attitudes towards nicknames generally and towards types of nicknames more specifically; how individual characteristics relates to perception of a nickname. The obtained information was generalized in the paper under consideration.

The history of names which uniquely identify persons, things, phenomena, etc., presenting an entity as an individual instance, has always been of special interest for linguistics, or if to be more accurate, anthroponomastics. Linguists claim that apart from names, there is a universal and deep-rooted drive to give an individual a nickname, in particular this pertains to someone with whom we have a special relationship (Crystal 2001:140).

According to the Encyclopedia of the English language (2001:152), the word nickname was first recorded in the 15th century: ‘an eke name’ (OE eke - ‘also’) was an extra or additional name used to express such attitudes as familiarity, affection, and ridicule and was usually applied to people. D. Crystal (2001:152) underlines that personal nicknames are commonest among children who tend to be a closely - knit group and therefore generate nicknames. He considers nicknames as an important index either of intimacy when people feel comfortable by using someone’s nickname to their face or the nicknamed can be a special enemy, or that in authority, and anyone who has achieved notoriety.

Name-calling and nicknaming are very much alike as to their main functions, i. e. the identification of a person or addressing a person in a communicative situation. But unlike the name which provides little information about a person, if any information at all (it is still argued whether persons’ names are informative), nicknames undoubtedly fill this gap to some extent. People say that “to give a name is to give a destiny”. This holds strongly to nicknames if to admit that once a nickname sticks to a person it is difficult to get rid of. It affects him or her profoundly, especially if it is unpleasant.

Nicknames reflect our minds. The social essence of such names is many-sided and primarily relates to kids’ (in our case, most often teenagers’) psychological growth and development of self/other perceptions as related to social status within children’s peer groups, gender differences, physical and mind qualities, etc. They have a great impact on how we get along or don’t get along with each other. In this paper, we look at schoolchildren’s nicknames as the primary tools with which they try to communicate, understand each other and create agreements between them that work. Children use nicknames to name classmates, teachers and other people of their school community. Since nicknames are very spread among children of school age, their functioning and effects deserve close scrutiny.

Usually nicknames have a negative effect on people, no matter what age they are. Therefore at times people tend to get a little “thick-skinned” to escape this influence for their own good. We grow to accept names that are demeaning to ourselves and the group we belong to. As adults, we allow ourselves to be called slang names like “fella”, “guy”, “mac”, “babe”, “sweet heart”, “honey”, “girl” or “kid” etc., or tolerate a racial or ethnic nickname that is unflattering. Letting others to push us around has the same root as abnormal name-calling, that is low self-esteem. Very often we do not think enough of ourselves to insist on a change though many of us are sensitive about nicknames. This particularly refers to children of school age.

Nicknames are not easy to classify since numerous and different are principles upon which they are based. Two types of approaches can be distinguished here: those which are motivated 1) psychologically and 2) pragmatically. The factor mentioned above, that of the low self-esteem, belongs to the psychologically motivated type and is known as an inferiority complex which makes a child feel that (s)he is of less worth or importance than other schoolchildren are. It causes certain schoolchildren to be very shy and not able to withstand calling them by nicknames, whereas others become aggressive and try to attract attention by any means, by the use of nicknames in particular.

Another psychologically specified motivation is diametrically opposite to an inferiority complex and is known as a superiority complex. It is experienced by children who believe they are better than others within and beyond their peer groups. They try to hold higher position or authority over others. Addressing their peers by nicknames they put them down which makes such “superiors” feel more important.

To pragmatically motivated factors belong such which cause kids to use inappropriate names for peers out of a) ignorance (they either don’t know the proper name or don’t understand how sensitive others are to certain names), or b) solidarity, links of fellowship, common goals and interests, etc. This is the case when teenagers enjoy being addressed by the nickname, a sign of unity and common ground which cannot be trespassed by an outsider, or c) attitude of the nominator to the nominee. The attitude towards the nominee can be (dis)respectful, demeaning, offensive (even insulting), authoritative, affectionate, ironical, humorous, etc. Specifically, humour underlies most schoolchildren’s nicknames, be they schoolmates’ or teachers’ nicknames.

Confined in their use to the “inner” informal discourse, primarily among pupils of the same class, nicknames have a limited circulation. In a formal discourse, to call by a nickname is considered to be an inadvertent slip of the tongue or a violation of ethical rules of behaviour intended, for instance, to produce a mocking or any other positive or negative effect. The intrusion of nicknames into the official communication is invariably ostracized by teachers.

As mentioned above, the attitude of the nominee to the nominator and the nickname bestowed on him/her can range from positive to negative. If the nickname is perceived as offensive the nominee can only pretend to be indifferent. This is probably the only way to neutralize the offensive name-calling.

Kids are very imaginative and creative if to use the words metaphorically. They are cruel towards their mates and seniors in coining nicknames. It can be illustrated by nicknames in which physical and mental defects (one’s lameness, shortsightedness, squint, dullness, speech disorder) are singled out, e. g. Слепой ‘blind’, Косой ‘cross-eyed’, ‘squint’, Заика ‘stammerer, Хромой ‘lame’, etc. As we know from the linguistic history of names this is the case when bodily and mental defects and corresponding nicknames motivate family names, that is when from the nickname Косой we have the surname Косых, from the nickname Заика - the surname Заикин. This process has always been active within peer groups. Interestingly, if to consider kids’ nicknames versus adults’ it becomes obvious that in urban areas adults’ nicknames are completely discarded whereas in rural they are still traceable. In this case two names co­exist - one a family name and the other a nickname.

Pragmatically and semantically, humour, fun, mockery, irony, etc. are but a few of the decisive factors which cause the emergence of nicknames alongside the linguistic choice of their formation. Here, nicknames reveal a vigorous creative linguistic activity of kids, their highly developed ability to produce, appreciate and enjoy linguistic coinages.

Psychologists say that humour is an inborn feeling like threat, affection, hunger, or thirst which develops with the time and tells on nicknames as a major manifestation of it (Bernet 1994:10; Thorson 1994:17; Sherman, Oppenheimer 1994:18). This idea is further endorsed by linguists who view nicknames as a manifestation of metapragmatic language play. According to Howard (2009:339), children capitalize upon linguistic forms to breach expectations drawing on complex linguistic, contextual and pragmatic knowledge to create maximally humorous language play, and that via nicknames children are socialized into practices of language acquisition producing their own childhood culture. I may seem categorical to suggest that this type of kids’ humour is common to all children worldwide though questionnaires and informal talks with native speakers of English testify to the fact that nicknaming is not very popular with American children and even less so with the British children whereas in Ukraine kids’ nicknames do appear to be part of children’s linguistic culture. Real life, literature, feature films, TV characters fully attest to this. Such nicknames as Мальвіна and Буратіно drawn from the famous animated cartoon applied to kids who resemble these characters outwardly can be in place here.

The matter of gender is of special interest. Formerly, boys were preferred to girls to be nicknamed. Gender differences caused the choice of a ‘negative’ or ‘positive’ nickname. Girls were much more likely to have a ‘positive’ nickname like Красотка - ‘a beauty’, Бариня - ‘a lady’ (though sometimes used ironically) and less likely to bear a ‘negative‘ nickname. The case with the boys was diametrically opposite. This might account for the fact that girls being by nature very touchy, shy and quiet were very sensitive about their nicknames. One may suppose that they were not given nicknames simply to spare their feelings ‘as such of weak creatures’. Another reasoning might be that they were biased not to attract attention, thus being not the target of nicknaming. Attention-getters were primarily characteristic features of boys’ behaviour - more aggressive and noisier. Hence the availability of such nicknames as Термінатор and Дракула (from horror films), Камаз - ‘finding no obstacles to overcome, going through like tank’, Удав - ‘boa, a large water snake’. Nowadays, things change rapidly. This primarily concerns annihilation of gender differences in speech behaviour of boys and girls. Now girls as well as boys are endowed with “spicy” nicknames like Вонючка - ‘stinky’, Голка - ‘a needle’, Колючка - ‘a thorn’, Вискочка - ‘an upstart’.

Structurally, a common way of coining nicknames is a reduction of a family name to the given name underlying it, like Юхим from Юхименко. In doing so the original inner form of a family name is made alive in a derived nickname as in Цыган from Цыганков, Крот from Круцких, or Козел from Козловский, Ulya stands for Ulyachenko. Nicknames based on kids’ family names seem to make up the largest group. They are usually shorter than respective family names. Some such nicknames result from backformation since they are names of objects underlying respective names as in Vorobey after Vorobyov, Kozak after Kozakov. The reverse occurs when nicknames are derived from family names by means of word-formation. Such nicknames are larger in size and more semantically complex than their family-name counterparts as in Коржик from Корж.

Patronymics are much less common for nicknaming than family names. For instance, Boriska from Sergey Borisovich or Stepashka from Ivan Stepanovich. Nicknames of this type are commonly diminutives. Characteristically, many such names sound as pet-names, thus reflecting a positive attitude of the nominator to the nominee.

Still less common are nickname blends - formations from first name and patronymics as in Marivana from Maria Ivanovna or Marimuha from Maria Mihaylovna where the nickname was prompted by the phonetic similarity of the two complexes.

Another approach is semantic: metaphoric and metonymic. Nicknames based on metaphor and metonymy are the most picturesque. They are very imaginative and demonstrate the kids’ keen power of observation and, at the same time, the vitality of language processes in kids’ linguistic performance. Here are some examples of metaphoric nicknames: Лиса - ‘fox’ used for a red-haired or cunning girl; Мишка - ‘bear’ for a clumsy boy; Пончик - ‘a doughnut for a plump, short woman-teacher; Доска - ‘board’ for a very thin and tall boy; Кнопка - ‘ a drawing-pin’ or Пуговка - ‘ a button’ for a short girl; Кузнечик

- ‘a grasshopper’ for a teacher of gymnastics commonly dressed in a green-coloured sport suit; Профессор - ‘professor’ for a pupil of profound knowledge, getting excellent marks, wearing glasses or, ironically, for the one lagging behind in studies.

Referents of one and the same nickname can be different in different classes. Names of animals and birds like Дятел - ‘woodpecker ’ for a telltale who gives away information, often about something that is meant to be secret, Гусь - ‘goose ’ for one who thinks high of him-or herself, Селедка - ‘herring’ for a very thin girl also serve to this end.

Sometimes two pupils in the class are given nicknames after theatrical characters forming a couple as in Штепсель і Тарапунька (who once were very popular actors. In his life Штепсель was short and Тарапунька was tall); Слон і Моська (characters from a fable by Krylov). These nicknames pertain especially to close friends whose height and strength are contrasted.

Metonymic nicknames can be illustrated with names of objects and people’s occupation. These can be such examples as Шайба - ‘a puck’ used for the captain of the school hockey team; Циркуль - ’compasses ’ - for the teacher of drawing; Квадрат - ‘a quadrant - for the teacher of Mathematics. A teacher of History who had a tooth pulled out and could not pronounce the word фараон - ‘pharaon’ properly ( exchanged “f” for “p”) immediately became Парамон for this class. ( Парамон is a Christian name which sounds similar to фараон ).

It must be noted here that teachers’ nicknames are used in schoolchildren’s discourse descriptively, with reference to the nominee as a third person and never addressed directly. Otherwise it would be extremely impolite and offensive. For this reason many teachers are ignorant of what they are called by kids. It should also be noted that teachers’ nicknames are easily transferable from class to class. The knowledge is willingly shared by kids and thus teachers’ nicknames are usually common for kids of the entire school.

By bestowing a nickname on a kid a particular feature of a person is singled out and fixed by way of direct (like Толстый - lit. ‘stout’) or indirect / figurative name-calling like Кабан - lit. ’boar’; Слон - lit. ‘elephant; Клизма - lit. enema; Проволока - lit. ‘wire’. Funny for the youth audience, some such names can at the same time be offensive (even insulting) to a person named, particularly if some affliction is highlighted in the nickname. Sometimes, the choice of a nickname may seem to appear arbitrary. In fact, it is so only to the uninitiated outsider. Cf. Трансформатор - lit. ‘electric transformer’ which is bestowed upon a teacher who constantly finds faults with his pupils, who continuously blames them, who in Ukrainian slang гудe ‘buzzes’. Often spontaneously emerging as a jocular nonce word, such nickname may accompany a person during his lifetime.

The communicative effect of nicknaming is in the choice of linguistic expression which best suits the communicative situation. With the change of communicative situation nicknames may take other language forms and, accordingly, obtain other meanings.

The concatenation of two different words makes the connection between the nickname and the nominee difficult to decode if the allusion to the source is not clear as in the Crocodile, the nickname of a schoolboy whose real name was Геннадий, the short for which is Гена. The explanation lies in the fact that in a popular Russian cartoon film one of the characters, the Crocodile, bore the name Гена.

As far as teachers’ nicknames are concerned it must be noted that they are never used openly in direct address even in informal talk, to say nothing of the formal discourse when they are rigorously banned in any form of usage.

To sum up, schoolchildren’s nicknames can be regarded as a very active and widespread name-calling in common practice and a good candidate for the label of one of the universal linguistic phenomena. As follows from the analysis nicknaming is closely related to such sociolinguistic and pragmasemantic notions as reference, meaning, functioning. A cross-cultural approach to the study of nicknames can be a new trend in anthroponomastics which may prove to be of great help in attesting to the universal laws of human’s cognition. What has been discussed in this paper is but an outline of some aspects of enormous subject which presents interest for language students.

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