Monday, January 9, 2012

About Russian Names

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It is amazing that the more we know about a subject, the more familiar and comfortable we are with it, the more difficult it is to explain it to others, less aware and less accustomed. I have been living in New York City for almost five years, and there have been lots of questions about my country and my culture, and I tried to avoid them, for the most part, and I did so not because I wanted to deny who I am, but simply due to the fact that it is surprisingly hard to speak about familiar things. Also, when they are dear and personal to us, this complicates the matter even more.

However, as the questions become more frequent, and explaining gets less pleasant, I think this is the time I started spelling out my knowledge, as it will both help me to grow more comfortable talking about my cultural heritage, which I love very much, and to answer some of the questions I failed to give a clear explanation to in a personal conversation, and it seems only natural to me to start with the first thing we say when we introduce ourselves to a new person - our name.

As far as Russian names are concerned, they often seem too complicated to foreigners. Indeed, they are long and odd; for example, my full name is Ekaterina Aleksandrovna Lalo, totaling 26 letters. Luckily, my last name is short and unusual, on the contrary to other, more common Russian family names like Gorbunova or Ivanova; otherwise, there would have been many more letters to it.

"This is insane, " you may think. "Why have such a complicated name?"

The truth is, it is not as illogical as it seems when you look closer into it, and as I will guide you through my own name, you will hopefully become just as familiar with Russian names as I am myself.

First thing you should know is the structure of a Russian name, which may be divided, for your convenience, into three parts: first name, patronymic and family name. First name is given to us by our parents; it is dictated by their personal choice. Whereas in many countries, a male child is expected to have  his father's first name, in Russia choosing a first name for a baby boy or girl depends solely on his or her parents' preference, although it is common to name a child after a grandfather, grandmother or any other relative.

As far as I know, since my great-grandmother from my mother's side and my grandmother from my father's side were namesakes, my parents first wanted to name me Maria to honor both of them. In fact, when my mother gave birth to me, and we were both still in the hospital, my father would write notes to her mentioning me as Maria. Later on, something made them change their mind giving me the name of the famous Russian empress, Ekaterina (or Catherine) the Great.

When it comes to Russian first names like mine, they are usually long and difficult to use in our every day life. Therefore, it is common to shorten first names of people we know, which shows that we are either related or are familiar and friendly with them. Hence, my long and pompous name Ekaterina basically exists only on paper or in a formal conversation, which I will elaborate on later, and instead, most people call me Katia.

By the way, it is interesting that when we address our neighbors or relatives, who are older than we are, we usually call everyone an aunt or an uncle, no matter if they are or not our parents' siblings, and when doing so, we don't use their full name but its short variant. For instance, for a seven-year old boy next door I would be "aunt Katia," even though I am not related to his mother or father. This curious combination expresses both respect by calling an older person "aunt" or "uncle" (even if they are only one or two years apart from us, in some cases), and familiarity given by the short name.

However, if you are not familiar with a person or you are not on the same social level, you will address them by not one, but two of their names: their first name and their patronymic, which derives from the person's father's name and is a substitute for a middle name, which we are not given. For example, as my dad's name is Aleksandr (or Alexander, in English), my patronymic, the substitute of a middle name common in many other countries, is Aleksandrovna, which shows that I am Aleksandr's daughter, by means of the suffix -ovna (-ovich for boys, a gender-based variation), in my case, and -evna (-evich, a phonetic variant for -ovich) in patronymics like Sergeevna or Yurievna.

Whereas calling me "aunt Katia" implies respect and familiarity at the same time, if one addresses me as "Ekaterina Aleksandrovna," this means either that they don't know me very well, or that I am in a different social role (i.e. a teacher, a boss, or sometimes even a mother-in-law are called by two names). You may notice that a full form of the first name is always used with a patronymic. When we first meet someone in a formal setting, we usually learn their two names unless they are uncomfortable and want to make the situation less formal. It may happen that a boss would ask to be called by his or her first name only in order to have less distance between him/her and the staff.

Speaking of that, it is crucial to note that how we introduce ourselves to people sets the tone of our relationship or interaction making it more or less formal, friendly or rather official. Occasionally, a person might be called by his or her patronymic only, as a joke, a friendly reproach or a sign of familiarity.

Having discussed the most difficult part of a Russian name, all we have left before this conversation is over is mentioning family names, which children get from their fathers. It is curious that we, Russians, end up getting two things from our fathers, our "middle name" and our last name. If a child's father is unknown or is not worthy of mentioning according to the child's mother, she may choose to give the baby her father's last name and patronymic, and orphans are given random last names and patronymics if they have none, but there should not be a child who doesn't have all three names.

Out of all three names, a person's family name is more likely to be changed when it comes to a woman. When she gets married, she might choose or not to take her husband's last name to show that she belongs to his family now. This happens all over the world, although it becomes more common nowadays for women not to change their maiden names after marriage.

However, if a woman marries someone called, for instance, Boris Ivanovich Petrov, and she decides to take his last name, she will have a feminine form of his surname, Petrova. It is exactly the same name legally, and each of the male children they have will be Petrov, whereas each of their daughters will be Petrova. Gender difference is really the only thing that makes Russian names unique compared to American names, and if one lives in New York, Petrov and Petrova are legally different names. Therefore, as I know from many of my Russian acquaintances who got married abroad, they often choose to be the Petroffs, or Mr and Mrs Petrov on paper sacrificing their cultural tradition in order to avoid legal disagreements in the country they reside in. This would have never been a problem for my parents had they  registered their union somewhere else but Russia because my last name does not have gender variations: my father's name is Lalo, and so is my mother's and mine. Not all surnames do; it usually depends on the origin of the family name. Ukrainian names are often unchangeable, and so are names of foreign origin. I am still unsure about to which category my own name belongs; it is uncommon for both Russia (where my mother is from and where I was born and raised) and Ukraine (where my father came from).

Thus, I have finally said everything I know about Russian naming customs, and I am glad to share the information with those who have always been curious why our full names are so horribly long. All I would like to add is that for Russians, a name is situational. Whereas for an English-speaking John, the only one other variation of his name is Johnny, for Russians there are at least five forms of a short name (like Masha, Mania, Marusya and many others for Maria) that may show love, disregard and a lot more. Therefore, it is common that every other person calls me in a different way, and how my friends address me is not the same my university teacher used to. When I lived in Delaware, I was often called Kate, which was easy to pronounce and to remember. Later on, when I moved to New York, my boss at the supermarket I worked at the time called me Katrina, and the name stuck with me. I liked it a lot, and I do believe that it expresses who I am, unpredictable like a hurricane, soft and strong-willed, sophisticated and full of life. Also, it has no levels of formality in it, which would have been unclear for people around me. And finally, it will always be associated with New York City for me, the place where I am a guest, but where I keep discovering who I truly am as an individual.

Still, on paper and in my writing I will always be Ekaterina Lalo, proud of my roots, my language and my country no matter where in the world I live. Circumstances change, but who you are doesn't even when how you are and what you are like does.

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