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CULTURAL INSIGHTS: THE 4 BALINESE NAMES

Balinese names- Balinese family - ceremony - Bali

Balinese family ready for a ceremony

CULTURAL INSIGHTS:

The 4 Balinese Names

All Balinese people are named one of just 4 names: Wayan, Made, Nyoman or Ketut. Both men and women.

Isn’t that amazing?

To get a better feel for the implications of this naming strategy, imagine that every single citizen of your own country- such as USA or Canada or UK- were all named either Chris, Jamie, Robin, or Micky. Both men and women.

Imagine if everyone in your family, plus everyone you were related to, plus all your friends, plus everyone you went to school with, worked with, dated, met in daily life… every single person in your entire country had just one of 4 names.

Almost unimaginable, right?

All sorts of questions immediately spring to mind. Why? What’s the purpose? Isn’t it terribly confusing? How could you keep everyone straight? If you called out, say, ‘Chris’ would 20 people come running?

In Bali, Indonesia, such a 4-names-only system is entirely real and intact. Here’s how it works:

Balinese boys- Lipah- Bali

Balinese boys in rural Bali

Every Balinese child is simply named by his or her order of birth. The first born, boy or girl, is Wayan. The second born is Made (pronounced ma day). The third born is Nyoman. And the 4th born is Ketut. That’s it, simple and sweet. If nothing else, it certainly makes naming ones children easy. LoL

Women are given the honorific ‘Ni’ before their name, as in Ni Wayan. It’s much like ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’. Men use ‘I’, as in I Wayan, much like ‘Mr.’

Balinese woman- children-  Bali

Balinese woman with her children- rural Bali

So, here’s a question for you… What happens when a Balinese family has 5 children or more (which is actually quite common in rural Bali)? Believe it or not, the parents simply start over again with ‘Wayan’! I kid you not.

I personally know a Balinese man with 11 siblings, 12 kids in all. He is the 3rd Wayan child in his family. Two of his other siblings before him are also named Wayan!

Wayan ready for ceremony- Bali

Wayan ready for ceremony- Bali

Actually, I exaggerate slightly about the 4 names ONLY. A few versions of these 4 names do exist and are also used quite commonly.

The first born child could alternately be named Putu (though that name is traditionally reserved only for upper caste families).

The second child could be named Kadek instead of Made.

The third could be Komang, or even NgNga (a very rural name) instead of Nyoman.

However, the 4th child (and multiples of 4th) is destined to be Ketut, and only Ketut.

A first born boy could alternately be named Gede. A first born girl could be Iluh (pronounced Ee loo).

Among the top Brahmin caste, the sons have the honorific Ida Bagus placed before their name, as in Ida Bagus Putu or Ida Bagus Made. For Brahmin caste girls the honorific, Ida Ayu, is added, as in Ida Ayu Nyoman.

3 Balinese girls-Amed- Bali

3 Balinese girls in rural- Bali

Pondering the reasoning behind such a strange system, I had always assumed the Balinese believe that a person’s order of birth is of huge significance for some reason or other.

I figured that they must believe that each birth-order child has particular characteristics, personalities, and/or roles in family life. I imagined that perhaps the first born would inherit the family fortunes, while the youngest was destined to toll in the kitchen. Or some such.

Balinese-ceremony- Bali

Rural Balinese men attending a ceremony

I finally asked several Balinese friends and acquaintances the meaning behind their name system. Nobody seems to know! They only know it’s time-worn tradition. Furthermore, they all assure me that each child has equal value, equal expectations within the family.

No child has specific family duties, roles, or obligations. None are believed to have certain personalities or characters. The only tradition concerning children is that only sons inherit the family’s assets, which are usually spread equally between all the sons. Daughters receive nothing. Hmph!

Bali family- Amed- Bali

Local woman and her child dressed for ceremony

Pondering how they keep everyone straight, I’m told that they refer to each other by family name or nickname rather than given name. Nicknames are acquired the same way we westerners acquire nicknames- by our interests, quirks, talents, personalities, or unique qualities.

While Balinese refer to each other by their nicknames or family names, they generally introduce themselves to tourists by their given name.

So, when you visit Bali, expect to meet A LOT of Wayans, Mades, Nyomans and Ketuts. Good luck keeping them straight! You could always just guess and be assured a 25% chance of guessing correctly. Lol

QUESTIONS:

What do you think about this naming system?

Do you know any other cultures with unusual naming systems?

* I’d like to thank Ms. Nenek Putu and the  other staff at Luhtu Coffee Shop in Sanur, Bali for their help with this story. Thanks everyone!  cheers, Lash

If you’re interested in more Balinese culture, you might enjoy:

Balinese Hindu Ceremonies

Gamelan: Bali’s Traditional Percussion Orchestras

Arak and Tuak: Bali’s Locally Brewed Moonshine

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34 comments

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  1. Hannah

    What a fascinating article.

    For a Westerner, where you might have just two people with the same name in a school class (depending on how popular your name was the year you were born), it is really amazing that the Balinese use four names as a base and then just add to them.

    I can’t imagine being in a family where your brother or sister has the same name as you. I think it’s also really interesting that the names can be both for males and females – a kind of equality? Handy if you don’t want to put on your CV which gender you are…

    1. Lash WorldTour

      Hi Hannah,
      Oh, great. Glad you found the article interesting! Yeah, it’s really a bizarre system and I think it’s only practiced in Bali. Maybe the strangest point to me is that there seems to be no special roles or beliefs about each child’s order of birth giving them character, personality or responsiblities. Would make more sense to me if they had such beliefs. Without them, what ‘s point? And how’d it get started?

      thanks for stopping by. cheers, lASH

  2. Diane

    Wow, I had no idea! I guess on one hand it does simplify things but on the other, it makes things totally confusing. Can they legally change their name once they reach adulthood? I’m sure there are some Balinese rebels who just hate having the same name as so many others and would want to be a Bob or Joe. Great read!

    1. Lash WorldTour

      Hi Diane,
      thanks for stopping by. Glad you enjoyed the article. yeah, the Balinese naming system is amazing.. apperently it gets even more complex when you get into the 4 castes, the priests, and so on. Seems like most everyday Balinese don’t fully understand all of it. Good question as to whether they can legally change their names. I”m sure the rebels just use wild nicknames in the meantime! :)) cheers, lash

  3. Suzy

    I had no idea they did this in Bali! That seems so confusing to only have four names for people. I think I would try for a legal name change if that was possible.

    1. Lash WorldTour

      Yeah, there are lots of little quirky things you learn about countries and people only if you stay quite a long time and really get to know people. I think it’s only in Bali where they have this strange naming system! I’m sooo curious how it all came about! I have one older woman supposedly checking with her uncle to see if he knows. He’s a priest, so has access to all the old maunscripts about their religious rules and so on. I’ll certainly write about it if I find out! cheers, lash

  4. Barbara

    That IS a fascinating piece of information… And I think it’s simple in comparison to, say, the Icelandic naming system where people have long unpronounceable names taken from their parents. But every culture does it differently.

    The funny thing is, sometimes in the United States, I too think that there are probably only four names used total. In the school classes of my children, most children are either Mary or John, don’t you think? LOL!

    1. Lash WorldTour

      Hi Barabara,
      thanks for stopping by. Yeah, an Icelandic couple I knew explained the complicated naming system in Iceland. Nutty! that’s the only other society I know of that has such unusual naming system, but I’m sure there must be others around the world. .. hmmm, my experience in US is that people have loads of different names, though of course a few are super popular. cheers, lash

  5. Audrey | That Backpacker

    Wow, that really is fascinating! I had never heard about that aspect of Balinese culture. I must admit, I do like that we have more naming options in Western culture. I feel original being the only ‘Audrey’ in my circle of friends. ;)

    1. Lash WorldTour

      Hi Audrey. Yeah, I doubt I’d like it much if every 4th person had the same name as I did. :)) I’m still really curious to find out how/why this Balinese system got started. It’s so odd. Thanks for stopping by. Cheers, lash

  6. Dani Blanchette

    I SUCK at remembering people’s names. I even call my brother “Hey..um..boy” sometimes. I think I am just destined to be Balinese!

    1. Lash WorldTour

      Hey Dani,

      Wow, one person who would be great with Balinese names! cool. good way to look at it. :)

      cheers, Lash

  7. Chrissy

    The naming in baby order of birth is also the same in Vietnam.

    1. Lash WorldTour

      HI Chrissy,

      Oh, ok. Thanks for sharing that info. I didn’t know that!

      cheers, Lash

  8. Angela

    I have married into the Balinese culture. To distinguish between siblings, and family (which in rural areas can be a whole village) they have a fourth name. They do not have family surnames, as we do here (my husband’s surname is Arsana, and his father’s was Darsana, and his mother’s was Puriani.) He was amazed when he found out that all members of a family had the same last names. Apparently it’s the last name that distinguishes between all the Gedes, Putus, Dewas, etc. Our two girls have the names Puriani and Undayani. I wanted to skip over the birth order names, and use the first names. And as the kid gets older he/she will choose which name they will use regularly, and sometimes they choose 5th name that they get from family members (a nickname of sorts).

    1. Lash WorldTour

      HI Angela,

      thanks for taking time to share these insights! Great!

      cheers, Lash

  9. Rob Schneider

    They have lots of nicknames, too. I knew a Ketut who was called Putu and a Wayan who went by Kadek. The language is incredibly complex. I was advised not to even try because it’s so easy to say the wrong words to the people you’re talking to. Different words for different castes, ages, etc.

    1. Lash WorldTour

      Hey Rob,

      Yeah, they do often go by nicknames, though the people I know usually have nicknames that are not from the ‘4’ main names, but some name that refers to their character or interests or sometimes a western name.

      thanks for the input.

      cheers, Lash

  10. Shalini

    I cannot imagine entire country with just four names ….pretty interesting. I accidentally came across your website. Loved to read every piece of information here. I love to read about people and their culture. Glad to find this website.

    1. Lash WorldTour

      Hi Shalini,

      Welcome!

      Yeah, pretty crazy only 4 names! GREat, glad you’re enjoying reading here.

      cheers, Lash
      re

    2. Sasha

      Not an entire country! Just Bali, a small island belonging to the country of Indonesia.

      1. Lash WorldTour

        Hi Sasha,

        Welcome!

        Sorry, I dont’ really get what your point is?

        Thanks for stopping by anyhow.

        cheers, Lash

        1. Sasha

          My point was in reference to the first paragraph of the article as well as the comment above mine stating that “an entire country has only four names”! Bali is not a country, so this isn’t “an entire country with just four names”.. It’s more like a state!

  11. Halida A.

    Even as an Indonesian, I found this fact fascinating! I have a Balinese friend named I Ketut, so I guess he’s the fourth child? Thanks for sharing Indonesia’s unique culture to the world! :-)

    1. Lash WorldTour

      Hi Halida,

      Welcome!

      Great, you learned something about part of your own country. Awesome.

      I LOVE to share Indonesia’s culture with people. Great country.

      Thanks for stopping by.

      cheers, Lash

  12. Randy

    I have been to Bali many times. Each time, I learn a little more, gain some more insight. About the “4 names” – Of course there are many, many names in Bali. Every person has a unique name. It is very misleading to say there “are only 4 names in the entire country”. The birth order names, Wayan, Made, Nyoman, Ketut serve as a descriptive prefix in a way. For example, my name is Randy. In Bali, since I am the 3rd born, I would be known as Nyoman Randy. If I were to introduce myself as Nyoman Randy, you would immediately know that I was the 3rd born. However, after we know each each other, you would just call me Randy.

    1. Lash WorldTour

      Hi Randy,

      Thanks for the added details.

      True, as I pointed out in the article, it’s not completely correct to say there are only 4 Balinese names. There were the old-school 4 names and the newer versions. Plus everyone goes by a nickname, not to be confused. :))

      Thanks for stopping by.

      cheers, Lash

  13. Carole

    What an interesting article. My BFF & her hubby JUST were in Bali last week (2014) & loved it. They had a very nice guide for the 3 days they were there & they saw the sights and enjoyed it very much.

    I write to a pen pal in Sri Lanka and they must have some sort of system like this (not just 4 names tho, I dont think). Her name is K. Kalyani, and she told me years ago just to write to her using ” K” as her first name. She said it was complicated.

    I am always interested in learning different cultures. Thank you for your article. carole

    1. Lash WorldTour

      Hi Carole,

      Welcome!

      Thanks for stopping by and for adding your experiences with your Sri Lankan friend here. Interesting!

      I’m glad you found this article interesting. It was fun to research and write. :)

      cheers, Lash

  14. David

    I also have a number of Balinese friends named Aguz. This is to the oldest son and is a further variation. One of my friends named his son Aguz as he was born in August although my second friend was born on September so this can not be the singular reason from varying from tradition.

    1. Lash WorldTour

      Hi David,

      Welcome!

      Thanks for stopping by and adding your contribution.

      Hmm, interesting. I don’t think I’ve met a Balinese named Aguz. But sounds like you live there and know people personally who’ve named their kids Aguz.

      Probably in all the little tiny villages ther are even more variations. I never came across the Balinese Ng-nga until I lived in Amed. But after that I did meet several people with that name.

      Let us know if you know any other variations!

      cheers, Lash

  15. Wayan

    Agus (reader above thought spelt Aguz) is a high caste name, like Oka. There is meaning behind all names. For example “The name “Wayan” (sometimes shortened to “Yan”) is derived from “Wokalayan” a word that means “the most mature” and reserved for the first-born. The second-born is called “Made” and is derived form the word Madia for middle. The third-born is designated by “Nyoman” (“Man” or “Mang” for short), taken from the Balinese word “uman” that suggests “the last” or “remainder” – reflecting a Balinese view that an ideal family size should be limited to three children. 

    Your article is interesting to newcomers to Bali but they do not use the same name twice. The Sudra caste have 10 names to choose from. If no 1. Is Wayan, no 2 will be Putu, Gede or Iluh or an older name of Kompiang.

    1. Lash WorldTour

      Hi Wayan,

      Welcome!

      Thanks so much for sharing your extensive knowledge of the BAlinese names and for expanding on what I learned while there. Great!

      cheers, Lash

  16. Hyungnam Gu

    The Balinese naming system is used by the Balinese people of Bali and in the western parts of the neighboring island of Lombok, Indonesia, which is characterized by the use of four ‘typical’ names. Since most Balinese are Hindus, most names are Sanskrit, while others still use native Balinese names.
    Regardless of sex, each person receives one of four names based on birth order. Despite significant variations due to caste membership, regional customs and variations in the Balinese language between the north and the south of the island, there are four names in Balinese culture that are repeated frequently. The firstborn is “Wayan” or “Gede” or “Putu”, second is “Made” or “Kadek”, third is “Nyoman” or “Komang” (Man or Mang for short), and fourth is “Ketut” (often elided to Tut).

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