Autumn 1996 (4.3)

Names - Part 2
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History in a Nutshell
20th Century Personal Naming Practices in Azerbaijan

by Jala Garibova and Betty Blair

Influenced by Soviet Personalities

Another category of names that emerged during the Soviet period was based on personalities and heroes of the Russian Revolution and the Communist party. One Azerbaijani family named their two sons after Marx and Engels though it wasn't long before they realized their mistake. Neighbors would come running to complain that the boys were fighting and that Marx was hitting Engels or vice versa, and in one case, that they were even urinating on each other. The scenario wasn't exactly "politically correct," nor what the parents had in mind, and soon the boys were given new names to remedy the situation.

The Russian Orthodox Cathedral, the most dominant landmarkin Baku, which Stalin totally demolished in the 1930s.

Influence of Russian on Naming Patterns

When Soviet power imposed their government on Azerbaijan beginning in 1920, the role of the Russian language gradually increased until it became the "prestige language" of the country. Official policy encouraged this trend. In 1924 the first Soviet Constitution was adopted, and Russian was declared the official language. Children of privileged families spoke Russian at home and attended Russian schools, which gave them an edge for gaining the best education and the most prestigious and influential jobs.

(It should be noted, however, that in 1978, with the adoption of the third Soviet Constitution in Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev, now President, but at that time serving as General Secretary of the Central Committee Communist Party in Soviet Azerbaijan, managed to reinstate the Azerbaijani language as an official language along with Russian).

The national policy of the Soviet Union, orchestrated from Moscow, was to impose the Russian language, Russian culture, and Russian traditions on all the peoples throughout that vast empire that stretched across 11 time zones. Soviet policy, which was essentially Russian policy, sought to undermine and, if possible, eradicate the national identity of the other 14 republics that made up the USSR. Government policy emphasized the brotherhood of nations and mankind but not specific nationalities that comprised that combined union. Holidays, unique to individual republics, usually were officially banned. Always, it must be added, with exceptions being made for Russians.

One of the first measures that Soviet government leaders undertook was to unify the Soviet Union with a single alphabet. Naturally, Cyrillic, the script for Russian was chosen. In the case of Azerbaijan, there was a deliberate, systematic effort to physically destroy all books, textbooks or manuscripts written in Arabic script because of its association with Islam. Stories are told how people were ordered to throw their private collections onto bonfires (See AI 3:4,79, Winter 1995. "Purging Arabic Script: Loss of Medical Knowledge").

At the time when Cyrillic was imposed in Azerbaijan (1938), Azerbaijanis had already officially replaced Arabic with a modified Latin script (1928), but as so few books had been produced during that short, chaotic period, Soviets viewed the Arabic script with its close associations to Islam as the greater threat to Soviet unification.

Russifying Female Names

Inevitably, political realities began influencing naming practices as well. Birth certificates during the Soviet period indicate that many Azerbaijani families tried to imitate patterns of naming that they associated with the more prestigious language, Russian.

For example, in Russian, most female names contain three syllables, with the last syllable ending with the vowel sound "-a": Ludmila, Svetlana, Natalya, Marina, Maria, and Tatyana. In such cases, Russians stress the middle syllable (lud-MI-la, svet-LA-na, etc.); whereas, in traditional Azerbaijani names, the stress is always on the last syllable of a name-Leyla (ley-LA), Sevda (sev-DA), Rena (re-NA), etc.

Azerbaijanis rarely adopted a Russian name outright for their children during this period. It raises the question of whether such a gesture would have breached and overstepped the boundaries and norms permissible by Russians, by Azerbaijanis, or both.

However, there was an obvious trend of selecting names that imitated the phonological structure of Russian names. Often foreign names that sounded very much like Russian three-syllable names were chosen, especially for female names. Many were borrowed from world literature, such as Elmira, Zemfira, Amalia, Ophelia, Aida, Tamilla, Tamara, and Esmira. Elmira comes from Moliere, Esmira is the Esmeralda in Hugo's "Hunchback of Notre Dame," and Zemfira originates from Pushkin's "Gypsies."

Although these examples were new in the repertoire of Azerbaijani names, the tradition of choosing literary-related names runs very deep in Azerbaijan naming practices. In this situation, the literature simply originated from authors beyond the borders of Azerbaijan.

Another technique of russifying traditional Azerbaijani female names was to add a final third syllable "-a" to original names. For example, Narmin became Narmina; Gulnar became Gulnara. This final "-a" suffix was also added to traditional Azerbaijani male names to make them female (Adil-Adila, Farid-Farida, Ilham-Ilhama, Natig-Natiga, Ramiz-Ramiza). As this pattern also existed in Persian (and would have been a common naming practice among Azerbaijanis living there), one cannot say with absolute assurance that the motivation was purely influenced by Russian; however, the fact that it became very popular during the Soviet period indicates its convenience for Azerbaijani families who were trying to facilitate their children's entry into Russian schools where they could begin developing lifelong relationships among Russian circles.

The effect of russification becomes even more evident in diminutive forms as the same Azerbaijani names were clearly shaped by language preference. The pattern of diminutive or endearing forms for female names among Azerbaijani speakers tended to be made by adding a final suffix "-i," "-ish," or "-ush," while Russian speakers preferred "-a." For example, with the Azerbaijani female name, Gyulnara, Azerbaijani speakers were more likely to prefer Gyuli or Gyulush, but those aspiring to Russian circles were more likely to choose Gyulya. The same pattern existed with names such as Irada (Irish-which is pronounced "ee-REESH" in Azerbaijani, but Ira-Russian); Narmina (Narmish-Azerbaijani, but Nara-Russian); Mirvari (Mirish or Miri-Azerbaijani, but Mira-Russian).

Russifying Male Names

The same tendency of russification occurred in Azerbaijani male names. The most prevalent pattern of the 1940s-50s was to select a fairly short Azerbaijani name of two syllables. Invariably, the first syllable contained an "-a" or an "-o," and the second syllable, an "-i," as in Rafig, Faig, Shaig, Namig, Natig, and Tofig. Even then, the final "-g" sound was often pronounced as a final "-k" found in traditional Russian-sounding names (for example, Vladik from Vladislav, Slavik from Svyatoslav, and Stasik from Stanislav, etc.) In fact, many such Azerbaijani names are of Arabic origin, but sometimes as they entered the language through Turkish, they were pronounced and spelled with a final "-k" just as in Russian (Rafik, Faik, Shaik, Namik, Natik, and Tofik). So the transformation was quite natural and easily accepted, obviously by both communities. This pattern of final "-k" which imitates Russian names is still fairly predominate today. MORE. . .

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From Azerbaijan International (4.3) Autumn 1996.
© Azerbaijan International 1996. All rights reserved.

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