An ethnonym refers to an ethnic group, or a group of people who identify with each other as a distinct “people.” Ethnonyms are either endonyms (also called “autonyms,” names that come from inside the group) or exonyms (names that come from outside of the group).
Ethnonyms play a large role in group identity formation because they distinguish members from non-members. A common name that is not shared by people from other groups helps to harden the line between "us" and "them," despite the fact that individuals tend to float back and forth across that line and many individuals maintain important personal relationships across group boundaries.
Names are prone to change as the dynamics of the group and the group's social and physical environments change over time. Groups may fracture and rename themselves in the process. They might absorb other groups and adopt a new name. They might adopt a name that is applied to them by outsiders, or they might simply begin to refer to themselves in a new way.
Endonyms (or autonyms) are names that originate within the ethnic group to which they refer. Endonyms usually come from the traditional language of a group, but foreign names for the group are also sometimes adopted and transformed into a type of autonym. Three Native American groups – the Anishinabe, the Lenape, and the Diné – provide good examples.
All three terms mean “the people” or “the original people," a common theme in many places. Other endonyms also commonly refer to prominent natural landmarks or distinctive characteristics of a group's homeland.
Each group has also adopted one or more foreign names as secondary autonyms. The Lenape also refer to themselves as “Delaware.” The largest Anishinabe group often goes by “Ojibwe” in Canada and “Chippewa” in the United States. And the Diné have adopted the name “Navaho” (or Navajo). Though these names do not originate in the traditional languages of the groups to which they refer, they may be considered autonyms because the people of those groups use them to refer to themselves.
An exonym is a name that is applied to an ethnic group by another group or groups of people. For instance, the English word “German” and the Spanish word “alemán” both refer to the people who call themselves “Deutsch.”
These names often originate as descriptions of some unique characteristic of the group - where they are from, what they eat, what they look like, etc. Many of the commonly used names for Native American groups started this way; some were relatively neutral descriptions of the group while others were more disparaging. For example, the terms "Ojibwe" and "Chippewa" come from the Algonquin word "otchipwa" (to pucker), a reference to the style of moccasins that were traditionally worn by members of the group. In another case, the Huaorani of Ecuador are often called "Auca" by outsiders, which means "savage" in the language of the neighboring Quichua; the Huaorani consider this a gross insult.
The sources of other exonyms are sometimes harder to trace. Numerous explanations have been suggested for the origin of the word "Cherokee," for example. Researchers have suggested words and phrases originating in several different languages for various descriptions of the group, but no consensus has been reached.
A second set of names that are generally classified as exonyms consists of translations or corruptions of the name that a group has for itself in its own language. The term "French" is an example: it is an English word, but it is directly derived from the endonym "français." In the same way, the French word "anglais" refers to the English people.
- Nancy C. Dorian. (1999) Linguistic and Ethnographic Fieldwork. In Handbook of Language and Ethnic Identity. Joshua A. Fishman, ed. Pp. 25-41. ISBN 0195124286
- Fredrick Barth. (1969) Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Cultural Difference. ISBN 0881339792
- Original Tribal Names of Native North American People. http://www.native-languages.org/original.htm, accessed Feb. 23, 2007.
- Teresa L. McCarty and Ofelia Zepeda. (1999) Amerindians. In Handbook of Language and Ethnic Identity. Joshua A. Fishman, ed. Pp. 197-210. ISBN 0195124286
- Frederick E. Hoxie. (1996) Encyclopedia of North American Indians. ISBN 0395669219
- Joe Kane. (1993) "With spears from all sides" The New Yorker, September:54-79.
- Wilma Pearl Mankiller and Michael Wallis. (2000) Mankiller: A Chief and Her People. ISBN 0312206623