Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Russian Patronymics

“State your first name, second name, last name, surname, given name, family name…” When I fulfill visa applications for German, Polish, US embassies, each time I need a second or two to understand what exactly I’m asked for. Each country uses its own “names” for names. I found, that Russian personal names are not easy for non-native speakers too and sometimes, Russian long names spoil the joy of reading classic Russian literature. Russian first names sound strange to the foreign ear, Russian family names may vary depending on if the person is male or female, but many surnames do not have gender variants. Russians rarely have second names, and all, with no exceptions, have patronymics. Patronymics are based on the father’s name and follow after the first name. For example, my father’s name is Anatoliy. I am Evgeniya Anatoliyevna, where Eugenia (let me spell it this way) is the first name and Anatoliyevna is the patronymic. Actually, nobody calls me like that because patronymics are used only in very formal conversations and official documents.

Patronymics formation

For men, Russian patronymics have the endings:

  • -ovich when father’s name ends with a non-palatal consonant (Russian consonants may be palatal and non-palatal): Oleg → Olegovich
  • -evich when father’s name ends with a palatal consonant: Dmitriy → Dmitriyevich
  • -ich when father’s name ends with a vowel: Foma → Fomich

For women, patronymics have the endings:

  • -ovna when father’s name ends with a non-palatal consonant: Gleb → Glebovna
  • -evna when father’s name ends with a palatal consonant: Aleksey → Alekseyevna
  • -ichna when father’s name ends with a vowel: Nikita → Nikitichna.

Patronymic Usage

As I said above, patronymics normally are used in official communication. Kids are never called by the combination first name + patronymic, but their teachers have to be addressed by their first names with patronymics always, doesn’t matter how old they are. You demonstrate respect, social distance and subordination by adding a patronymic to person’s name in Russia.

My scientific advisor at the university used to call all his students by name and patronymic. He was quite old and a very respected person, with many long titles, while we were just 18 year old students. But he addressed us as if we were equal. We were pleased and shocked at the same time. Now my good friend works at the university as a tutor and lecturer, and I jokingly call her Eugenia Alekseevna. I myself hate to be called by patronymic because it make me feel old and too official.

Sometimes good friends or colleagues may call each other by patronymics only. Often, a diminutive (shortened) form is used for this cases. Say, there is someone called Ivan Mikhailovich. “Do you know where Mikhalych is?” means “Do you know where Ivan Mikhailovich is?” Stylistically, this is not neutral. First, only very close people may call each other this way in unofficial circumstances. Second, this may be considered as “low style”, very simple speech of poorly educated person.

At schools, students often use diminutive forms of patronymics just to make life a bit easier. Imagine, you should call your teacher by this long combination every time. That’s why Maria Ivanovna (a classic name for a teacher, often used in anecdotes) turns to Mar’Ivanna, Pavel Aleksandorvich turns to Pavel Sanych and so on. Usually, teachers do not mind this. Same happens in companies where official communications are preferable. When everyone has to call a boss “Aleksandr Aleksandrovich”, very soon people start calling him “San Sanych”, both in person and not.