What’s in a (Russian) name?

Nov 23, 2011 by

[All names below are presented in the transliteration, rather than the more traditional English spelling]

This post is in response to a question by John Cowan in connection with an earlier post that mentioned the Russian system of addressing a person. As mentioned in that earlier post, a person’s legal name in Russian consists of three parts: given name, patronymic and last/family name. These three elements can be used on their own or in different combinations (e.g. given name + patronymic, or given name + family name, or given name + patronymic + family name, etc.). Here, I will focus on the first element, the person’s given name.

Each given name has three sets of forms: the full form, the short form(s) and the diminutive form(s). Full given names come from different sources: calendar-based lists of names of Orthodox Christian saints (e.g. Ivan, Andrej, Jakov, Jurij, Tatjana, Marija, Avdotja, Elizaveta, etc.); ancient Slavic (pre-Christian) names (e.g. Stanislav, Radomir, Dobromila, Rada); Old Russian names (e.g. Zhdan, Peresvet, Lada); Soviet-era names, many of them abbreviations (e.g. Vilen = abbreviated Vladimir Iljich Lenin, Ninel’ = Lenin pronounced backwards, Avangard, etc.); names from European and Oriental languages (e.g. Al’bert, Zhanna, Timur, etc.). The so-called calendar names are by far the most popular category, while the popularity of “foreign” names fluctuates from decade to decade.

While full names may be phonologically cumbersome (e.g., they are often multi-syllabic and may contain unusual sequences of phonemes), short names are typically bisyllabic and follow the trochaic pattern, typical of hypocoristics in many languages (cf. English Billy, Marty or Annie, or Hebrew Bibi from Benjamin, or Kobi from Yakov). Most typically, a short form is formed by adding -a or -ya suffix to a (truncated) stem of a name: Rom(an) → Rom|a, Ol(ga) → Ol|ja, Vik(torija) → Vik|a, Fjod(or) → Fed|ja, Pjot(r) → Pet|ja (the changes in the vowel in the stems of the latter two names are a result of a regular phonological pattern in Russian). In some cases, the short name is more than two syllables long, as with Valer(ij) → Valer|a.

In addition to the -a/-yasuffix, other suffixes can be used to form the short form from the full form:

  • -sh: Ma(ria) → Ma|sh|а, Pa(vel) → Pa|sh|a, Mi(khail) → Mi|sh|a, (An)to(nina) → To|sh|a, Da(rja) → Da|sh|a, (A)le(ksej) → Ljo|sh|a, (Alek)sa(ndr) → Sa|sh|a;
  • -n: Ma(ria) → Ma|n|ja, So(fija) → So|n|ja, Ta(tjana) → Ta|n|ja;
  • -k: (Fe)li(zija) → Li|k|a, Ge(nnadiy) → Ge|k|a, I(gor’) → I|k|a, Mi(khail) → Mi|k|a;
  • -s and -us: Lju(dmila) → Lju|s|ja, A(nna) → A|s|ja, (Ev)d(okija) → D|us|ja etc.

A certain full name may correspond to several short forms: e.g. Marija (‘Mary’) → Masha, Manja, or Vitalij (‘Vitaliy’) → Vitalja, Vita, Vitja, Talya and Vitasha. On the other hand, the same short name may correspond to several full names: e.g. Dictionary of Russian personal names by N.A. Petrovskiy relates the short form Alja to 19 masculine and 18 feminine names including Aleksej, Oleg, Juvenalij, Aleksandr and Aleksandra, Alisa, Alla and Galina. To make things even more complicated, some names do not have distinct full and short forms. For example, my name Asja (‘Asya’) is both the full and the short form (although it can also be the short form of other full names, like Aleksandra, Anastasija or Anna). Similarly, Ilja (‘Ilya’) is both a full form and a short form.

As if full and short forms of Russian names are not enough, each name also has a set of diminutives, which can express either warm and tender attitude towards the addressee or slighting/pejorative emotions. Diminutive forms are derived by adding various diminutive suffixes (the two forms of the suffix in the pairs below attach to hard and soft stems respectively): -ochk/-echk, -on’k/-en’k, -ushk/-jushk, -jush, -jash, -ul, -ush, -un, -us, -k, -iketc.). These suffixes can be attached to both short and full names. For example: from Marija (full form) the following diminutive forms can be derived:

  • Marija (full form) → Marjunja, Marunja, Marusja, Marjusha, Mar’jushka and Marjasha
  • Masha (short from) → Mashka, Mashen’ka, Mashulja
  • Manya (another short form) → Manechka, Manjusja, Manjusha, Manjasha

Thus, the same person can be called by any of these forms, depending on the circumstances. So how is this wealth of given name forms used in Russian?

In combination with a patronymic, only the full form can be used, while either the full or the short form (but not any of the diminutives) can be used in combination with the family name.

When used on their own, short names are the most typical way of addressing someone you are well-acquianted with, such as a (close) relative, a friend or (in some circumstances) a colleague. In addressing someone you are less well-acquianted with the traditional way is to use the (full) name and a patronymic; however, in recent years this is giving way to using just the full name, or (especially in the entertainment industry) the short name. For example, artists like Dima Bilan, Masha Rasputina and Natasha Koroleva became known under their short names. Even more formal situation or more distant relationships call for the use of full name (+ patronymic) + family name.

While short names can be considered on the informal side of the neutral form of address, diminutive forms are generally used by close relatives and good friends, as a sign of endearment, familiarity or intimacy. The connotation of pejorative diminutive forms (typically with the suffix -k) depends on the circumstances of use: among close equals such forms can be perceived as fairly neutral, while under other circumstances they can be considered stylistically lowered. In an interesting twist involving the language of politeness, pejorative diminutives were once used in Russian as an element of “humble-speak”, that is when speaking with a person of a higher social status, for example, when a boyarin (nobleman) wrote to the tzar, he would call himself Pashka, Van’ka etc.

While this complexity in the name forms and use can be baffling, one thing to note is that names — much like the use of T- and V-pronouns — are often explicitly negotiated. So if a Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin introduces himself as Vladimir Vladimirovich (name + patronymic), Vladimir (full name), Volodja (short name) or Vova (another short name), or even just Vovan (diminutive), feel free to address him in exactly that form.

Subscribe For Updates

We would love to have you back on Languages Of The World in the future. If you would like to receive updates of our newest posts, feel free to do so using any of your favorite methods below: