The Russian Name -- Handle with Care

Copyright 1989, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel

Originally appeared in SF&FW Newsletter #99, December 1989

For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel

This article originally appeared in Science Fiction & Fantasy Workshop Newsletter

Are you planning to write a story set in Russia or the Soviet Union? Or perhaps you just want to have a Russian character make a brief appearance in your story. Which ever one you want to do, be sure to know the rules for Russian name formation, so that you won't be guilty of creating impossible monstrosities that make any Slavist cringe.

The Russian name consists of three parts -- the forename (imya), the patronymic (otchestvo), and the family name (familya). As an illustration, let us consider a set of Russian twins, Vasili Grigorevich Vyshnevetsky and his sister Vera Grigorevna Vyshnevetskaya. Their forenames, Vasili and Vera, take pretty much the same roles as the English given name. The second part, the patronymic, is the part which creates so much trouble for non-Russian writers. The patronymic is derived from the father's forename, and is gender-dimorphic -- meaning that it takes different forms for men and women. A man's patronymic ends in -ovich or -evich, while a woman's ends in -ovna or -evna. The family name also creates some problems for writers who are not themselves Slavists, as certain classes of family names show a similar alternation of forms between masculine and feminine. These are the -ov, -in, and -sky names. The ending -ov alternates with feminine -ova, while -in alternates with -ina, and, as in our example, -sky alternates with -skaya.

The title and family name form of address, which in English is the usual formal mode of address, is used by Russians only in official situations. The usual social formal address is forename and patronymic, said as a unit -- Vasili Grigorevich and Vera Grigorevna. This is also the most authentic Russian way for the narrative voice to refer to Russian characters. The forename alone is not generally used as a mode of address by native speakers of Russian. The level of familiarity connoted by the use of the given name in American speech would be indicated in Russian speech by the use of a shortened form of the forename, the diminutive of casual familiarity. This form is appropriate between friends and for children.This form is the most authentically Russian way for the narrative voice to refer to children and young people.

The formation of this diminutive is so unpredictable that no simple rule can be formulated for use by those not quite familiar with Russian. However some examples of very common Russian forenames and their casual diminutives can be provided. (men's names) Ivan (John)>Vanya; Pyotr (Peter)> Petya; Vladimir>Volodya; Grigory>Grisha; Osip (Joseph)>Osya: Sergei>Serzhya; Lavrenti (Lawrence)>Lavrik or Lara; Aleksandr>Sasha or Shurik; Leonid>Lyonya or Lyosha; Yuri (George)>Yura. (Women's names): Maria>Masha; Olga>Olya; Ekatarina (Catherine)>Katya; Elena (Elaine or Helen)>Lena; Lyubov (Amanda or Charity)>Lyuba; Lyudmila>Mila; Natalya> Natasha; Anastasia>Tasha; Nadezhda (Hope)>Nadya. Those who would like a more thorough discussion of this may consult Morton Benson's Dictionary of Russian Personal Names, which gives extensive lists of forenames and the casual diminutives derived from them.

Two other forms of the diminutive exist -- the diminutive of derogation, which is used primarily as an insult but also in a rather coarsely friendly way among certain groups, and the diminutive of intimacy, which is used between family members, extremely close friends and lovers. These forms are derived from the casual diminutive in a fairly regular pattern. The diminutive of derogation is formed by replacing the final "-a" or "-ya" of the casual diminutive with "-ka" For example, Vanya becomes Vanka, and Katya becomes Katka. The intimate diminutive is somewhat less predictable, but usually is produced by replacing the final "-a" or "-ya" of the casual diminutive with "-ushka," "-inka" or "-ochka." Thus, Vanya becomes Vanushka and Katya becomes Katinka.

Finally a word on titles. The title "Comrade" (tovarishch) is reserved strictly for use among Soviet citizens. The appropriate title for foreigners or for use in pre-Revolutionary settings is "Gospodin" or feminine "Gospozha," which is roughly equivalent to the English courtesy titles Mr. and Ms.

Copyright 1989, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel

For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel

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