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Working with Names from Around the World Twitter Facebook Print E-mail
Written by Cindy Conlin   
Tuesday, 09 June 2009

One of the first steps in building global software is to recognize that many assumptions Americans often hold about how people’s names work are not universally true. Much of the software used by the Church use people’s names, and we’ve found an amazing amount of diversity in the name-related traditions of different cultures. Can you distinguish fact from fiction in the name myths?

Myth 1:

The concepts “first name” and “last name” are consistent across cultures. 

False. In America, we use the Western name order, and so Americans instinctively know that the last name in George Timothy Clooney is also the family name. By contrast, several other cultures place names in the Eastern order, always listing the family name first. For example, the Chinese will always use Jacki Chan’s Chinese name in the order “Chan Kong Sang”, and they know that the first name “Chan” is the family name.

As a result, if you label name fields in your global software with the position-based terms FirstName and LastName, you may not get what you expect.

Myth 2:

All names are about the same length as American names.

False. When it comes to name lengths, we see both extremes. Most Chinese and Korean names are only three characters long, and other cultures have names that can be 80 characters or more. 

Myth 3:

Family members share an identical family name, except in "blended" families.

False. Unlike in American culture, where members of a family typically share an identical family name (except for step families), some cultures have traditions that result in a majority of people having a different family name than their father or husband does. Family members do not share identical family names in cultures that have:

  • Gender-specific family names, like in Russia
  • Double family names (one inherited from each parent), such as in Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries
  • Patronyms, or names based on a father’s given name, such as in Iceland
  • No tradition of women changing their names upon marriage, such as in a number of Asian and Hispanic cultures 

Myth 4:

Some cultures give individuals only a single-word name.

True. In cultures that do not have the concept of a family name, each individual is given only a single-word name, or a mononym. Mononyms are used in parts of India, Indonesia, and Pakistan. People in Mongolia are currently making the transition from mononyms to names that include a family name. 

Myth 5:

People change their names because of life events other than marriage.

True. While most men in America never change their names, and most women in America change their names only upon marriage, in some cultures people change their names at many other life events, such as: 

  • Becoming a widow
  • At the birth of one's first son
  • At the death of one's parents
  • Upon coming of age
  • Upon becoming a chief
  • Upon becoming wealthy 

Myth 6:

You can support Japanese without adding additional name fields.

False. If you are building software that will support Japanese names, you need to add additional name fields to store the pronunciation of each name. This is essential if you intend to sort the names, which must be ordered by their pronunciation. Why is this necessary? Because the Kanji characters used to write Japanese names can be pronounced a number of different ways, only one of which is correct for the specific person.

Myth 7:

Some parents invent new characters for their children's names.

True. In Asian cultures, some parents will use ancient, rare, or even invented characters for their children’s names. These characters, of course, are not in Unicode and so can be supported in computers only by creating a custom font that contains “user-defined” or “private use” characters. These characters can cause significant problems if the names are shared between several systems that may not have the custom font.

This issue is causing problems for several Asian governments, and so they are passing laws to stop parents from doing this. (See New laws don’t change the fact that many individuals already have names with these types of characters, and so our systems either have to specifically block their entry or make appropriate adjustments to support them.


As you can imagine, these concepts have significant consequences for the design of our global software. Building global software for names can be tricky, but can also be incredibly interesting and even fun.

Cindy Conlin is a senior engineer for the Church.

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