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Assume this is a small city of about 5,000 residents, in a modern day time period. This city isn't geographically or culturally isolated from its surroundings, and it trades often within neighboring areas (where all residents have names). I just need some sort of rationale for why the residents of this particular city have no use for names (regardless of whether the names are one word or longer).

To be clear, titles like the doctor, our leader, and my father are all still in use, but actual names, like Dr. James or King George, are not. In addition, this only applies to the names of people; the city itself still has a commonly used name. In most cases, when referring to someone without a title, the residents of the city used pronouns like he or she.

Why would a city not use names?

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    $\begingroup$ What happens when somebody moves in or moves out? $\endgroup$ – John Feltz Nov 28 '16 at 21:52
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    $\begingroup$ There's at least one culture I know of that already does this, at least partially, as outlined in my answer below. You don't have to reinvent the wheel--look to that as inspiration! However, I will say that the cultures that do this, will tend to have nicknames, for informal purposes, so I also outlined the instances where they'd be used. With the pop. being only 5,000 you aren't going to have as many problems with mistaken identity as you would in a larger city. If it was larger you'd have some problems to solve. $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Nov 28 '16 at 22:40
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    $\begingroup$ Sounds like a terrible society to live in, where the individual is considered unimportant save for their function in society. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Nov 28 '16 at 22:42
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    $\begingroup$ @AndreiROM For someone from an individualistic society, that might sound terrible, but for those cultures more focused on where you fit in society, an individualistic culture would seem insane and selfish. They might wonder how it could possibly work without strict societal parameters and wonder at a society where the individual's needs and identity are considered more important than respect for position and honoring society. All POV really. $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Nov 28 '16 at 23:18
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    $\begingroup$ Religious taboo? Also lots of places have a strong formality convention that only surnames are used in public and have few common surnames for almost everybody which is quite similar (e.g. Korea and China and multiple places in Latin America). Literary convention is the fey are jealous of names. $\endgroup$ – ohwilleke Nov 29 '16 at 3:58

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It's all about culture! Use the Balinese as your Model.

Some cultures already do this. Here's a link to Balinese naming conventions. Every first-born kid is named Wayan. And each kid after that gets a name specific to the order in which they were born. It's a bit like naming your kids First, Second and Third. These are more like titles, which tell people what your order is--within a family. Take a look at the link above, and you'll find that most of the names are actually titles. The names let anyone hearing them know your caste and rank. They are foreign unless you speak the language, but each name carries meaning as to your place in society--names that mean leader, and so on.

As to reasons for a naming system focused solely on profession, rank or caste, it would be prevalent in a society that values that more than individuality. That's your identity.

It can also be a vestige of an old society, and considered bad manners to use anything but a title (as Tezra pointed out).

Even in these societies, nicknames are prevalent, but they are reserved for those close to you, such as family or close friends, whose social rank is probably equivalent to yours or higher than yours. So, you might refer to an Aunt by her title out of respect, (although she might be the foreign minster or something, you would call her by her relationship to you, Aunt, because she outranks you within your family, although she might call you by a family nickname because you are of lower status to her, and her brother might use the family nickname for her) Anyone else, at a job, in public or anything else, would be called by their job/caste title.

There will be problems with this system, as there is in countries where people share names. The Balinese don't actually have surnames, BTW.

You might also want to take a look at naming conventions from Thailand. They don't follow the specific pattern, but it might be useful. Nicknames in in Thai cultures tend to be things like "Fat" (even if you were only chubby in childhood) or "Laughing One" or "Red" because your face was red as baby when you cried...

EDIT: Despite there being names in the Indian culture, I am going to recommend you read the book Kim By Rudyard Kipling. The way titles are used in this book and the way people refer to each other by status or title when they don't know each other (and even when they do) might be interesting to you. Plus, it's an awesome book. Bit racist (it's Kipling, and of a certain time, so is to be expected) but there's cultural stuff that tracks to what you're looking for: "Where are you from and what caste?" Is more important than "What is your name?" Most often, despite having names, people are called "Sahib" or "the lama" or "the Curator." And because Kim is a child of the streets, sometimes he will get a nickname right away, like "young tiger" from the ladies of the bazar or from the lama, "Chela" which means student/disciple. Just a good book to understand the cultural basis for titled people rather than named people, even if they do have proper names (like Kim) as well.

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Individualism is disincentivised

I once read a book where it was forbidden to say "I" in order that people might be less self-centered. Banning names could serve a similar idea - each individual only has meaning as part of a political unit of some sort. "Head of the Smith family" if you want to preserve last names, "Cobbler from Main St," "Sergeant of the 9th Guards Batallion."

Names are power

The idea of "true names" is common - know someone's name and you have power over them. While people do have names, they never use them, for letting another person know their name would open them up to magical control.

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    $\begingroup$ The latter is common among fairies in literature. $\endgroup$ – ohwilleke Nov 29 '16 at 4:02
  • $\begingroup$ There is a Wikipedia page for True Name that lists a few occurrences in popular culture $\endgroup$ – Aaron Nov 29 '16 at 15:00
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Because it is rude

There is a concept of 'true names' and that to know someones name is to hold power over them. This would mean they still have names, but avoid using them out of social pressure / religious fear. This would mean that asking them their name would be considered extremely rude to them, and telling them your name might be mistaken as a confession of love (or to a group, make you harder to trust, as they may believe your mind may no longer be your own if you give your name freely, or feel compelled to offer a false name). A society like this might also give people superfluous titles like "The Doctor" or "The Master" or "The Head of Cabbage"

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  • $\begingroup$ Head of Cabbage Who? $\endgroup$ – SPavel Nov 29 '16 at 15:41
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    $\begingroup$ When you notice a cat in profound meditation, the reason, I tell you, is always the same: his mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name: his ineffable effable effanineffable deep and inscrutable singular Name. (T. S. Eliot, "The Naming of Cats") $\endgroup$ – AlexP Nov 29 '16 at 17:12
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Names are a symbolic means of conveying concept of individual identity. I can only come up with a couple of scenarios where a society would do away with them.

The first is that individual identity is irrelevant. There are already several answers exploring this option and I don't know that I have anything to add to them.

The second is that a simpler means of conveying this concept has been developed. Several other people have explored options regarding identity by occupation, status, location, etc. Our societies have moved away from these methods as names were simpler and easier, particularly as individuals became more mobile and may live or work in several different areas/fields over the course of their lifetime.

I would present an alternative possibility, if it fits your world, in which people have some means of identifying the subject of conversation outside of the spoken word. A limited form of telepathy or perception comes to mind. Something where the unique life signature of a subject can easily be seen and conveyed without having to apply a name to them.

One option is that everyone has a unique signature or aura that is apparent at birth and never changes. People are able to perceive this aura and communicate its essence to each other, so that when I ask someone to deliver a message to my friend who lives across town they immediately know when they have found the correct person based on the signature I projected when making the request.

Another variation, and I think the more interesting one, would be an aura that reflects a persons life experiences. These would evolve and morph over time as the individual experiences significant life events. My view of you would be based on where you were in your life the last time I saw you, if some significant event had occurred since then, your signature would have changed but it would still incorporate the view I had of you. Think in terms of a glyphic language, where a simple glyph can convey a basic concept, but by adding embellishments and/or incorporating other glyphs I can add context and details to provide a greater meaning. Under this system skilled readers would be able to track the general flow of someone's life from the study of their aura. "Well hello there, I see you have gotten married since we last met. And you have a child on the way, how exciting!"

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For various cultural or societal reasons, anonymity is required.

Say, a town where all the inhabitants are members of a guild or guilds of thieves, assassins, or other professions in which it is unhealthy to know anyone's name.

Or, perhaps it is one of those towns, where what happens there, stays there.

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Because names cause corruption.

Names have the ability to hold immense amounts of power. I bet most people who read this know of some famous celebrities, or their leaders. If Barack Obama was simply known as 'Leader', then in a few months, Donald trump was known as 'Leader', people would be much more inclined to judge people based on how well they perform, rather than hold a sentiment to them. This is because both of the people are known as 'Leader', but may perform differently.

you wouldn't buy a product because 'Basket Ball Player' told you to. However, you may purchase that product if Lebron James told you to.

The fact is, names hold too much power in society, and it would fix many performing issues if people were known by their titles.

This would also mean that anyone unemployed would probably be referred to as vagabond, encouraging a working-class society.

it would also be hard to distinguish children, as they don't have titles. people would have to say something like "get over here, kid with the curly hair"

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    $\begingroup$ "it would also be hard to distinguish children, as they don't have titles. people would have to say something like "get over here, kid with the curly hair" Which could lead to increased racism, or some other discrimination by physical appearance. $\endgroup$ – 10 Replies Nov 28 '16 at 23:03
  • $\begingroup$ @10Replies or maybe [parent's title]_Firstborn, SecondBorn, etc. $\endgroup$ – tuskiomi Aug 17 '17 at 17:23
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Old-fashioned family naming fusing with modern street-naming.

In Europe, many family names were tied to either a profession or a place of residence. John Smith was a blacksmith, Benny Hill had a farm on a hill. Today, in many American cities, there is a numbering system for streets that replaces actual street names. For instance, the "3200 block" denoting a block in the Chicago street system or "corner of E 42nd Street and 2nd Avenue" in New York.

Now if John Smith sets up shop in 3200 block, he is known to all as "the smith on 3200 block". As profession + precise location is enough to distinguish him, there's no need for "John", which was just causing people to confuse him with the 83 other Johns in that little town.

Benny Hill meanwhile, for whom surnames and location is one and the same, changes his surname to 3215, that being his house number. (Note that prior to naming reforms in the 20th century, it was common for farmers that moved onto a new farm to take that farmname as their new surname) So he's Benny 3215, but he is only referred to as "the bachelor on 3215" or "clerk 3215" or even "3215" in his working life and official documents. The city's administration treats the houses as the basic unit of the city and do not tax people, but households. They talk about "the annual income of 3392" and the number of people living there is just a property of household 3392. Benny may still call himself "Benny", but there will be no record of that for posterity.

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You can quite easily get away without people using surnames since that's a quite a modern invention which happened with strengthening the state and especially the need for taxation. Check Seeing like a State

the construction of straight, gridlike streets in cities; and the introduction of fixed surnames -- modern states have implemented systems of classification that allow them greater control over resources and the lives of their citizens.

from the review

Locals don't care about Joe having a surname, since they could always differentiate which Joe are you talking about. However state needs to know which Joe are you talking about, and did that person payed taxes, is eligible for draft, needs to serve in a jury etc. That's why State insisted that people have surnames and identification numbers that prove who they are.

As for the not using first names, that's too quite common even today, but people usually call themselves by nicknames, which quite often, though not always have something to do with their occupation. In few cities in my country asking about someone by their legal name will meet you with nothing but blank stares from the locals.

If your city is quite small having one Doctor, Butcher or Brewer might make sense, but when there's more then one people need a way to differentiate them. Since there's probably more then one farmer or shopkeeper, how would I know which one are you talking about?

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    $\begingroup$ And a lot of surnames started as things like "son/daughter of x" or as descriptions of someone's profession (Joe the baker versus Joe the blacksmith, etc.) anyway. $\endgroup$ – JAB Nov 29 '16 at 1:14
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    $\begingroup$ Great answer! No names=small government or no government! +1 $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Nov 29 '16 at 17:02
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Your 'name' is what you do

Every doctor is called "doctor". Every blacksmith is called "smith". And so on. Society works with the assumption that every doctor and smith work the same as all the others. It's the ultimate utilitarian state. Without individuality, there's not much need for distinctions between individuals such as names. Such a society is probably not possible for humans given the way we think; sentient ants might have better luck with it.

Anonymous city

The people of the city suffer from amnesia or literally cannot tell each other apart. An individual might stand up proclaiming to be a doctor, but after treating his fellow citizens blends into the crowd, becoming yet another anonymous face. All relationships are ephemereal at best, what good is a name if you'll never see that person again as far as you know?

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You might simply say that the city rejected individualism in favor of collectivism. Who a person is (their name) doesn't matter; all that matters is what they contribute to the community as a whole (their title). At that point you could essentially refer to every adult by their job title (plus some modifier if distinguishing between, say, teachers becomes important), and then children by "[descriptive] child of [parent]".

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Using a true name could be bad luck, think of the many books where people find out a true name (in some old/true language). Of course here the language has some kind of magical property (see the Eragon cycle by Paolini, or The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, and I'm sure I'm forgetting a few here, feel free to add in the comments).

In George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, the Unsullied do not use their original names because they got caught by slavers while they used their original name. Instead, they choose a new name each day. Grey Worm keeps the name 'Grey Worm' in the end because it is the name he had when Daenerys freed him, and it is therefore a lucky name. Also in ASOIAF, Missandei refers to herself as 'this one', instead of 'I', we don't know why. Arya and the Faceless Men refer to Arya as 'a girl', because she needs to let go of her old identity and become 'no one'. Gilly refuses to give her son a name because he is too young and could die (in the TV series, he's called 'Little Sam'). The Night's Watch members give up their family names and titles (though not their first names). These examples, except for the baby, all indicate that the collective is more important than the individual.

Names are strongly tied to identity. If you have a society with a strong collective feel, where individual accomplishments only count toward the greater good, there might be no need for a strong individual identity.

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  • $\begingroup$ minor point, the unsullied were stripped of their names and randomly assigned a new one each day as a means of dehumanizing them and stripping them of their individuality. It was a process imposed by the masters as part of their conditioning rather than voluntary. $\endgroup$ – Rozwel Nov 29 '16 at 19:39
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Same as (older) English names

Baker, Smith, Butcher, Goodman (must have been a good guy I guess), Longbottom (not too sure...), Potter—names which are actually just professions and descriptions.

But what if two people have the same job?!

Then they can have the same name. That's not unheard of.

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The city contains the shrine of a notoriously difficult god, whose influence is indispensable for some purposes, but in whose vicinity it is especially dangerous to mention true names. This is why the city has a peculiar custom not shared by other settlements of the same culture.

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This has been given multiple times as the answer, but breaking individuality. Not using the name strips the glory from performing a task. Nobody can link the work and the person that did it. This would create a hive mind. Taking a name would be a taboo, because it would break the singularity and thus the harmonic status quo. There could be some really nasty dreadful history with the individualism, that would make people really disgusted with egoism.

I think that this is a problematic concept, because even the computers give names for the memory locations.

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Avoiding the discussion of how a city can function without using names as already addressed in other answers and focusing strictly on "Why would a city not use names?" Here is a possibility:

In the distant past there was a founder or a hero or other local celebrity. After the deeds this person performed all children were named for this great character in hopes that they might be as wonderful (maybe Alex and Alexis or some such after Alexander the Great for an example). This tradition stuck and continued over the years to the point where older generations died off and younger generations continued out of tradition, and everyone in town that is still living has the same name.

If everyone in town has the same name (based on old traditions) the names are meaningless and will not be used. Other identifiers will be used instead as needed.

As a bonus, the common name that was at one point used by all members of town could be the name of (or part of the name of) the town. Everyone in town is Alex of Alexandria.

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The city is named Iagerf and is in fact a military base, every resident there is a soldier.

The base location isn't secret, you could easily find it in maps and drive to there by car. However, it's purpose is very secret. Only authorized people are allowed to enter.

If you ask to any random resident there, what is his name, he will promptly answer "John Smith". Get another random resident, and the answer will be "John Smith". A third one, and his name is "John Smith".

Oh, you found a woman there, her name is "Susan". There is another woman over there, she's called "Susan". The girl in the other street is also called "Susan".

So, what is its purpose afterall? Human genetic engineering! The purpose is to create a perfect loyal army, made of clones. Those people are severely trained and brainwashed since their birth, so they don't have any sense of identity and won't trust nor socialize with outsiders. By the way, this is the reason why the city is called Iagerf - Ideal Army Genetic Engineering Research Facility.

Iagerfians do occasionally have some contact with outsiders, either because insiders will ocasionally leave the city for some days or because the city is visited by authorized outsiders. Outsiders, however, will be puzzled observing that those people all have the same names, have very similar looking faces and don't speak too much about their own lives. If they have a question to solve with some of them, it would be really hard to tell which one.

Since insiders rarely go outside and outsiders rarely come inside the city, it will be hard to tell that what is going on. Outside of the city, you will never be able to spot a large number of insiders together, they were trained to avoid being closer one to the other when outside so people will not perceive that there is something fishy going on. This way, most of the outsiders will become unaware that they are all very similar in appearance.

Those people may also possess identification cards, driving licenses, banking accounts, etc, all with the same names. However, they are always exchanging those between theirselves, with the purpose of making them as collective and as non-identifiable as possible. To make things worse, they all have a health condition that make them have really weak digital imprints.

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Each individual in the city has a unique purpose, a strict and unchangeable role given by the society. I.e there is one doctor, one postman, one teacher, and so on. So each individual is described only by their function and nothing else.

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protected by Serban Tanasa Nov 29 '16 at 20:30

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