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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