Je M’appelle Gummy Bear

Some years ago, when I still lived in Florida, I became fascinated with the French version of a meme song that was a hit in the United States called “Je M’appelle Gummy Bear.”  There were other versions of the song too, including one in German, but it was the French version that I found most humorous, although I could not honestly explain why this is the case.  Perhaps it was simply a matter that the sound of the French lyrics to the song struck me as more humorous than the same lyrics in English or German, the other languages I listened to this nearly forgotten novelty hit in.  Be that as it may, there is a very good reason why it is that I have remembered this song and its relevance relating to the question of the subtle differences between foreign languages and concerns about objective truth and identity [1].  We live in an age that is consumed with identity, and it is worthwhile to recognize how our language can have a subtle influence on how it is that we deal with such simple questions as “what is your name?”

Indeed, the question “what is your name” is such a basic one that every language has a form of it and it is generally among the first phrases that someone will learn when it comes to personal conversation.  The reasons for this are obvious, but it is worth explaining them anyway.  Whenever we communicate with someone it is of the utmost importance who it is that we happen to be communicating with.  How we address someone and the sort of subjects we discuss will vary greatly depending on the identity of the person we are talking to.  Knowing someone’s name can allow us to build a sense of rapport with someone, as we comment that someone has the same name as one of our friends or relatives, or has a particularly pleasant sound or meaning.  In the contemporary age, names can be a matter of great contention as some people view their given and legal names as “deadnames” that they do not wish to be called, while calling themselves by some other name that they wish to enforce on others so as not to be reminded of aspects of their identity that they would wish to downplay or reject.

And it is here where language can have a subtle difference when dealing with this aspect of reality.  In English, the question “what is your name” and the answer “my name is…” are both questions dealing with objective truth.  When someone asks you what your name is, they are dealing with something official and objective.  My name is Nathan, and I tend to feel a compulsive sense of correcting people who call me by names I loathe such as Nate or Nat.  I am really bothered by being called shortened forms of my given name and am very precise about making sure that everyone knows what my name is so that they can address me properly by my legal and given name.  Not everyone is quite so fierce about this matter as I am, but quite often I have seen people correct others as to the proper spelling or pronunciation of their name so that other people can use their names properly, and this is a just and proper way to deal with such matters.

Most languages, though, do not ask the question of name in such an objective fashion, though.  In Spanish, for example, the question “como te llamas” or “como se llama” and the answer “me llamo” are generally viewed as the equivalent forms to the English question and answer about one’s name, but this is not exactly the case.  The same is true for the French “comment vous appelez-vous” or “comment tu t’appelles” (depending on whether one is speaking to a superior or an equal) and the response “je m’appelle…”  In both Spanish and French, and many other languages, the question being asked is not “what is your name” but rather “what do you call yourself?” and the answer is not “my name is” but rather “I call myself.”  And that is an important difference, because it deals not with identity and nomenclature as an objective truth (as is the case in English) but rather with a subjective identity that we claim for ourselves.  As I mentioned earlier, my name is Nathan but if I were a different sort of person than I am I could call myself any number of things.  I could go by a short or distinct form of my name or want people to call me by my middle name or whatever name I happened to choose for myself.  My name would still be Nathan, as that is my objective name, the one that appears on all of my official identification, but I may not call myself by my name or want others to call me by my name.   It is an increasingly serious problem in the contemporary world that not only do people often want to be called by something other than their given name but that they are actively hostile to the names that they were given, to the point of wanting those names obliterated from existence in many cases, or viewing the act of being called by their names as some sort of hate crime because it is not the name that they have chosen for themselves.

This is by no means a new problem.  In most cases, people are given names by their parents for whatever reason.  I happen to be greatly fond of my own given name to the extent that I am frequently known in public and on social media by the full form of my name as it was given, so that there is no difference whatsoever between my given and legal name and the name I like to call myself and like others to call me.  Not everyone happens to like the names that they were given, though, for whatever reason.  The boxer Cassius Clay chose for himself the name of Muhammad Ali during his adulthood, viewing his given name as some sort of slave name that did not reflect his own religious beliefs or his own desire to escape being named after an ancestor’s master.  Even if Islam has no better a track record than nominal Christianity when it comes to racial oppression and the slavery of black Africans (and a great deal worse such behavior in the present age), it is understandable that someone may wish to escape a name that is tied to an unpleasant historical legacy of slavery and oppression.  Similarly, people who for whatever reason do not identify with their God-given and objective physical identities seek names that better reflect their own self-chosen identities, and often show a high degree of resentment to being called by names that reflect rejected but objective realities.  What we call ourselves and what we actually are may not in fact be anything close to each other, just as what others call us may not accurately reflect what we are, and what we are in our own eyes and what we are in the eyes of God or others may not correspond with each other either.  Our quarrels about identity are a reminder of the fundamental worldview differences that exist between ourselves and others and disagreements about the legitimacy of our own perspective and that of others who may have very different beliefs than we do.  It is perhaps of little surprise that these differences in thinking about objective realities or subjective identities should manifest themselves in our languages as well.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in History, Music History, Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Je M’appelle Gummy Bear

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    Your and your brother’s names were chosen with great care and very thorough consideration because I had both the subjective and objective perspectives in mind. I selected them precisely due to their intrinsic meaning and spiritual significance. It was also very important that they should flow together in a pleasant manner and that they convey a masculine tone. Using the formal or abbreviated version of one’s name may reflect one’s personal preference but, in your and your brother’s case, I wanted you both to feel proud of them. Your brother introduces himself in an informal manner; however, I like the fact that he uses his full legal name on his voice mail.

    • Yes, and while I do not know the extent to which most parents choose the names of their children with an eye to their meaning as well as how they sound, I think far too people are too quick to dislike the names they were given without proper reflection.

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