Autumn 1996 (4.3)

Names - Part 4

History in a Nutshell
20th Century Personal Naming Practices in Azerbaijan

by Jala Garibova and Betty Blair
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Before the Soviets Came

Pre-Revolutionary Names (Before 1921)
A study of names in Azerbaijan between the 1890s-1920s (prior to the imposition of the Soviet government) indicates that religious personal names were very well established in Azerbaijan. Shah Ismayil of the Safavid Dynasty (16th century) had established Shiism in the region where Azerbaijanis lived. (Shia is distinguished from the majority Sunni branch of Islam, primarily through the lines of descendance and authority rather than through doctrinal differences. In Shiism, political power was directed from Prophet Mohammed to Ali, his son-in-law, who was known as the fourth caliph). Obviously, names such as Ali and other Shiite Imams (religious leaders) became incorporated with names of other Imams, to account for combinations such as Alireza and Alihusein. Sometimes names contained the element "-gulu" (servant), as in Rezagulu (servant of Reza) and Aligulu (servant of Ali).

Children at Kindergarten No. 83 in Baku, playing "Metro" game marking the opening of Baku's Metro in 1968. Courtesy National Archives

In fact, the custom of giving religious names was so strong that, on occasion, people would randomly select a word from the Koran, and if they liked its sound, might choose it as a name, without even knowing its meaning. For example, the Arabic word "Tukazzibani" is a phrase used in one of the "suras" which means "you are skeptical, doubting that something is true." One female child was given a shortened version of this name, Tukazban, possibly because the element "ban" sounded so familiar to the middle name of the well-known Azerbaijani woman poet of the 19th century, Khurshid Banu Natavan.

However, a careful analysis of names indicates that the influence of Islam was beginning to weaken somewhat during the first decades of this century. In the choice of many personal names, no reference was made to religion at all, especially among female names.

Another phenomenon during the Pre-Revolutionary period was the use of double personal names. For females, many personal names conveyed the idea of "lady," such as Khanum, Beyim, Banu, and Khatun, or the word for "girl" or "daughter"-Guiz. Among 140 female names in birth records from 1880-1919 in one region of Baku, 62 ended with the element Khanum.

Double names were also formed with the words indicating relative relationships, such as ata-father, ana-mother, baji-sister, ami-uncle (father's brother), baba-grandfather, nana-grandmother, bala-baby or child, and bibi-aunt (father's sister).

These appeared in combinations, such as Nanaguiz (grandmother's girl), Anabaji (mother's sister), Atabala (father's baby), Bibikhanim (aunt's lady), Amikishi (uncle's man), etc.

Curiously, the words khala-aunt (mother's sister) and dayi-uncle (mother's brother) were not found in this system of double naming, indicating that a child was considered to belong more to the father's family than to the mother's.

A few names during this period provide evidence that the birth of a girl was less desirable than that of a boy. Such attitudes were obvious with female names such as Basti, Tamam, Yetar and Kifayat-words which all mean "enough." Guizyetar, Guizbas and Guiztamam mean "girl-enough." And the name Guizgayit even expresses the wish, "girl, go back." These names seem to have been given in families where parents were looking forward to having a son, but ended up with a daughter.

Giving birth to a boy after having waited for a long time produced a new pattern of male names containing the component verdi-meaning "given," as in Allahverdi, Haqverdi and Tanriverdi, all meaning "God-given." Examples exist for Imamverdi (Imam-given), and even Shahverdi (King-given).

However, other secular patterns were beginning to emerge as well. Persian secular names were finding their way into the repertoire of Azerbaijani names; Khavar, a female name meaning "East," and Rukhsara, another female name meaning "beautiful face," are but two examples.

Arabic words also provided a rich reservoir of names. Curiously, many of the Azerbaijani names of Arabic origin do not seem to have been part of the naming tradition in the Arabic language itself. Possibly name givers who experimented with Arabic were trying to achieve freshness and mysteriousness. A beautiful-sounding name was considered valuable in creating a stronger effect when its meaning was finally revealed. Therefore, people attempted to use Arabic words whose meaning was not obvious to most. Many of these names originated in literature. For example: Majid (magnificent), Anvar (feeling of lightness), Gudrat (power), Rugiyya (slim, tender), and Durra (bead).

So, in general, in can be said that Pre-Revolutionary names were strongly influenced by Islam although there was a gradual tendency during the early decades of this century to move away from religious names. Perhaps, the international influence brought about by the Oil Boom influenced such a trend.

Future Trends

Naming Practices Since Independence (1991)
In 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan gained its independence. The ratification of the new Constitution in 1995 once again reinstated the Azerbaijani language as the single official state language.

Many Russian-speaking families are beginning to entertain serious thought about sending their children to Azerbaijani schools-a consideration they would never have made before.

Though it may be too early to clearly document the trend, evidence seems to indicate that names are being chosen that sound more Azerbaijani.

Narmina has reverted to Narmin again, dropping the Russian-sounding final "-a" syllable. Among 200 birth certificates studied between 1990-1996, there were five Narmin's but only one Narmina, which is the opposite pattern found in the archival records of 1967-1990 among 180 female names. At that time six Narmina's and one Narmin were listed.

Some of the most popular female names during these years have included Gyunel (kinsmen's sun), Aysel (meaning flooded by moonlight-a newly created name possibly chosen because of the root "ay" which is very popular), Aydan (belonging to the moon-considered to be a positive characteristic for a female), Laman (glittering), Nazrin (Persian, meaning white mountain wildflower), Narmin (slender), and Fidan (sapling; a young tree).

Popular male names include: Tural (long-living), Aykhan (khan of the moon), Eshgin (love), Fikrin (thought), and Ilkin (first, implying firstborn).

The trend towards russification seems to have weakened even in Russian-speaking families. Instead, there has been a tendency towards Turkish names and, even more recently, an emphasis on the Turkic origin of Azerbaijanis. Turkey was the first country to establish international relations with Azerbaijan after independence. During the Soviet period almost all relations with Turkey had been deliberately cut off. Immediately after independence, there was a sudden surge towards embracing Turkey (though it is not as strong today as earlier). The word Turan (all the countries where Turkic people live) has been used as a name. The Turkish names Semra, Selma, and Aydan have become very popular.

In the process of Azerbaijanis rediscovering their own roots, there seems to have been a tendency these past six years to return to some older names that were clearly Azerbaijani. Once again many of these names - Leyla, Murad, Rustam, for example - are found in classic literature as in Fuzuli's Leyli and Majnun. Names like Tural and Seljan have come straight from "Dede Gorgud," an epic probably known many generations before it was penned in the 14th century.

The Question of Surnames
Again when Azerbaijan first gained its independence, there was a rush among many people to shed the Russian suffixes "-ov" and "-ova" and "-yev" and "-yeva" from their last names. But the process proved cumbersome, and many gave up, especially when they were told that once the new identification cards were distributed, people would have a chance to choose the ending they wanted for their last names. In other words, they could opt to retain the Russian endings or to take on a variant Azerbaijani ending, "-li" or "-lu" or "-zade," both of which mean "born of."

Of course, these days, more pressing needs distract the average person from worrying much about changing his or her surname. Economic pressures tend to make people postpone dealing with such problems. And so once again, the surname stays more or less fossilized while the personal name becomes more of an accurate barometer of the nuances of political and social change.

Time will tell which direction Azerbaijanis will go. It's likely that a wide range of names will be accepted in the community. With the presence of foreigners and foreign companies in Azerbaijan, it's also likely that foreign names or Azerbaijani names based on the phonological structure of foreign names, especially English or English-sounding names, will also become incorporated into the vast treasury of names being chosen by Azerbaijani parents. It's all part of the game of trying to anticipate the future for their children and trying to provide their children, through the choice of names, with the best possible equipment for dealing with it.

Other contributors to this article include: Sevil Aliyeva, head of the Department of Baku's Central Archive Office; Tamilla Taghiyeva, head of the Bi-Citizens' Registration Office of the Sabail District of Baku; Negar Askerzade, Director of Bul-Bul Music School in Baku; and Dr. Edwin Lawson, President of the American Name Society, who resides in Fredonia, New York. Also referenced was Osman Mirzayev's book, "Our First Names" (in Azerbaijani), published in Baku: 1986.


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

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