Human language is necessary for reflecting upon and giving meaning to the world we perceive. Language enables us to identify objects that are not present, to refer to sensations that are not tangible, to recall experiences that took place in the past, and to envision a future that has not yet occurred.
Naming is one of the processes through which language assigns meaning to the world around us. Naming an object, a person, or a concept allows two people to refer to something that neither can see and yet both be able to understand what is being referenced.
When a child is born, he is given a name. To give a child a name is to endow him with a unique identity in the eyes of other people. This occurs long before the child develops any sense of personal identity. A person's name, then, begins to first impact his identity in the way others respond to it. Research has consistently demonstrated that people react emotionally to a person's name, even before ever meeting that person. The way others respond to one's name in turn affect how others react to the person himself, even if only in subtle ways. These reactions ultimately play a role in shaping the way an individual comes to think about himself (i.e., his self concept).
For example, some children have names that make them targets for ridicule by their peers. (For instance, I recall feeling particularly bad for a classmate in high school with the unfortunate name of Harry Johnson). Recent research has shown that boys with names that are traditionally associated with females do fine during early childhood but have, on average, a significantly higher rate of behavioral problems in middle school compared to their peers. College-aged women with names traditionally associated with males are statistically more likely to take classes in math and/or science than their peers with more "feminine" names (who tend to take classes in liberal arts). Other studies have shown that teachers respond differently to children with names they associate with low socioeconomic status. Specifically, they have lower expectations of these students than they do of their peers. Research has also found that adolescent boys with "unpopular" names are more likely to be involved in the juvenile justice system than their otherwise similar peers. These are just a few examples of how our names influence the way others perceive us.
So do our names define us? Well no, not exactly. There is far more to a person than his or her name. Our names do, however, play a role in how others define us and in how we come to define ourselves.