30.12.11

Names and Naming, p5

5. Family names

A great part of all family names originated in patronymics. Usually, these were populations who did not care for family names and were known as A son of B or C daughter of D, but were conquered by a culture that imposed (or became an example of) the use of family names. It happened with the Gauls under the Romans and it also happened this very century in British colonies such as India. To this day in Russia, family names are simply patronymics, one being known by Piotr Nikkolovich (son of Nikkolo) or Anna Nikkolovna (daughter of Nikkolo). Irish O' and Irish-Scottish Mac simply mean "son of" -- a Scottish woman would have used Nic, meaning daughter of. Worldwide we have ap- in Welsh, map- in Cornish, -szoon in Holland, -son or -sen in Scandinavian countries, -escu in Romanian, -ian in Armenian, ben in Israel, ibn in Arabic, anak in Borneo, ag among the Targi (ult for a girl)... Sometimes surnames are gendered without being patronymics, as in Bulgaria and Greece.

Other family names were originally nicknames or designations referring to profession, appearance, and of course place-names. Many cultures have the equivalent of aristocratic "of" in English and "de" in France: von in Germany, van in Holland, ze for Czechs, -tsi in Armenian... In Russia the nobility particle is an -ov in the patronymic; in Arabic nobility is recognized by a surname preceded by El or Al ("the").

The case of Turkey may be unique, as their family names did not develop naturally but nor were they imposed by an outside culture. People used to be content with their personal name and the mention "son/daughter of" or a village name, but in 1928 Kamal Ataturk bade each family freely choose a surname. This is so new that people have not developed the habit to mention their family name immediately. This is noticeable in Lebanon as well, where people more readily use first names and then inquire from what "house" the person is. In some Arab countries, men still introduce themselves by lineage: "Malek son of Yaacub son of Ahmad", while women are more known by their father, brother of husband. In Afghanistan they can also be known as Noor ("light") of one of the above, for women don't reveal their name to strangers.

The appearance of family names in China was as sudden as in Turkey, only they were set by law in 2852 BC. They all come from the poem Po-Chia-Hsing (Hundred Clan Names), which contains 408 single words that became the legal names. Much later, about 200 BC each family was again requested to adopt a generational name poem of about two dozen words: it was important to be able to tell what generation an individual belonged to, as a man could have concubines besides his first wife. The Chinese are similar to Westerners in that calling someone by their first name is slighting unless they're close.

A unique occurrence of family names is in Japanese "families" of entertainers Πactors, dancers, singers... Their teacher gives them a stage name as a mark of competence, the last name being that of the school and the first built to taste. One can inherit the name of a dead performer as one advances in skill, and the ultimate honor is to earn the name of on of the legendary members of the school.
Westerners are used to the following order: personal name, middle name, family name, which is typical of an individual-oriented society. Group-oriented cultures however, which represent the majority of the planet (count China and India alone), would follow the family name-personal name order, if they have a family name at all. Indians would never have adopted these weren't it for the British invasion; they then derived them from patronymics, caste and sub-caste names. Similarly in Kashmir, family names came about under Muslim and Sikh rules, and designate occupation, appearance, event or other Πbut they can change instantly and permanently in case of a memorable event. The Cherokee as well took family names under European influence. The Jews are a particular case as European authorities both imposed a last name on them and forbade them the privilege of family names: they had to use patronymics, ben X or bas X. Family names the way we know them, transmitted down the line, were usually born in cultures that had a notion of aristocracy and hierarchy Πthe status of the bearer made the name and its lineage worth preserving through time (already in Mesopotamia, the longer a name the higher the status of its bearer). The ancient Greeks' democracy seeped all the way into the naming system: people would be known to be part of a lineage, but this was not a family name. Some cultures were so proud of the latter that they created a nomenclature permitting to keep both the father's and mother's family names. Such is the case in Spain, where the nomenclature is: personal name(s!), father's surname separated from the mother's by a y (same thing in Portugal, with e instead of y). And yes, this can pose problems at wedding time. On the far end of the spectrum, in Iceland, it seems that family names matter so little that phonebooks are listed according to personal names, not family names. China has not only family names but also generation names, so that each person is known by family-generation-personal names, each of one syllable. Japan also places the family name first, but in older times things were not that simple. One could be known by a string of names including childhood and adult names, clan position, sobriquets, not to mention titles for the nobility and religious names if one retired in a monastery or nunnery, or the posthumous name and deification name!

There remain many cultures where family names simply do not exist. In the Himalayas one may be fooled by two-part names, but that's what they are: personal names formed of two parts, as if you were called John Michael. Neither is inherited. Under British influence, the Nepalese added a family name after their two personal names while hitherto, only the nobility or royalty had any. Korea may be the only country where royalty doesn't bother with a family name, unlike anywhere else where the higher the status, the more precious the family name is. True, European monarchs don't use their family names, but they exist. It is interesting that commoners throughout history are known only by their first name (when they have a last name at all), low and high nobles by their family name (especially if it has a particle), but kings revert again to a simple personal name.

One of the reasons for the apparition of last names may have been the need to differentiate people with the same personal names. Think of Victorian England where only about 3 dozen first names existed! No wonder people were known by the name of their lands. The inhabitants of Yap (an island) supply to this with a conventional set of differentiating names meaning large, medium, small, oldest, and youngest. Most others use patronymics.

Very few cultures have middle names in the meaning understood by Americans. For Catholics, it will be the christening name, that of a saint, and never used except on official paperwork -- it's more like a protective addition. In Lebanon, the middle name is the father's name no matter the gender of the child; it's not used either but in a society where everyone is connected to everyone else by 2 degrees at most, this allows immediate pinpointing of a person's place on a family tree – characteristic of a group-oriented culture again.