I have an alternate history epoch taking place in 10th Century Islamic Renaissance, but I have a large Bedouin tribe that does not use anything to indicate a person's name or identity. This is a big Catch 22 every time I try to wrap my head about it.

I don't want a number or symbol, I want it to be foreign for this tribe to refer to someone specifically. Historically, they might say they are son or daughter of so-and-so (Bin So-and-so / Bint So-and-so), but I want to avoid any way to name a person.

In an effort to prevent this from being idea-generating or too-broad, and to be able to select a correct answer, I'll narrow it with the following:

  • Our 10th Century Arabic world;
  • People must be able to provide a response; if asked by the Caliphate "who did this," they cannot answer;
  • Numbers or symbols are not acceptable, as this would give identity.

In the end, I need a mechanism to make it impossible for someone in the tribe to name someone when questioned at length about 'whodunnit' even if they wanted to. I think that this is impossible, so I'm bringing it to our WB brains.

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented Oct 3, 2017 at 17:02

33 Answers 33


People would be referred to in a relative manner only. So the person being questioned could refer to “my father”, “my second teacher”, “my kind neighbor” etc. But a stranger could not go back to this town and use the same labels. It would be “X's father”, but then who is X? Without producing him, they cannot get a base for relative designations. Without knowing the town’s people in some detail, such references don’t even make sense when used by people there.

These people would have to carefully use only designations that are relative to themselves. Referring to something absolute, like “the mayor” (when there is only one) is a taboo.

There is still some intermediate ground though—the outsider might kill all the barbers because the target is “X’s barber”.

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    $\begingroup$ I like this and particularly the way it makes for interesting questions of identity as everyone will have many identities relative to who is talking about them. Of course, how two people from the tribe know they are talking about the same person is a difficult question. $\endgroup$
    – glenatron
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 16:27
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    $\begingroup$ Using referential identities only works if they only question one person. If they question most of the tribe, they would be able to build up a map of all the relationships between people and work out the guilty party. $\endgroup$
    – adelphus
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 17:05
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    $\begingroup$ My neice's friend's cousin's barber's wife knows someone who does this all the time in the real world anyway. $\endgroup$
    – Sidney
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 18:07
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    $\begingroup$ This having been common in small communities is illustrated by this old joke from rural eastern Europe. A bishop is traveling through a small village and asks the way from a child. The child replies "got ahead, then turn left at my godfather's potato farm". As the bishop explains he is not from here and he doesn't know who the child's godfather is and where his farm is, the child replies: "who was so stupid to make a bishop out of such an ignorant person! In this village everyone, even the fool, knows where my godfather's potato farm is!" $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 19:11
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    $\begingroup$ @glenatron: With small enough tribes, they know each others, and therefore it's perfectly obvious to you that my second maternal aunt is your uncle's wife. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 12, 2017 at 6:04

So you want to do away with personal names? Seems like a daunting task. Names relate directly to a fundamental element of intelligence: identity. Humans aren't even unique in the animal kingdom in that they have names; dolphins have them too.

If you remove the capacity of a culture to be able to identify the perpetrator of an event, then you must strip away any concept of individualism within the society. There would be no 'me,' 'you,' or 'him.'

Instead of:

Michael planted the tree.

She painted the Hills of San Jose.

You would have:

The tree was planted.

The Hills of San Jose was painted.

This has interesting ramifications. If the society needs to identify, then it will identify as a collective:

We planted the tree.

We painted the Hills of San Jose.

There's no longer assignment of blame or accolades for a job well done. The Community succeeded. The Community failed. There is only The Borg Community.

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    $\begingroup$ Pretty sure the borg are a bit ahead of them technology seeing as how there not a space faring assimilating civilisation $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 16:57
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    $\begingroup$ @CameronLeary Everyone needs an origin story. $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 16:59
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    $\begingroup$ I recall a story where someone goes undercover in such a society. It's set on the moon and everyone is surgically altered to be identical, too. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 17:08
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    $\begingroup$ Good answer. I was going to point out something similar. It goes against human nature so fundamentally as to make the alternate history hard to believe. Good book which explored a lot of these kinds of ideas: "Anthem" by Ayn Rand. $\endgroup$
    – JBiggs
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 17:12
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    $\begingroup$ Now I want to read a story about Dolphin Borg. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 18:37

The answer is you.

If the tribe have no names, the only way they could refer to each other is direct communication: "You have food?", "You make fire", etc.

In this instance, everyone is you and no-one is individually identifiable.

Note that in this instance, it would be impossible for a member of the tribe to talk about someone else in the third person. That might limit their communication somewhat, but it gets you out of your whodunnit conundrum.

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    $\begingroup$ This gets a little funnier if instead of "you" everyone is referred to as for example "Peter" ... $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 16, 2017 at 16:25

You seem to want a society where people still can interact and have meaningful relations, but an outsider without knowing the people beforehand can't know who is who, as they have no normal names.

The relations define who you are.

We start with no use for names; everything that has a name and can be named is an object. Our people are not objects nor animals, therefore we don't use names. Maybe outsiders do, but they are strange and not favored by Allah.

Gossip is going to happen, but we refer only to others by an unique, for the relation, thing that happened. So when two people talk about a third that they both know, they would use a different designation. For Allah knows his interactions. Also, this works because our tribe is not big, so every one knows one an other. And we have excellent memories.

And the last rule is we don't talk about the past to strangers. Allah knows our relations and motions, past and present, so do we. Our shared history is precious in our harts. To talk about it to strangers is sacrilege.

Tribesman & Stranger:

Stranger: "Who made this beautiful dagger?"

Tribesman: "It is indeed a beautiful dagger."

Stranger: "But who made it?"

Tribesman: "The one who made it."

Stranger; "Yes, I understand, but what is his name?"

Tribesman: gets angry; "Do you want to bring a curse?"

Stranger: "What? Me? Surely not!"

Tribesman: "Good."


"That is a beautiful dagger, can I see it?"

"Here you are, nice, isn't it?"

"Yes it is, where did you get it from?"

"From 'cheated with dice', he is good with metal."

"Yes, I know 'bumbed his toe on the camel' well. If I need a new dagger I will go to him."

Our Allah might not be the same as in their koran

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    $\begingroup$ Using the small size of the group to limit to identification purely based on inside knowledge is a pretty good idea. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 20:31
  • $\begingroup$ Not sure how long it will last tbh. If some one with long enough exposure to the group, smarts and writing can probably crack it within a few months. If you make it an tonal language for communication in the tribe, makes it harder. Lastly you can make it an taboo for someone not of the tribe to stay more then one week, so no one will learn the language. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 20:34
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    $\begingroup$ Given the implied context of being harried by the Sultanate, it is logical that special handling of outsiders would arise naturally. Something like the Sicilian Omerta laws. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 20:37
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    $\begingroup$ Reminds me of Dune. "Openly Paul was to be referred to as Muad'Dib. However, Usul was the private name used within the Sietch" (from dune.wikia.com/wiki/Usul ) and "That it is his secret name, his troop name, that only Sietch Tabr may use and none other may presume" (from htttp://dune.wikia.com/wiki/Muad%27Dib_(Paul_Atreides) ) $\endgroup$
    – Criggie
    Commented Apr 13, 2017 at 1:06
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    $\begingroup$ The first example seems fine, but the second is just hiding names in word-phrases. If everyone knows who "cheated with dice" is, then that is identifying him. (Sure, an outsider doesn't know which person that is, but then an outsider doesn't know which person Joe Bloggs is, either.) $\endgroup$
    – Brondahl
    Commented Apr 15, 2017 at 17:23

Refer to them by role and rank. First smith, second smith, first Carpenter, fifth shepard. Rank and role changes with time. You are what you do, not who you are.

Or similar refer to them by family title. My brother, my sister, my father. This requires a reference person to point to someone. If those aren't known they can't be named.

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    $\begingroup$ Except, this is exactly where a great many modern names came from: John Smith, John Carpenter, etc. $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 15:48
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    $\begingroup$ Yeah but those are last names and remain with you when you switch jobs. Where first smith is the guy in charge at the foundry today. If next week we do a different project another may hold that name. It's fluid. $\endgroup$
    – Mormacil
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 15:49
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    $\begingroup$ Still, "who did this?" is answerable, and it shouldn't, by the rules in question. It's a then-second-smith first-smith, right? $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 15:52
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    $\begingroup$ @Mołot mine was slower to post, but I worked that out better. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 15:55
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    $\begingroup$ @MarshallTigerus Sure, but what information would you be looking to record? It'd be trivial to say that in year 100, the Fifth Smith was an incompetent alcoholic - but he drank himself to death and the Fifth Smith of the year 101 was a much more disciplined person. This actually is rather nice, because it avoids the problem we have in-real-life with name collision. I have the same name as my grandfather, if he was "First Smith" and I was always "Third Smith" until his death, that'd be a lot easier than wondering if a record referred to me or him. $\endgroup$
    – Knetic
    Commented Apr 12, 2017 at 19:52

English names refer to a time when we referred to a person by the deeds that person does, probably for a living. Wainwright. Weaver. Baker. Smith. Some native American groups have last names that tell more about the person - "Has No Horse" for example is not an uncommon name. Names can be deeds or qualities.

I propose you use that: name the person by his or her deeds. I like the idea of a person referring to another person from one of an assemblage of deeds or doings, known mostly or only to the person being asked. He is the one who ran from his own dog. He is the one who looks at my cousin. He is the one who can drink more than me. He is the one who borrowed my soft pants when his testicles swelled up after he rode all day. Because his saddle was too hard. He is the one who brought me a bird he killed.

The person being asked will recount from that own persons experiences with the individual in question. My recounting of you will be different from the next person and from the next. I name you for my own use with my own subjective experiences of you. Ideally that naming turns into a long and rambling story.

Such a system is not very useful if I ask you "who has your soft pants? I need them please." But maybe with a friend (me, I hope; I need those pants!) you would refer to the third person with a description of an event shared by both of us - "He is the one who could drink as much as both of us, but then he fell into the fire and we had to roll him out.".

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    $\begingroup$ A friend of mine used a similar system when he was out clubbing. His cell was full with contacts like "big tits", "ugly but easy" and more. $\endgroup$
    – DarkVogel
    Commented Apr 12, 2017 at 7:22
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    $\begingroup$ "A friend of mine" $\endgroup$
    – Mikey
    Commented Apr 12, 2017 at 14:16
  • $\begingroup$ I was planning to propose the exact same thing. "He who cuts grass", "she who makes pots", "he who washes clothes" etc $\endgroup$
    – Pharap
    Commented Apr 13, 2017 at 3:04
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    $\begingroup$ @Pharap Or, equivalent, "the guy who farts a lot", "never bathes", "never gives gifts"... for people you dislike. This opens up a whole new dimension of overt insults! $\endgroup$
    – anon
    Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 16:24

A language which only has three numbers (one, two, many) and three persons (you, me, they) would work, and be consistent.

  • Caliph: "Who did this?"
  • Ug: "They did." (meaning: it was not you or I, but another).
  • Caliph: "Oh, damnitt, you're from that stupid tribe, are you? Well, bring me the head of whoever did this!"

And there's the problem. Even if you cannot tell the Caliph who committed the crime, the caliph can tell you "Fetch me the one who committed this crime".

The only way to avoid this is if nobody knows who committed the crime.

Then even if one (or ten) people confess under torture that it was them, there's no way to be sure which was the real one.

So you need the conversation to continue like so:

  • Ug: As with your women, in public, we all wear identical clothing that covers our faces, and speak not. We take it further, too: we copy the mannerisms of one another. We exile from the tribe those who look too different. Only within the home do we have identities. I cannot tell you which of us did the deed.

But then it inevitably all goes south:

  • Caliph: So you are all as one, any member of your tribe representing the whole tribe, speaking for the tribe, and replaceable by any other?
  • Ug: It is as you say, my Caliph. We are one.
  • Caliph: Then should I have your head, if it is the same as that of your brother? Would that be justice?
  • Ug: By the laws of my tribe, yes.

I can't see a way of avoiding this ending, in a tribe where identity has been subsumed to this point.


I think a general solution is to have a system where there are no designed identification systems at all, and people are identified by a pronoun and context. This sounds rather unnecessarily difficult, but there are real-world examples.

I went to a secondary school when I was younger and most of the time other teachers were referred to as 'Sir' or 'Miss'. When talking about other teachers we mostly referred to them by that, and when talking to pupils even teachers sometimes talked about other teachers using the words 'Sir' and 'Miss'.

My dad was visiting the school that my younger sister was going to, and at the exact moment the headteacher said 'Yes, we've definitely integrated the Sir/Miss system fine, no problems at all,' a pupil in the background talking to a teacher said:

'Miss, Miss said she'd be with Miss but she wasn't.' and the teacher replied: 'Ah yes, she'll be with Miss in the canteen.'

They understood each other perfectly fine.

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    $\begingroup$ Note that within the narrative, “the school that my younger sister was going to” is never named either, and everything in here uses relative names like my post and some others discuss. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Apr 12, 2017 at 12:27

Someone once told me about a culture (Navaho?) in which your name is practically never mentioned in your presence; if asked "who are you?" you'll reply, for example, "Broke Two Toes is my cousin" and keep listing relations (by blood or otherwise) until your interlocutor is satisfied that you've been narrowed down to one. You can have a different name in each village, and not know them all.


I don't think you're ever going to find a society where the concept of personal names doesn't exist - personal names are one of the very few true cultural universals, concepts that exist in every human society. A society that didn't have such names is almost unimaginable.


A society where all formal interactions are deliberately anonymised might be plausible.

Let's suppose a culture where taking violent revenge on any tradesman who provided perceived substandard goods was not just accepted, but required; one could imagine that tradesmen might start anonymising themselves, so that one could never be certain which blacksmith made the horseshoe that broke.

Alternatively, consider a culture in which a person taking on a particular role was considered to be personifying a (deity/spirit/djinn) that oversaw that role. They might wear formal robes and masks to help sell this idea, entirely subsuming their personal identity behind that of the god.

Such a custom could expand to others, so that eventually all business was being conducted between anonymous masks. Personal names and identities would only be used in social or family settings.

A crime committed by one of these masked individuals would have to be reported as "The blacksmith did it!" - but who's the blacksmith? How can you identify exactly which blacksmith it was, or even who is a blacksmith in their family group? It's not even any good to just go in and execute all the blacksmiths, because the person who was working as a smith on the day of the crime might not be doing that job today.

  • $\begingroup$ Nice idea on personifying a deity +1 $\endgroup$
    – Paul TIKI
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 20:57

Have everyone use a new name every day.

When questioned, one could only say "Joe Bloggs of May 1 did it".

This would not preclude permanent records from existing for things like bank accounts by using a combination of name and date to identify the account holder (plus the usual private info like dob etc to verify).

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    $\begingroup$ Game of Thrones did this with the Unsullied. They would pick a random name each day. But remembering that with any accuracy over time...ugh...for it to work in a society I would think that I would want a less random system, so that you would know for sure who was who day by day. The point of the Unsullied naming system was that they did not matter as people...fun. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 20:02
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    $\begingroup$ @ErinThursby. For survival in the desert, something that inhibits too much individuality might be a good idea. Thinking of Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Dune here. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 20:34

Names are easier and therefore more plausible, but, in a culture where naming people "like things" is incredibly rude for some reason people may resort to replacing names with current locations?

Whereby if the tribe couldn't see a person AND didn't know where they were they'd have no way to refer to them.

You could refer to yourself as "me here";

Someone you're talking directly to as "You next to me" or "you in front"

Someone in your immediate vicinity as "Him to my north west"

Someone you just saw recently as "The lady in the garden";

Your deceased grandfather as "The man in the ground outside my house";

But when it comes to someone who you haven't seen for a while the best you'd be able to do would be something like "The one who was in the kitchen the last time I saw them"

Update: -

In the same "Names are rude" or whatever scenario, WITHOUT replacing names entirely, you could still achieve your objective by making names shared only with close relatives and partners, especially in a society where people value 'keeping themselves to themselves' and 'handling their own affairs' etc. Then, if someone asked about the 'who' in the 'who done it' and that 'who' had no close living relatives, no-one could say who it was (and they wouldn't say even if they did know the person's name).

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    $\begingroup$ Physically relative identifiers (this) would work well in combination with socially relative identifiers. $\endgroup$
    – wizzwizz4
    Commented Apr 12, 2017 at 19:36
  • $\begingroup$ @wizzwizz4 I suppose having ways to refer to people via close familial ties would still work as an exception in the context of a "We don't call people by names because it's rude" idea. And it would still work if the 'who' in the 'who done it' doesn't have any direct local familial ties. But if you just give everyone even a semi-unique title, the 'who' could still be identified which I think is part of the problem for the OP... $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 13, 2017 at 6:59
  • $\begingroup$ I meant "relative", not "absolute". As in "my father", "the daughter of the sister of the man in the ground outside my house", etc. $\endgroup$
    – wizzwizz4
    Commented Apr 13, 2017 at 8:02

You would need to break basically every rule of reality to pull this off. If identity has any value at all to these people, they will find ways to create identities. That's what humans do with language. You invent words when inventing words has value.

So you need something extreme compelling people to not want to have identity. You want a social structure that has no concept of self at all. This is going to be radically unlike anything that has ever occurred in history. Want to sleep with your neighbor's wife? No problem. He doesn't have an identity, so he can't be mad. In fact, she doesn't have an identity, so you might not even be able to ask about it. In fact, you don't have an identity...

One identity you will need is the identity of the tribe. Without that, you're certainly going to fall apart.

Now I can't say this would work, because nothing could really do what you want, but the closest I can think of to a working solution is a revolving concept of identity. Identity is granted on a temporary basis while it is convenient, and then that identity vanishes back into the Tribe when it has outlived its usefulness. So your people might be able to say "The Senator did it!" where "Senator" is an identity, but they might have no concept of whether any given person was the Senator in question, because they have no concept of associating an identity with a person.

Such a culture would almost certainly develop tremendously powerful possession like attributes. If each human body has no identity, but some roles can acquire an identity of their own, the next natural step is that an identity might "leap" from one person to another in attempt to avoid persecution. Your culture would certainly be steeped in what we would call pseudoscience with the expressed goal of making the tribe members weak to such possession.


I remember an Old Ayn Rand book called Anthem. In it, the use of personal names and even pronouns was taboo, and everything was referred to in collective terms. I, Me, My, and so on just wasn't allowed in the lexicon. It all became We, Us, and Our.

In your society they could adhere to similar rules under the idea that the collective is far more important than the individual. The genesis of this might be the result of some sort of isolation and long term, existential threat.

When asked whodunnit, the answer would always be "they did it", as the thought of personal identifiers would be somewhat alien.

It would take something fairly radical to cause even a small group of humans to shed personal identity in the first place, but build it up over time, with tradition, and you might get something sustainable in relative isolation.

Maybe you could have each community allow one individual to interact with the rest of the world, and that one individual would take a name. Make the interaction with the rest of the world be perceived as a bad or difficult duty. Necessary, but not something that people would seek for individual gain.

The hardest thing is that you are making humans act in a way that is kind of contrary to millions of years of evolution. When you have an individual advantage, you get to pass along genes. That is a tough drive to overcome.

Given the setting of around the 10th century Caliphate, it would have to be a small tribe on the very edge of the Caliphate or empire. The more remote, the better. A part of the problem is that the religious texts are going to be using personal pronouns and names. The history as taught by those key texts shapes a heck of a lot. Your isolated tribe is only going to pay lip service, if anything at all, to that dominant faith. They might say, God is Great and bow in the direction they believe Mecca is during prayer, but the rest is going to be so much drivel.


This is a hard one to reconcile without the eventual creation of names. It is almost irrational to me, assuming a societal existence. It seems inevitable that we would have names in some form. Assuming verbal communication.

Otherwise we might expect unique identifiers which could be your particular smell, or more likely in modernity, the color choice and co-ordination of your clothing, hair, or head-wear, for example.

A more advanced form of tartan which could not only signify which family you are from, but your position in the family (and whether or not you are single), etc. It would lead to ranks, colors, and stripes of the military.

If it were just customary to conceal your name, or it was forbidden to speak any name, then it is my reckoning that people might be serialized based on location of birth or by trade, or something probably mundane - but this is kind of how names develop.

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    $\begingroup$ I believe that 'unique identifiers' is too close to a number or symbol for the "I don't want a number or symbol" rule to apply $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 9:25

Complete anonymity.

I'm reminded of the movie "A Scanner Darkly" where agents wear "scramble suits" to mask their identity. However even in that movie, agents had code names to identify one agent from another, and the anonymity was there to protect their "real" identity because they were undercover agents.

You could take it a step further. Perhaps every member of the tribe wears the same clothing, the same mask, every day. It's impossible to tell anyone apart because they all look the same, perhaps even act the same. Or maybe there are different styles of dress and masks that are randomly distributed to the people every day to totally scramble any identifying features so that even a distinctive scuff of dirt on clothing can't be used to identify anyone.

Maybe even: personalities or roles that revolve around the clothing, rather than the people wearing them. Did you get the "chieftan" robes this morning? Congrats, you're the chieftan.


Use only a few different names for everyone

Instead of doing away with names altogether, just have a very limited list of surnames (if every male is named Mahmud, Hamud, Muhammad or Hammid - it'll be impossible to find the correct Mahmud iben Hammid...), and make it culturally unacceptable to use other names.

As a real world example, the Luo tribes of Kenya and Tanzania traditionally used around 50 surnames, dictated by the time or circumstances of the birth (e.g. 'Odhiambo' means "Born in the afternoon")- see this wiktionary appendix for the list.

A Luo acquaintance once told me that all of his friends and family had only 4 different traditional names between them all (today most Luo people also have an additional "Christian" surname, so it's far less confusing).

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    $\begingroup$ The Romans had only about 20 given names really available for boys, while girls did not receive given names at all. In fact Roman women never received a personal name; this did not hinder them in the least, and it doesn't stop us from identifying, for example, Agrippina the Elder and distinguishing her from Agrippina the Younger or from Vipsania Agrippina. (In the example, Agrippina simply means "daughter of a man named Agrippa"). $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Apr 12, 2017 at 11:27

Since you don't want them to be able to identify another for sure if they can't point with a finger at them this could be an approach:

Let them only use pronouns, but replace them with the feeling/what he sees/what he thinks about the person he wants to name.

Actually much like the Japanese -san -chan -kun etc. But don't use them in combination with a name. Without set rules anyone can find a way to give someone a temporary name.

One day you might get called unwashed dog (while your mother, even with the same dirty look, could call you light of life), the other day after cleaning and making yourself nice the same person could call you cute guy, while yet another person could call you the one I despise.

This gives a great way for human interaction, for people it will be easier to accept the emotion of others because how I call you is how I feel about you. Interaction gets "realer".

On the other hand this would require people to not really care about how others perceive them or don't get hurt after hearing a "name" they don't like.


If your guys are really religious they could refer to themselves only as part of group. Like "We are X", so we could imagine a dialogue with a stranger:

– Who did this?

– X did this

– Do you mean you did this?

– We are all X. X did this.

It would require some kind of sect though that would brainwash its newcomers (or just raise children in a special way). It might be not like they have no name, but more like each of them has same name which is also name of the group. But it solves the "cannot provide answer to 'who did that' question".

Inside the group they could use 'you' if talking directly, or point a finger if talking about someone present.

  • $\begingroup$ Doesn't seem especially Bedouin-ish, however. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 12, 2017 at 23:41


I would think about names on Internet - You know, that I am Gilhad and my reputation is (just now, just here) 221, with 1 silver and 4 bronze badges. This is not much, so I am now really known here, but anyway it is that I am not total newbie here and maybe you will remember me so. Maybe a year later my reputation will be much higher and I will have more badges and you will say "I got this idea from Gilhad. You know him? Does not talk many times, but usually has something to say." and others would or would not agree and they would know about me, my ideas and such. You can google me and find out more about "gilhad" and it would probably be me. But if you meet me on the street, you would not recognize me, until I, or someone else, will give it away. And it would be hard to prove whether that dog with the black left leg is "gilhad" or not.

Anyway if I want to disappear, I can stop being "gilhad" any moment and create another nickname and go by it with new reputation, maybe even with a new approach to problems. (Actually I may do that already for years, who knows and who cares?)

My true name is something totally different and many people, who know me as "gilhad", have never heard it and would not recognize me by it. Still, they consider me a friend, some of them met me in person on more occasion and that is enough for them. "gilhad" means something for them for sure. But for the Caliphat it has no real value.

I play a lot of Role Playing Games and I change characters even in one game over time. Co-players usually refer to me by my character's name during the session and also in every day life at the era of that game campain, as some of those names are more catchy for them than plain old "gilhad", which they use to address me formally. So if there was some conspiracy against the Caliphat and some rebels were interrogated, they may (by their best knowledge) give me as "Monsieur Klobrc" as it is the only name they did hear in personal talking about me. And so the Caliphat would need to catch some members of my group to reveal, that "Monsieur Klobrc" is "gilhad". But even so, who is that "gilhad" anyway - there is more people who knows me as "gilhad" only, than who knows my official name (and of that a lot did not hear anything about "gilhad"). Still, nobody has a problem with it (except maybe the Caliphat).

So using nicknames can be the answer to your question - of those, who should know, the nickname is good enought to describe and target person. But out of that group the nickname means nothing and one person may go under more nicknames at the same time, without problems.

The only way the Caliphat can pin-point down is to force people to point fingers at those, who (they think) know me and are able to point their finger at me personally. But shouting loudly in the right places (or write on a wall or anything else) to tell "Monsieur Klobrc" that there is such and such problem would probably work in the way, that I would get aware about mentioned problem soon enough.

Also, see at this very question - I bet there is a way less real names than nicknames and it still looks natural for all of us to the way, that nobody mentioned it here before. (As answer from gilhad to Mickey - the Caliphat has good luck find who asked and who answered. The community knows well, but cannot say it to you, oh mighty Calif, no matter what.)


It would take good memory, but people could be referred to by how long since the last encounter. "The man I am talking to", "The woman I just talked to", "The boy I taught last year". Everyone else is "One I have never met".

  • $\begingroup$ How would this communicate to someone who was not party to the last encounter, or group events? $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Apr 12, 2017 at 12:39
  • $\begingroup$ It may not be possible, or important, if identity has been devalued in this culture. It doesn't matter which individual was "the woman who brought the water", just that there was water brought by someone. $\endgroup$
    – AShelly
    Commented Apr 16, 2017 at 4:49
  1. I upvoted @Mormacil's answer, but let me give you an analogy that you may find useful. In some countries, you can refer to a building by a street address: 1854 Jackson Lane. You could find Jackson Lane and go in the correct direction and somewhere adjacent to 1853 and 1855 you'll find 1854.

In Japan, this is not true. As I understand it, the buildings are numbered in the order they are built. In Central America this is even less true: you will be given directions like, "Go down the main road towards Guacamal, and 200 meters past the dairy, turn right. Then proceed to the park where the big tree used to be (before it burned down), and turn right."

I think this could provide some inspiration for names for people. They could be names related to position/role/job (as in Mormacil's answer) or familial relationships, or shared incidents, as several other answers suggest. But I think that if you get your head around how street directions vary from place to place, it could help with your name issue.

(In my mind, the key is that "names" are relative paths and if you encounter a problem anywhere along the path, you're stuck, but you may pull something else out of the analogy.)

  1. I also think about some languages that have very nuanced words for relatives. For example, English has sister and brother to distinguish siblings by gender. Then step-sister to distinguish siblings by other parents. You can have a first cousin twice-removed, which is fairly specific but does not indicate gender. As I understand it, some languages have many specific words for various relatives rather than using a street-address-like "first cousin", "second cousin", etc.

Perhaps these names could be very specific so they don't speak about "oldest brother" but have a specific word for that. And perhaps that word depends on the gender of the speaker. And perhaps that word depends on the relative social statuses of the speaker (see "honorific languages"). And perhaps the word depends on the person's zodiacal sign and the year in which they were born (as years are named in many cultures and viewed as influential). So there might be 144 different names for a particular relative, based on which month and which year they were born in.

So the person being interviewed might well name the individual fairly specifically, but an outsider trying to figure out or to use the description might find it nearly impossible. For example, I think of U.S. servicemen who learn Japanese from Japanese girlfriends: the problem is male speakers and female speakers will use different words.

So perhaps the investigator is male and the witness is female. Or maybe the investigator is a middle-aged, married male and the witness is a young, single female. If he tries to ask anyone about the relationship he's given, they will totally misunderstand him. Thus it's not that the witness can't say, but that the investigator can't use the "name".

(Oh, and perhaps actual names are viewed as sacred and only immediate family members actually know your name. Or perhaps the opposite: human names are profane -- there is only One Name. Everyone else uses relationships.)

And we're not even getting into multiple uses of relationship words. "Hey brother, can you spare a dime?" The person is not your brother in the genetic sense. Similarly, I had an "aunt" and "uncle" growing up who were simply friends of my parents, and I know people who talk about "cousins" who are not cousins in the general sense of the word.

  1. Perhaps many titles are used in the language, but most people don't actually know what many of them mean. Perhaps I was told that this person is "my friend's oldest brother's butler's programmer cousin", and that's how I'd refer to this person in my conversation. You ask me what "programmer" (or "butler") means and I have to say I don't know. It's probably something the person does, but it could be other things. I know what a "smith" does and what my father the "cobbler" does, but... In fact, I may not know anyone except that particular person who knows what a "programmer" is. The investigator could wander around all day asking people to direct them to anyone who is a programmer, and no one actually knows.
  • $\begingroup$ I'm pretty sure "numbered in order they're built" is same around the world (with some variations like adding alpha or numeric suffixes) or it'd be endless chaos when half of street is renumbered because of a new building in the middle. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 13:52
  • $\begingroup$ @OlegV.Volkov: At least in the US, street addresses are pre-allocated based on properties and and numbers aren't one-up, but rather sequenced in 5's or 10's to leave room for additions. (This might be related to how much footage along the road the property takes.) Anything else results in streets where the numbers are arbitrarily ordered and hence can't be used for navigation. $\endgroup$
    – Wayne
    Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 17:51

You are trying to succeed in a very serious writer's challenge. You are making up a nation without one of the basic traits of intelligence... no, actually, without the basic trait of life. Animals of all kinds have a sense of identity or possession. Without it — well, you are inventing a society more alien than aliens in 99% of sci-fi stories.
If language lacks the unique identifiers for people — it could mean only one thing. The intelligence that invented that language is basically and completely unable to discern other people. It is only "me" and "somebody" for that intelligence, and no other notion of man available. Seriously, the only reason ancient Inca did not have a word for "PC" is because they could not imagine one. Ancient Greeks could imagine robot even as they did not have any idea how to build one — they had words for "robot". Your tribesmen can't even imagine that people can be different.
At first, it seems possible to imagine this, but the problem is in the details. For example, if a tribesman is sincerely unable to answer "who stole the horse" to Calif, this also implies that

  • Tribesman is unable to discern Calif from a kinsman and would not know how to treat them differently.
  • Tribesman is unable to recognize an act of stealing when he sees it. If he is unable to say who is who, he is unable to say whose item is this. Thus, he is unable to say if it is a legal owner or a thief is taking the item. May be tribesman can tell apart "mine" and "not mine" and can tell if the item is stolen from him. Or maybe he has no notion of "property" and "stealing" altogether.
  • This "tribe" does not live as tribe. They are not able to tell who is from the tribe, who is not. They may be able to discern this from some sort of clan markings, but even if a person dons those markings right in front of them — will they be able to understand it is a ruse?
  • They have no family. When woman has a baby, she is unable to recognize her baby from other babies. This most likely means they nurse all babies in a tribe together.
  • They can not be proper Muslims, because they can not understand what is the difference between the Prophet and simple man.

As you see, they would be completely alien among any culture on Earth. If they were like this for the long time, they will have their own culture unlike anything on Earth, and you, as writer, would have to build every little fact of it from the ground up, and is not allowed to take anything from any known culture. If your tribe had become like this recently, they are in a dying state because their culture is not adapted to their abilities.
Anyway, I can not imagine how they can have any sort of peaceful relation with "normal" people around them. Religious people would see them as abominations that should be killed on sight for the love of God (whatever God). They definitely would not attempt to talk with those tribes.

  • $\begingroup$ You could know who people are without being able to explain it to an outsider though. And there could be a very good reason for not using names, like the whole "real names give people power over you" idea. It could be that everyone does have a real name, but only a very select few people know it, and so instead people are known by their relationships to what they do. "the third son of the tanner on the east side of the village." $\endgroup$
    – AndyD273
    Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 13:41
  • $\begingroup$ The name can be "Fred" or "Worse potter" or "That dumdum from West Hill that ate a pitchfork once". I, however, was talking about the absense of names in any form. I myself originate from the culture that avoids saying names to strangers. It was a nightmare for census: every village has 10 Granddads, 20 Firstborns, 30 Herders... $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 5, 2017 at 7:32
  • $\begingroup$ @AndyD273, outsider doesn't needs YOUR names to discern one he seeks, he can simply give you a set of his own names and make you pick. See Hogan's "Code of Lifemaker" as one of many, many examples. Or Chinese using second "Western" name to make it easier for outsiders. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 5, 2017 at 12:41

What about solipsism?

Simple: The people are all living thinking there is only one consciousness that is imagining the others: everyone is I. If you ask someone: "Who did this?" you will get something like: "I did, but you know that since you are me. Silly me."

These people would be very generous, but that doesn't mean they can't defend themselves (like you can have your leg cut if it get infected, they can accept that sometimes a part of themselves got cancerous and must be deleted).

Here is an example of a casual conversation this tribe could have:

A: My feet are hurting, why wouldn't I stop a bit?

B: I thought I wasn't stopping before the next oasis. I must remember about the dangers of staying under the sun.

A: Let's go, I can still walk after all.

C (this one is traveling with the tribe but not an actual member): Guys, a weird thing has bitten me! Do you have a doctor?

A (beginning a sort of chant): Am I able to heal that?

B (repeating): Am I able to heal bites from this animal?

All the tribe (chanting): Am I able to heal bites from this animal?

D (coming from the other side of the caravan): Yes, I can.


Yes, reaching the explicit goal of "impossible for someone in the tribe to name someone when questioned at length about 'whodunnit'" is impossible. Even if you manage to invent some convoluted reason for tribe to not use names, nothing stops the questioner from simply labelling each and every tribesman himself and using those.

Actually you don't even need names to point out a specific person (or any specific object for that matter). A simple "that guy over there" or "3rd person from the right" will work as well.

Therefore no matter what excuse you invent for not using names, it won't be going to help you in any way.

Even referring to themselves only as part of group won't work. "We all did X" is easily defeated by direct question to point to a limb that "did X (held dagger when X is murder, touched goods when X is stealing, etc)". And here's your whodunnit, directly connected to that limb.


What if I call someone:

The one who lives in a house and have a plum tree in the front.
Or the one with a short leg.
Or the one with a big forehead and a small mouth.
Or the one with easy walking.
Or the one with three daughter and two sons.
Or the one who climbs like a monkey.
Or the one .......

I mean some particularities, which for sure everyone presents and are decisive for that person.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ So the Fed would have no problem identifying someone, as this description is useful to outsiders. So the idea is the same as found in other answers, but broken because you use global objective traits. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Apr 12, 2017 at 12:35
  • $\begingroup$ Not “broken”, but inapplicable to this specific question. Actually is much simpler and clearer that some of the other answers in describing such an identification scheme. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 12, 2017 at 23:38

Pronouns for all!

First consider a conversation involving a small number of people, e.g. two people talking and the subject is a third person (male) and possibly a fourth person (female).

Assuming both sides are aware of the context, this entire conversation can be carried out without names! We have I, you, he and she. Of course those pronouns will refer to completely different people in another conversation. Other languages have further pronouns which refer to seniority or familiarity (e.g. vous and tu in French).

Now imagine the relatively small tribe have hundreds of pronouns in their language, referring to different aspects of people (e.g. their relationship with the person doing the talking, male or female, whether they are older or more senior than the speaker, whether they live near the speaker, etc.). It might seem to get very confusing, but the upshot might be that they can refer to almost anyone in the tribe with a combination of context and these pronouns and maybe a little clarification here and there ("No, I meant he with the moustache, not he who once ate the superhot chili").

But it works because the people of the tribe know each other so well. They rarely meet outsiders and so there is a very small range of pronouns to refer to one - maybe just one or two words.

Now the Caliph comes along and asks "Who did this?" and the tribesman uses one of these pronouns to identify the guilty party, and as an outsider, the Caliph hasn't a clue who they are referring to. So the Caliph asks someone else, who uses a completely different pronoun. Now he is really confused.

Of course, he could very easily gather everyone together and have someone point to the culprit or have the witness bring him to them - but that seems out of the scope of the question.


This being the Xth century, our Bedouin tribe must've read the Coran and, at least, knew about names, how they work, etc. So it's unlikely that they didn't use them ... if they weren't "haram", forbidden.

A common theme in the Coran is that, to Allah, all Muslims are alike, no matter their wealth, their color, or their ethnicity. Only their deeds sets them apart.

That's why, during the Hajj, all the pilgrims, rich and poor, Arabs and non-Arabs, wear identical white clothes; a symbolism for human-equality between all Muslims.

Unsurprisingly, this idea of 'deeds-only' was pushed way too far by some Muslim cleric who declared all names haram. One must not have a name, any name.

People in this cleric's tribe refer to each other exclusively using pronounces, and vague descriptors.

Abdallah, the servant of Allah, is a good alternative too, specially when communicating with the external world for trade and such. It's a very popular name that's also frequently used à-la-John Doe. Amatollah is the female form―even though it's much less common.

This scenario avoids a major drawback with others' : shortcuts.

Over time, people would naturally form shortcuts, deliberately or not. What started as smith-by-trade would become, after repeated use and habit forming, Smith-by-name. But with our haram-naming tribe, the only habit that's formed is to avoid naming people.

Even when asked by the Calif, one would never name a person. If that gets them killed, they'd be considered a martyr.


I'm terrible with remembering names, and my daughter (usually referred to in our house as 'little thing' as she was a small baby so everyone remarked 'She's such a little thing!') is no better. There are plenty of acquaintances I'd find it impossible to name.

So the same person gets referred to by various means - my 'little thing' calls 'my brother's daughter' 'the little girl on holiday' (my brother's other children are boys, and we visited with them last summer). My wife is normal and uses her name.

If I were to found a tribe, you might expect outsiders to find the lack of names a bit confusing, and whilst each person might use the same descriptions for others, different people would use different descriptions for the same person.

Then add to that a language barrier - Hungry hill was allegedly called because the local guide was getting hungry at that point and stopped cooperating with the English map makers, or Welsh signs not translated, and you get an official setting off for Ms. Peth Bach or Ned's wife in Gwybod.


This cannot be achieved, unless...

This is a big Catch 22 every time I try to wrap my head about it.

Yeah no wonder, because rephrasing the question only slightly, what you have asked is a pure Eat-The-Whole-Cake-And-Keep-It question:

  • I do not want people to be able to identify anyone within the tribe.

  • What can I use as identity for the tribesmen?

Hence you cannot use anything as an identity because assigning identity to someone makes someone identifiable; that is the very purpose of identity.

The big problem for you is of course that identity is next to inescapable; if you have seen a person, then you can identify them. Their very physical appearance is a form of identity. Your memory of them is a certificate of identity.

So when the caliphate's agents puts a sword on your throat and tells you "tell us who did this or you will suffer for it"... then you may, quite urgently so even, feel compelled to go to the tribe with them and point that person out.

So if you do not want anyone to be identified, you must make everyone in the tribe un-identifiable. This is next to impossible to do so you are bum out of luck.

...or are you?

enter image description here

Woman in Saudi Arabia wearing a niqāb

Image licence: CC BY 2.0, Walter Callens. Source.


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