Upon first read, the many identifiers used to address characters in Russian plays and literature can be daunting. Within the span of a few pages, a character might be addressed by upwards of five different names. What does it all mean?
Russians are given three names at birth: their first/given name, their patronymic, and their surname or last/family name. First and last names are fairly self-explanatory; first names are unique to a person, and last names are shared by a family (a father’s last name is passed on to his children) or by a marriage (a wife takes on her husband’s last name). However, it’s worth noting that last names are adjusted to a person’s gender. Lyubov Andreyevna Ranevskaya must have married a man with the last name Ranevsky; when she married, she took on the feminine version of his last name.
Patronymics are unique to the Russian naming system; they are not equivalent to English “middle” names. Instead, they are names that reference the first name of your father, again adjusted for your own gender (gender is apparent at the end of the name; female endings include evna and ovna; male endings evich and ovich). Lyubov Andreyevna Ranevskaya and Leonid Andreyevich Gaev, sister and brother, had a father named Andrey. Their patronymics mean, respectively, “daughter of Andrey” and “son of Andrey.”
The way you choose to address someone in Russian holds clues to your relationship and respective status.
- As in English, the only time Russians use full (i.e. three) names is when they are introducing someone for the first time.
- When someone is addressed by their first name and patronymic, respect or formality is being signified. In English, this would be the equivalent of calling someone Ms. Last Name. This address can include a shortened version of the patronymic, in which one syllable is elided; i.e. from Leonid Andreyevich to Leonid Andreyich. “First, patronymic” addresses are given from servants to masters. The form is also used anytime someone wants to indicate deference or respect.
- When someone is addressed by their first name alone, we can assume the speaker is an intimate friend or family member. The exceptions to this rule are children and servants; they may be addressed by their first names by any speaker.
- Nicknames, or pet names, may also be used in substitution for a first name. Again, these names, which are usually diminutive endings on a first name (i.e. from Lyubov to Lyuba) indicate closeness and informality.
- Russians rarely use surnames alone (i.e. Ranevskaya), unless they are referring to a famous person. If a surname is used alone in regular speech, it may be an indication of disrespect (think of calling a teacher by their last name, without the addition of Ms. or Mr.).
Before the 1917 Russian revolution, Russian first names were often chosen based on the saint’s day on which a child was born (the Russian Orthodox Church required it). This meant lots of kids with identical names, but thankfully, the Russians have many, many nicknames. One dictionary of pet names lists the potential nicknames for Georgi. They include: Gora, Zhora, Gera, Gesha, Gosha, Goshulya, Gulya, Goshunya, Goga, Garya, Yegorka, Yegonya, Yegosha, Yeguna, and Gunya. After the revolution ended and naming restrictions were lifted, some 3,000 new names were introduced.
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