Au revoir, mademoiselle!

Feb 29, 2012 by

French government has recently announced that the word “mademoiselle” would no longer be used in its official documents. Up until now, women were forced by government departments, banks, and private companies to categorize themselves as either “madame” or “mademoiselle”, according to their marital status. But this is a loaded question as it can also be used by men trying to establish a woman’s availability. In France, a man is a Mr. (“monsieur”) regardless of his marital status. France is now following the lead of several other Western countries in abolishing the marital status as part of a woman’s name/title: Germany, for example, banned the use “freulein” from official use in 1972, and English-speaking countries allow a marital-status-neutral form “Ms.”. Reactions to this French measure differ from “victory for feminists” to “feminism gone wild”, but in this post I would like to focus on languages that make the marital status an issue related to a woman’s name, and not just the title or form of address.

Take, for example, Lithuanian (an Indo-European language, closely related to Latvian, which I’ve discussed in the previous post). Surnames in Lithuanian end differently depending on whether it’s a man’s surname, a married woman’s or an unmarried woman’s. Men’s surnames typically end in -us, -as, or -ys, as in Paulauskas, Adamkus, Bimbirys. Their sons would inherit the father’s surname, unchanged. However, neither their wives nor their daughters would bear exactly the same name. Thus, the wife of Paulauskas would be named Paulauskiene, but their daughter would be Paulauskaite. Until she marries, of course, at which point she is more likely than not to take her husband’s surname, once again adjusted to reflect her marital status. Let’s say our daughter of Mr. Paulauskas and Mrs. Paulauskiene marries a man whose surname is Adamkus. Her surname will be changed from Paulauskaite to Adamkiene, and their daughter’s surname would be Adamkute (because, just to make things a bit more complicated, the endings used for surnames of unmarried women are somewhat different, depending on surname). Can you guess the surnames of singer Kristina Orbakaite’s parents? (answer at the bottom of this post)

Whereas in many countries women change their surnames to those of their husbands (with necessary adjustments as in Lithuanian), in other cultures women may even have, or at least until recently had, to change their first names too. According to Torbjorn Lundmark’s Tales of Hi and Bye,

“not long ago in Macedonia it was de rigueur — and still happens, especially in the countryside — that a woman, upon marriage, loses not only her maiden surname, but also her first name. She simply becomes her husband’s wife.

Thus, if a woman called Ivana marries a man whose first name is Petre, not only does she take his surname, but her first name becomes ‘Petrejca’. Similarly, Tome’s wife becomes ‘Tomejca’; the bride of Atanas becomes ‘Atanasica’, and Stojan’s wife will be known as ‘Stojanica’.”

A similar tradition was observed in Hungary until 1950s: a married woman lost both her own first and last names entirely, becoming known by her husband’s first and last names, with a marker meaning ‘wife of’. If this tradition seems odd to you, recall that until relatively recently in English-speaking countries a married woman was often known as ‘Mrs. John Doe’.

Are there languages or cultures where married women have always retained their maiden first and last names? Iceland is sort of like that: with some rare exceptions, married Icelandic women do not take their husband’s surname. The reason may not be feminism, though. It is just that Icelanders do not really have surnames. Instead, they have first names and patronymics. The latter is a form of a name based on a person’s father’s name. In the case of Icelanders, patronymics are made out of the father’s name plus a suffix that indicates the gender of the person: men have the suffix -sson (‘son’) and women have the suffix -dóttir (‘daughter’). For example, Einar and Helga are brother and sister. Their parents are Jón and Elsa. Einar’s full name would be ‘Einar Jónsson’ and his sister would be ‘Helga Jónsdóttir’. If Einar marries and has two children: Ingvar and Maria, their full names would be ‘Ingvar Einarsson’ and ‘Maria Einarsdóttir’. And if Einar’s sister Helga marries a Bjorn Eriksson, she will remain ‘Helga Jónsson’.


Answer: Kristina Orbakaite’s father is Lithuanian circus performer Mykolas Orbakas, and her mother is… the Russian pop star Alla Pugacheva (it was a trick question!).


[Thanks to Timothy Wigboldus for correction to the original post]

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  • Timothy Wigboldus

    “Their parents are Jón and Elsa. Einar’s full name would be ‘Einar Jónsson’ and his sister would be ‘Helga Jónsson’.” So I guess that would be Helga Jónsdóttir? Interesting post.

    • Sorry, typo. Yes. I will correct the post accordingly.

      • Ivan A Derzhanski

        Also for “freulein” read “Fräulein” (with an obligatory capital letter).

  • Traditionally, in Irish, women did not change their names when they got married, and as in Icelandic, there are different forms for men and women (though they aren’t actual patronyms). To adapt your example, Eoin and Bríd are brother and sister, and their father is named Pádraig Ó Dónaill. Eoin’s full name would be Eoin Ó Dónaill and his sister would be Bríd Ní Dhónaill. If Bríd marries a Stiofán Mac Giolla Chríost, she would traditionally remain Bríd Ní Dhónaill, though her children would be surnamed either Mac Giolla Chríost or Nic Ghiolla Chríost. More recently, there’s been some adoption of the English practice of taking the husband’s name, though instead of Ní (from iníon uí ‘daughter of a grandson’) or Nic (from iníon mhic ‘daughter of a son’), the genitive form of Ó (Uí) or Mac (Mhic) is used instead, with or without bean ‘wife’: Bríd (Bean) Mhic Ghiolla Chríost.

    • Thank you for sharing the Irish naming tradition. I’ve always wondered about that. Actually, many languages/cultures have slightly different forms for male and female names, including Russian. For example, that pop star I mentioned at the end of the post, Alla Pugacheva, her father must have been someone Pugachev, without the -a. Curiously, foreign names would not have that difference in Russian — in the nominative case. But in other cases, foreign male surnames would be declined, whereas female ones would remain unchanged.

  • Lukas Reck

    In Spain and most Spanish-speaking countries, women retain their full maiden names after marriage. Of their two surnames, however, it’s customarily only their father’s surname that they will pass on to their children.

    • Indeed. Thanks for bringing that up. I had a Costa Rican friend back in Russia: while he lived (and studied) there, Russian authorities forced him to choose one of the surnames, as in Russia you simply can’t have two surnames. Torbjorn Lundmark in that book I mentioned in the post mentions several other cross-cultural surname issues, in his case Swedish-Icelandic ones.

      • Anonymous

        Do Russian authorities allow hyphenated names? 

        Incidentally, the formal title rules for girls in Victorian-era England were slightly more complicated. In a family with several daughters, the eldest unmarried daughter would be Miss Lastname, while the younger daughters would be Miss Firstname1, Miss Firstname2, etc.  I believe (though I’m not 100% certain) that upon the marriage of the eldest daughter, the second daughter would be “promoted” to being the new “Miss Lastname”. Of course, in less formal occasions, the actual first name or a nickname would be used, but formal usage was far more pervasive, and would be used even within the home at times.

        • Thank you for sharing the information on the naming convention in Victorian England. I think you are quite right!

          As for the Russian authorities, yes, hyphenated names are allowed, but rarely used. And double last names are always hyphenated, not two separate names.

  • CC

    While many of them might not have last name traditions (though I wouldn’t know), there are certainly many cultures that trace descent through the matrilineal line. For example, my Cherokee teacher became a member of the bird clan by way of marriage with his current wife, where as previously he was part of the wolf clan.

  • Paul Clapham

    To be picky, the Icelandic rule for patronymics is that you append -son or -dóttir to the genitive form of the father’s name. Thus the son of Ólafur is Ólafs-son, for example.

    • Yes, thank you for mentioning that. It is also why the patronymic of Einar is Einarsson, with two -ss.

      • Steven Lubman

        That makes total sense “сын ОлафА” 🙂

        • And in the case of Russian surnames: Ivan-ov, Nikit-in = possessive forms as well. Like otsov ‘father’s’ or koshkin ‘cat’s’

  • Ezra

    “If this tradition seems odd to you, recall that until relatively recently in English-speaking countries a married woman was often known as ‘Mrs. John Doe’”
    My dad still does this when addressing letters.  He also addresses letters to unmarried men using “Master” rather than “Mister.”  He’ll be turning 70 this year, so I guess he’s getting up to the age when his customs are antiquated. 

    • Actually, I believe in formal letters and invitations it is still customary to write “Mr. and Mrs. John Doe”…

      • Ezra

        It’s not just formal ones.  For instance, when sending a birthday card to my sister, he will write “Mrs. Husband’s Name”.

      • Aaron

        Which leads to awkward combinations with honorifics. My wife retained her last name and has an MD; so I am Mr. A Mylast and she is Dr. B Herlast. We once received a wedding invitation for “Dr. and Mr A Mylast.”

        • SirBedevere

          This can be quite complicated in Hungarian as well, though I think clearer. If one wants to use the wife’s own name, one could write, for instance Kovács Istvánné Seredy Ilona, which is to say Ilona Seredy Mrs. István Kovács. I understand that the title could go with the name, so if the husband were a lawyer, for instance, his wife might be dr. Kovács Istvánné Seredy Ilona, whereas if she were a lawyer, she could be Kovács Istvánné dr. Seredy Ilona, and if both were, she could be dr Kovács Istvánné dr. Seredy Ilona. I have no idea how common any of this was or is, but it was explained to be by an elderly Hungarian when I was learning the language, since my wife and I had both gone to law school and I was not sure how to introduce her.

          • how very civilized! I love when languages allow to distinguish whose title it is, the wife or the husbands!

  • Like in Spain, also in Italy women retain their surname after marriage. Marital status no longer appears in ID cards, neither for men nor for women.
    And like in France, officially all women should be called “signora” (the equivalent of “madame”), a change that was implemented several years ago. Older generations still use “signorina” (the equivalent of “mademoiselle”) when addressing young women.

  • Jnthnwrght

    It may surprise some readers to know that in most Arab countries (Lebanon and some of its neighbours excepted to some extent), women do not usually change their names on marriage. In official documents they carry their father’s first and second names (and sometimes third too) throughout their lives. These means that they do not share any names with their children, who take their names from their father. This may reflect the fact that marriage is seen as a legal contract between two independent individuals, not as a sacrament. Similarly, marriage brings no formal pooling of financial assets. In formal social contexts however, such as receptions reported in newspapers or notifications of funerals, a woman may sometimes be referred to as Haram of X (wife of X) 

  • Leslie

    I know of at least one family in Iceland that uses matronymics instead of patronymics. I studied there for a semester and lived with a woman and her two boys. Their father was no longer involved in the boys’ lives, and so they were the Margrétarsons. I don’t know how widespread this practice is, but it’s apparently legal.

    • Thank you for sharing this, Leslie! Yes, I’ve heard of this practice also but like you I don’t know how widespread this is.

  • Silvia Novakova

    In Slovakia (or I think Czech as well), there is the rule that the feminine form of the surname has always the suffix “-ová”. So when a man is called  e.g. Peter Novák, his wife/daughter’s surname is Nováková.

    I wonder if something like this exists in any other languages as well…

    • Thanks for sharing this, Silvia. I think it’s a general Slavic pattern: Russian too has pairs like Ivanov-Ivanova.

      • Ivan Derzhanski

        It seems you’re overlooking an important difference here.  In Russian (as well as Bulgarian; I don’t know where else) the male and female forms of the surname are masculine and feminine forms of the same possessive adjective (Ivan-ov, Ivan-ov-a `[person from the family] of Ivan’), or relational adjective (Nev-sk-ij, Nev-sk-aja `of [River] Neva’), or qualitative adjective (Bel-yj, Bel-aja `White’), or if the surname isn’t an adjective, it has the same form for men and women.  Whereas in the Czech and Slovak system there’s no such symmetry: the female form of the surname is a (feminine) possessive adjective formed from the male form, so that Novák is just Novák, but Novák-ov-á is `[wife/daughter] of Novák’.  Polish used to do this too, with the added twist that the wife would be Nowak-owa and the daughter Nowak-ówna, but it seems to have gone out of use (though it survives in its Lithuanian calque that you write about).