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Naming of Latvians



Most Latvians acquired hereditary family names - this process in this Site is called the naming - a good time after the serfdom was abolished in 1816-1818. In Vidzeme [Livland] the naming was carried out in 1826, in Kurzeme [Kurland] a bit later - in 1835, but in Latgale the serfdom was abolished in 1861, and the naming was completed in 1864.

The process and the appropriate regulations deserve much more thorough discussion than you may find in this Page, but it will be presented later, I hope.

At the beginning of the reference period in 1800, when most Latvians were serfs and had no hereditary family names, they were registered in the revision lists by their first name and by the farm name they lived in. It is difficult and perhaps even impossible to say if a Latvian was mentioned in a document by his hereditary family name or by a nickname or a farm name. Later it was common practice to register a person in an official paper with both his family name and the name of the farmstead he lived in.

The names of farms were important during the naming process. The people quite easy coined their personal hereditary family names from the names of the farms, though it was not obligatory at all. In practice the farm names gave the family names mainly (perhaps even only) to the farm hosts who were usually considered more tied with the farm. Other families who lived in farms had to search for other ways to find their family name. Later at the end of the 19th century, when Latvians began to buy farms, it could happen that a farm got its name from the names of the owner.


Farm names

As it was mentioned, the farm names were a very important source for the Latvian family names. Though there are a lot of farm names that were ever used for creating a family name, some of the farm names were very productive in this sense. If a family name seems to be rather rare and original, the discovering of the farm name that corresponds to the researched family name may give the clue to the family origin.

One of the most popular kind of farm name is derived by suffix -iņi of the words that to some extent characterize the surroundings of the farm. For example,
from the word bērzs that means birch tree
Ozoliņi from the word ozols that means oak tree
Kalniņi from the word kalns that means hill etc.

This suffix now sounds as the deminutive for plural forms of the words, but linguists assert that long ago it could be used to describe people who was in some sense connected with the main word, so bērziņi should not mean - small, nice birch trees - but rather - people, who live among birch trees, kalniņi - not small, nice hills, but the people, who live near hills. Whatever was the understanding of the names long time ago, now the words with suffix -iņi are perceived as diminutive forms in plural. In singular the form sounds -iņš and with this ending the farm name could be used to derive a family name.

The suffix -iņš is applied for the nouns that end with -s. If a noun ends with -a, which means it is of the female gender, then the deminutive suffix should be -iņa. That is not all - if a noun has the ending -is, then the appropriate deminutive suffix is -ītis, and if the ending is -e (female gender) then the deminutive is -īte. All these endings, and many others, were used for the construction of Latvian family names.


Naming process

The pagasts officials were responsible for the naming of the peasants. Quite frequently the only literate person in a pagasts was the scribe, so he did all the job concerning the registration of names. In spite of the fact that the previous owner of the former serfs - the owner of the local manor - was not formally engaged in the naming, in reality he not rarely ordered to name his former peasants by his will.

The rules for the naming prescribed that, if a father had chosen a name, then all his children who lived with him, including the adult sons with families, acquired the same name. Each son of a deceased father could choose different names.

Not all of the peasants realized well the meaning of the procedure that was going on in the pagasts offices. Not all of them arrived there with chosen names and not always could propose them to the scribe. In such cases it happened that the scribes proposed the names for these peasants, and in sometimes they did it without much asking for agreement. As the scribes at the time of the naming were Germans by ethnicity with rare exceptions, they usually proposed German names in these cases. This is one of the reasons, why Latvians have plain German family names so frequently. In the worst case the scribe could have registered a name with offensive meaning for a peasant. If it happened, the holders of this name later searched for a way to change the name. These ways are described in another Page.

Many families have their family lore about the naming, part of these stories is gathered in the volumes of Latvian folklore that I should yet study to decide if it would be useful to publish these stories here.


© Bruno Martuzāns. 1999-2002