I recently changed jobs. And my new boss asked me – whether I prefer to be called Tatiana or Tanya. He noticed that I use Tanya for this blog and Tatiana at work. I replied that I prefer Tatiana for work, since I know that having several versions of name confuses people in a Western work environment. But I thought that explanation of how Russian names work is a great topic for a post!
I am going to give a guide on how to address your Russian counterparts in this post, but let’s look at the origins of Russian names first as it is quite interesting. I must make a disclaimer first though – I am not a specialist in the subject of etymology of names, so there may be inaccuracies in this part my text (and I look forward to learn more on the subject from your comments and correct all possible mistakes or add new information).
In pre-Christian times people named kids based on season they were born in, the order of birth in the family or based on distinguishing features or personality traits. Most of these names, such as Tretyak (third child born in a family) or Molchoon (the quiet kid) or Vesna (Spring) do not exist now or exist as last names or their roots.
From the end of 10th century and adoption of Christianity, Russia started to use names from the church calendar. These names have come from a variety of origins, but most Russian names took their origin from Byzantine. For most names it is possible to trace the meaning and origin – such as my name, according to Google, comes from the Roman name Tatianus, a derivative of the Roman name Tatius. This was the name of a 3rd-century saint who was martyred in Rome under the emperor Alexander Severus. But most names have lost their initial meaning now (unlike for example Japanese names) and are just words (with exception of some names, such as Vera (Faith), Nadezhda (Hope) and Lyubov (Love).
Up until the October Revolution of 1917, when a baby was born, family typically looked into a church calendar for that day and chose the name of the Saint, whose day that was, so the name day usually coincided with the birthday and people celebrated name days. The language is fluid, so the better sounding names (Olga, Elena, Ilya, Alexander etc.) were more popular and those names that were hard to pronounce were modified or eliminated from the language. Some names were used by noble people, some by peasants, so the name often reflected the social status.
To add the other level of complexity – some names were adopted from Western Europe, especially in the 17th-19th centuries. At that time a lot of French names came to Russia together with French language. Later, in the beginning of Soviet times, many German names, such as Roza (after Roza Luxemburg) and Klara (after Klara Tsetkin) came to Russia.
In addition to that, political changes influenced kids’ naming a lot. After October revolution and for 70 years of Soviet period, church was banned. People still named their kids using traditional names, but a few new names were “invented”. The example of such name – Vladlen, which is the abbreviation of Vladimir Lenin. Every 4 years there are more and more kids named after Olympics (“Olimpiada” would be a girls’ name)
Despite all the multicultural roots and varieties of names origins the pool of most popular names is not large. 15-30 names top the lists and altogether – there are no more of 300-400 names which people use. When I went to school there were always several Tatianas, Natashas, Olgas, Annas, Elenas, Andreys, Alexanders etc. in class.
Change to the free market economy in the 90s led to a new phenomena – many parents wanted their kids to be “unique” and named them like Hollywood stars name their kids – by inventing new names. “The artists formerly named as Prince” really fades in comparison with such names as “Luka-Happiness-Sommerset-Ocean” or “Viagra” (not what you thought – a popular Russian girls band) or “Nikita-Kit” (Nikita-whale). These are all the registered names, boys and girls who own them will have to carry these names at least until they are 16 years old and have a right to change them. Some names such as USDMX720 or similar were refused from registering(for the benefit of a poor fellow).
But although origins of names may be confusing, the most confusing part is in the usage of full vs. short (diminutive) forms of the Russian names.
Say – you meet me at the workplace. I say that I am Tatiana. You work with me for 2-3 months, we get along well. And suddenly I say that you can call me Tanya from now on. What??!! Did you change your name? What happened? And if you did – why do some other people in the office still call you Tatiana?
It is confusing. But here is how it works. It is similar to how you first formally greet a new acquaintance, but later can address him or her with Hey and finish your message with Cheers. Or it is like calling your friend David – Dave.
In the US a person usually sticks to one name – you either like David or Dave and you go with the version you like most. Here – I will always be Tatiana for people I have just met in formal setting, Tanya for my co-workers and most of my friends and, either Tanusha or Tanechka or Tata for my spouse and other people I know for ages and who are really close to me.
It is incredibly hard for foreigners to understand this concept and guess when you switch and start calling a Russian person with seemingly different name, which is just a more personal version of his/her name. To make matters even worse – I may call my colleague Alexander – Sasha in personal encounters, but will refer to him as Alexander in the business meetings.
Is there a golden rule? Yes and no. The key is to see and accept “name changes”. If a person offers you to call him/her a diminutive either in person or via business correspondence – accept it and call him/her with a shorter name (except for meetings with third parties). Once you start calling me Tanya – do not switch back and forth and stick to that name.
What about other 100+ diminutive versions of my name? Unless there is a possibility we may get married in future – avoid them (for native speakers it is easier to understand when to call a friend Katya and when to call her Katusha (when you want to do something nice to a friend or when it is a friend’s birthday or when you both started using super-diminutives for each other etc.) But if unsure – stick with safe options – Tatiana – Tanya, Ekaterina – Katya, Olga – Olya, Alexander – Sasha etc.
Some names might puzzle you – Alexander, Eugene and couple of others are unisex, add the “a” in the end when addressing a female (Alexander – Alexandra etc.)
Ok, now you know that each Russian name has many diminutives (some names have 20-30 short versions). But what you do not know – some of the diminutives belong to different long versions of the name. For example – my niece Asya loves her name. It is a diminutive from Anna, but she uses Asya even at work. But guess what – Asya is also a diminutive for Anastacia and that is more common. I remember the day when I met Asya – she was a tiny newborn. My sister said – she is Asya and she hesitated for some days – what Asya’s full name will be. My sister went for Anna. But it is often impossible to guess what a person’s full name is based on the diminutive. Just ask if you need to fill out any legal papers.
If you think the earlier chapters are crazy confusing – wait until the next level of complexity. My real full name consists of my first formal name and a derivative from my father’s name – Gennady. So, if you want to be real formal with me or if I am much older than you or am your doctor or your kids teacher or have a higher status (or we still live in the USSR)) – you have to call me Tatiana Gennadievna. Every time you address me in conversation!!!
Things do get simplified now though, especially in the Western companies environment. The new formal for people under 40 working in such companies is to use the full version of the first name + formal “you” if you talk in Russian.
Well, as in the rest of the world – you better do not call Tatiana Olga and vice versa. But if you are a foreigner and you call Tatiana – Tanya or not use a patronymic or use the wrong version of the name – that is not the end of the world. When my foreign friends meet my mom – I tell them that her name is Irina. When my Russian friends meet my mom – I tell them that her name is Irina Ivanovna (with patronymic). It will be totally inappropriate for any of my Russian friends to address my mom with her first name only, but we do not expect the same from foreigners. It is similar to me not adding –san to my Japanese friends names.
And in general – do not stress out too much about names. It is always good to have a sense of that subject, but for us, Russians, it is more important to see that you are open, sincere, like to spend time with us and are interested in things that matter to us.
Let me know if you have any other questions about names. Please do not hesitate to correct or add any thoughts to this article or share the experiences you had with either Russian names or names in your countries!
© 2016 Tatiana Golubeva. All rights reserved.