Naming beyond letters
The 26 letters of the English alphabet mark a natural limit on our baby-naming creativity. A performer like Prince might dream up a new glyph for his identity, but the rest of us are stuck with the traditional alphabet. In fact, U.S. courts have rejected names consisting of numbers and other non-letter forms, defining a name as being a "word," and thus made of letters.
But are words really made from just the 26 alphabetic ingredients? First off, there are 52 letter forms: 26 uppercase, and 26 lower. Our language recognizes meaningful distinctions between them. A pirate plunders, a Pirate pitches. Then there are diacritical marks. Resume is a verb, résumé is a noun. Add in punctuation, too, as in were vs. we're.
If we're following the model of words, then, we should have a lot more than 26 ingredients to play with. And sure enough, as the distinctive-baby-names arms race escalates, we're seeing more and more names pushing the alphabetic boundaries. Hyphens, apostrophes and intercaps abound. (Try Mary-Kate, D'Andre, and JohnPaul.)
Unlike with words, though, these naming forms have questionable standing. José isn't traditionally treated as a separate name from Jose. Diacritics, non-standard capitalization, and even punctuation marks are routinely stripped out of name databases. It's hard to get a handle on the reality of a name like "Le-a," because it will show up in official records as Lea. Similarly, The Name Lady has noted that a child name "J.R." can end up looking like a "Jr."
There can be serious consequences when different systems treat non-letter name forms in different ways. On this point, I'll defer to an expert who wrote to me. (I've edited his letter for brevity.)
"I am a computer programmer who moves data from an older computer system to newer ones at colleges and universities. I see and work with hundreds of thousands of names.
Parents of daughters are very creative in their spellings...I see TaWanda, Tawanda, Ta'Wanda, TaWanda', etc. The result is that their computer records have lots of misspellings, and they are often considered by the computer to be different people. I'll find TaWanda's grades under one student ID and Tawanda's financial aid application under another, though they are the same person. As for TaWanda' -- that gratuitous apostrophe is becoming more popular and it WILL create a dozen confusions in her computer records.
This is the computer age. Remember that, when naming your baby."
This programmer went on to recommend names with straightforward spellings and clear gender identities. (He has an androgynous name himself and says that can lead to duplicate records, one filed as male and one female.) That may be the ideal from a technical standpoint, but it's a losing battle in the name style wars. Not only are unexpected spellings and punctuations proliferating, but people are becoming more protective of them.
I'm not about to tell the proud mom of a Brae'Dyn that she really should have chosen Braden; she clearly chose every character of that name with pinpoint precision. Instead, I'll just warn creative spellers to go in with their eyes open. The farther a name veers from expectations, both human and machine, the more mistakes will be made with it.