Naming the Human: Description, Categorisation, Issues at Stake: A Multi-Disciplinary Approach

Country: France

City: Strasbourg

Abstr. due: 03.09.2017

Dates: 10.01.18 — 12.01.18

Area Of Sciences: Humanities;

Organizing comittee e-mail:

Organizers: LiLPa (Research Laboratory EA 1339: Linguistics, Languages, Speech)& DRES (Joint Research Centre UMR 7354 – Law, Religion, Enterprise, Society


Every day, we encounter lexical items which designate humans: neologisms of every kind abound, coming either from the media (ranging from migrants to workaholics, to brexitiens), or from companies such as the French Railways, for instance, which has updated the noun attendant, an old term for a class of craftsmen accompanying postulants for the French “compagnonnage” or skilled workers’ guild (as opposed to qualified and fully-fledged “compagnons”). There are numerous means of designating humans, which exploit diverse noun categories: in addition to proper nouns, which have already been widely studied, these include specific common nouns (see above), but also nouns of wider scope, such as man, person, individual, etc.

The aim of this conference, jointly organised by linguists and jurists, is to confront specialists from different disciplinary fields, interested in the questions of designating people by common nouns, from the origin of the terminology to the analysis of the linguistic and social functions of the names attributed to humans, and to their objectives and applications.


Every scientific discipline has to create or/and use designations referring to humans, as well as wider “categories of people” (variously called socio-professional categories, moral taxonomy, psychological types, legal categories, etc.), for various purposes: thus sociologists have invented an extensive system for classifying social groups for the purpose of population census (cf research by A. Desrosières & L. Thévenot, 1988 ; C. Brousse, 2010 ); doctors and psychologists have done likewise to identify pathologies and optimise treatment, as have specialists in pedagogy and didactics, for learner-profiling; IT specialists have elaborated ontologies for the automatic processing of proper names for places, structures and people, and literary scholars have established their own categories to apprehend the notion of literary genre using, inter alia, the evolving concept of character.

As far as law is concerned, legal categories are fundamental to grasping reality. At the heart of any legal reasoning, they are utilised in order to determine the rules applicable to de facto situations, and thus form an essential part of the process of legal characterisation. A prime example is the noun “travailleur” (worker), which can correspond to several categories: either “salaried worker/employees” or “self-employed worker”. The delineation of these categories is, however, put to the test by social reality (which classification applies to the “auto-entrepreneur”, teleworker, or user of a collaborative platform?). Far from simply being a technical operation, such categorisation reflects a certain representation of the individual, and the prevalence attributed to a system of values. Legal categories can thus be analysed as having a structuring role in law (cf. M. Cumyn, “Les catégories, la classification et la qualification juridiques: réflexions sur la systématicité du droit”, Les Cahiers de droit, vol. 52 n° 3-4, 2011, p. 351-378).

The mission of linguistic science is to elucidate the morpho-syntactic regularities governing the formation of these lexical units (why “attendant” and not “attendeur”? What is the difference between “attendant” and “attentiste”?), the usage adopted in all types of speech events, their meaning according to context, their historical evolution (the meaning of “attendant” in the original “compagnonnage” nomenclature and its modern-day use by the Railway Company), their ideological impact, the underlying lexicalisation principles, and their equivalents from one linguistic system to another. The human v. Non-human opposition is not universal, and Lakoff (1986) has shown that in some Australian aboriginal languages, human males and females are dissociated, and classified along with animals for the former and water, fire and food for the latter.

Finally, the designation of humans is/has been at the core of much discussion, and has been the central issue of crucial social problems ranging from the feminisation of names of professions to the titles used in the interests of political correctness. We may also mention the (bio)-ethical or legal questions raised by the categorisation – and hence the designation – of embryo and certain animals as persons, not forgetting the research involving the human being , which, in addition to philosophical concepts (perhaps even subsuming the notion of death itself), call into question the very definition of what is human.

While the denomination of humans is a highly significant language phenomenon, which undeniably represents a trans-disciplinary preoccupation, multi-disciplinary approaches and research are not widespread. With the exception of one conference entitled “Noms de métiers et catégories professionnelles (Acteurs, pratiques, discours (XVe siècle à nos jours)” , involving historians, sociologists statisticians, linguists and literary specialists), we do not know of any other attempt at confronting approaches, at “crossing perspectives” as the saying goes, on the question of the denomination of humans.

The conference thus aims to include presentations relating to the denomination of persons, the origin of such denominations, the analysis of the linguistic and social functions of the names given, and to their objectives and applications, with a view to answering the following questions:

- What are the reasons underlying the creation of denominations for humans?
- On what does the classification of the human into different disciplinary categories depend?
- What brings together or keeps apart specialised/erudite denominations and their common denominations?
- Do the categorisations of people in the various fields of the Humanities and Social Sciences share any homology, or at least common threads?
- To what functions and applications do the denominations and categorisations of people correspond?
- What are the historical perspectives on the evolution of the designation of humans? (how do globalisation and internationalisation influence the denomination of people and the perception of categories?)

The conference will welcome proposals which may shed new light on the question, with the potential to interrogate and articulate a set of disciplines, and even suggest tools or applications of an inter-disciplinary nature. Presentations may be descriptions of the use, evolution, etc. of the vocabulary used to name humans, the elaboration of classificatory approaches, more theoretical approaches, or those of a more applied nature. Contributions may concern diverse languages.

In today’s context, given the socio-political situation (migratory phenomena, communitarian debates, the recurrent questions around gender equality) and the mediatisation and instrumentalisation of the process of naming humans, the theme of this conference is particularly appropriate, and crucial to understanding what is at stake in grasping the relationship with the other, and to revealing the clichés and stereotypes underpinning the representation of the other through the process of naming, instrumentalising, and mediatising minorities.

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