What’s in a name? Immigrant’s name choices as a signal of belonging

A- A A+

According to a 2018 pan-EU Eurobarometer survey, 91 per cent of Europeans think it is important that immigrants are committed to the values and norms of their host society.

At the same time, the adoption of these values and norms has consistently proved beneficial for immigrants’ economic and social achievements. Against this backdrop, governments could be tempted to respond by forcing immigrants to adopt the language, identity, and customs of the dominant culture. Such policies may however prove to be largely ineffective, as recent evidence on the adoption of majority-sounding names for the children of foreign-born populations suggests.

Following the global financial crisis and the 2015 arrival of refugees, ‘cultural assimilation’ – the process through which immigrants are seen to voluntarily assume the values, behaviours, and norms of their host society – has emerged as a salient and also sharply divisive issue in America and Western Europe. While data on how fully and quickly immigrants come to ‘resemble’ the societies they move to are rare, the adoption of majority-sounding names among foreign-born populations is a relatively well documented feature of cultural assimilation and an empirically important dimension of native culture that could potentially be taken up by immigrants for their children. It has also become a politically relevant issue in the debate on immigration in recent years. This was illustrated by the heated clash on French TV between right-wing pundit Eric Zemmour and journalist Hapsatou Sy, which ignited a public controversy in France about the importance of a first name in signalling Frenchness.

Beyond the rhetoric, first names are widely regarded by scholars as important markers of cultural identity and the voluntary adoption of native first names by minority ethnic groups and foreign-born immigrants a signal of cultural assimilation. Over the course of the 20th century, immigrants have chosen for themselves and their children a name that resembles the majority, but the pace at which foreigners adopted majority names varied significantly depending on countries of origin and across ethnic and religious lines. Among immigrants arriving in the US during the 1900s and 1910s, individuals from Norway, Sweden, and Denmark were among the quickest to adopt American-sounding names, followed by Italians and other Southern Europeans, while many Russian Jews and Finns had slower rates of name-based assimilation.

African American names provide another, more recent example of ethnic maintenance in the US, where since 1960, African Americans have increasingly chosen names to express their black identity both to themselves and to others.

In Europe, historical data from France reveals similar findings. Over the last century, the rapid disappearance of Polish and Portuguese first names, especially once the migratory movements had ended, contrasts with the steadily increasing share of new-borns bearing Arab-Muslim first names since 1960 and the arrival of North-African immigrants. A 2019 study showed that the transmission of origin-specific first names in France today is three times higher among North African immigrants than among their Asian or European counterparts, particularly in strongly religious families.

Among the many drivers of immigrants’ name choices, these divergent patterns highlight the trade-off that immigrant families from different backgrounds face between maintaining their cultural identity and assimilation into society at large. As demonstrated by both past and present findings, first names are largely influenced by economic incentives and parental expectations that adopting a “majority name” would make their children’s origin partially invisible and perhaps protect them from some forms of discrimination.

Economic incentives are a powerful driver of immigrants’ name choices. At the beginning of the 20th century, poor local labour market conditions for immigrants (and good local labour market conditions for natives) led to more frequent name changes among immigrants in the US. Similarly, recent findings indicate that should the parental expectation on the economic penalty of a foreign-sounding name for their children be nil, the annual number of babies born with an Arabic name in France today would be more than 50 percent higher.

Name assimilation confers genuine economic and social benefits. In America, the adoption of American sounding first names among early 20th century immigrants led to substantial improvements in educational attainment and labour market outcomes of first- and second-generation immigrants. These effects are also observable in contemporary Europe, where the decision to change one’s surname to Swedish‐sounding or neutral names among immigrants from Asian, African, and Slavic countries has been found to lead to a substantial increase in labour earnings.

The penalty associated with minority-sounding names is equally visible through various experiments conducted in America and Western Europe. In a US study, it was found that supposedly  ‘White’ names received 50 percent more call-backs for interviews as compared to counterparts with a distinctive African American name. Similar results were obtained in Germany, Netherlands and France, where holding a ‘native’ name increased substantially the average probability of a job call-back. A French study found that a candidate with a Muslim-sounding name was two and a half times less likely to receive a job interview call-back than was a person with a Christian-sounding name. What’s more, name-based discrimination is not limited to the labour market but also bars immigrants’ access to the housing market.

Adopting a native-sounding name was and still is a pragmatic choice to facilitate economic integration at the expense of ethnic and cultural maintenance. In light of the ethnic, educational and occupational differences between modern-day immigrants and previous migrations, historical evidence should be treated with care. An increasing share of immigration to Western European countries in the last two decades has comprised refugees, which means it has distinct characteristics that set it apart from what took place in the 20th century. The tentative evidence suggests, in fact, that those immigrants are comparatively more likely to maintain their cultural identity and give foreign-sounding names to their children.

Against this backdrop, public concerns that immigrants will remain ‘foreigners’, preserving their ways of life and keeping themselves at arm’s length from their host culture are fertile ground for policies forcing cultural assimilation on immigrants. However, as past and present examples have shown, such policies may backlash. It has been shown that during World War I, German immigrants responded by choosing visibly German names in US states that introduced anti-German language policies. A study documenting the short-run effects of the 2004 French headscarf ban found that the law actually strengthened national and religious identities and reduced the educational attainment of Muslim girls.

While more work needs to be done, these findings suggest that governments should challenge populist and nationalistic agendas that require signs or demonstrations of cultural assimilation because they can be counterproductive and worsen the situation they claim to address.


Jérôme Gonnot, Research Associate, Migration Policy Centre (EUI)


The EUI, RSCAS and MPC are not responsible for the opinion expressed by the author(s). Furthermore, the views expressed in this publication cannot in any circumstances be regarded as the official position of the European Union.