Naming things—people, objects, places, etc. is itself a form of communication. As we have discussed in class, naming is one of the most elementary forms of communication used by infants and young children. By naming objects, we identify them in terms that have meaning to us. Once we have made this identification, we can then attempt to communicate this meaning to others. After the trauma that Melinda experiences, she is left is silent shock—just as she was that night at the party when her lips couldn’t seem to form the word “NO.” After the incident, her communication with others is seemingly non-existent. The novel Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson is the story of how Melinda re-discovers her own identity and re-learns how to communicate her thoughts and feelings to others.
In Speak, instead of naming objects, Melinda mostly names people. In the first half of the novel, we mostly notice Melinda naming her teachers and fellow students. She names them based on their most noticeable or most striking feature. For example, when “a predator approaches: gray jock buzz cut, whistle around a neck thicker than his head—probably a social studies teacher, hired to coach a blood sport”, Melinda aptly names him “Mr. Neck” due to the perceived large girth of his neck (pg. 5). Similarly, when Melinda meets her English teacher, she quickly notices her uncombed stringy hair that is mostly black, except for the frizzy ends that are neon orange. Melinda concludes that she cannot decide whether this woman has “pissed off her hairdresser or if she is morphing into a monarch butterfly” (pg. 6). For this reason, Melinda adopts the name “Hairwoman” for her. Then at lunch, as Melinda scoots her tray down the line as it is filled with untasteful, unidentifiable foods, an eight-foot tall senior in front of her gets “three cheeseburgers, french fries, and two Ho-Hos without saying a word” (pg. 8). Due to the boy’s extremely tall stature, Melinda names him “basketball pole.”
As we have discussed in class, small children also attach a lot of meaning to their own name. Discovering one’s identity by learning his or her name is a major point of development in a child’s life. It is a phase of development that must occur before further psychological development can correctly continue. Interestingly, in the novel Speak, the reader is not even made aware of the narrator’s name until page 24! Furthermore, even when the reader learns the protagonist’s name, it is not from the mouth of the protagonist herself, but rather a friend states it. The fact that Melinda does not introduce herself at any point in the first part of the novel and does not even mention her own name in any way, shows that she is not yet secure in her own identity. The only name the reader is presented with in order to identify Melinda is “Outcast”. This is stated by Melinda herself.
Further on in the novel, we see that Melinda uses naming people and things as a stepping stone to coming to terms with her own identity, which later results in her stored communication with others. This restoration of communication completely transforms her life and thinking.
“I’m not my name. My name is something I wear, like a shirt. It gets worn. I outgrow it, I change it.”
― Jerry Spinelli
In the same way, the protagonist does not retain her initial name of OUTCAST. It gets worn. She outgrows it. She changes it. She learns instead how to become “Melinda.”