Surnames through Time … and Gender

Surnames through Time … and Gender

In the Czech Republic women recently won the right to choose the version of the surname they want to use to identify themselves. But before we get into that, here’s a little background about surnames in general. The nature of surnames has changed numerous times through history, because like every other aspect of verbal languages, names are a human invention in constant flux. Until several hundred years ago, surnames weren’t commonly used, and even today there are regions where they aren’t, such as Malaysia, India, and Pakistan.

Most European surnames evolved from four different types of information about the named individuals: their place-of-origin, the occupation of someone in the family, their father’s name, or some given nickname that stuck. And these surnames were often short-lived labels. In the more distant past they were generally only used for that individual and they did not carry on through generations.

But as societies became larger and more complex, surnames were required in order to facilitate organizational tasks like record keeping, and other forces were also influential, such as land ownership and status issues. In Europe surnames were prevalent by the 1600s, and some countries – like Japan, Thailand, and Turkey – adopted fixed-surname traditions as they were influenced by Western presences.

In different eras and places, expectations about the sharing of surnames varied. Almost universally when babies were born they were given their fathers’ surnames (with the exception of some societies where the maternal name was used, and in situations when the baby’s father was not known or acknowledged). We are all familiar with the ongoing common tradition of women taking their husbands’ surnames in the majority of marriages.

This brings us to an interesting point in the evolution of surnames. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was adopted by the United Nations in 1979. Among other things, this document declares that women and men have equal rights when it comes to choosing a family name, just as they do choosing a profession or occupation.

But there’s an additional kink in some traditions and legal systems when it comes to surname equity. In a number of countries in the 21st century it’s mandatory that when a woman marries and takes her husband’s name she must legally and permanently alter that name to reflect her gender. This is true in most Slavic countries, Latvia, Lithuania, Greece, and the Czech Republic.

Until this year a Czech woman who married a man with the last name “Novak” would be required to adopt the legal name “Novakova” – “ova” is always added to the ‘male’ version for a woman’s name.  All over the world and back through history couples have chosen to share a name for the sake of family and children, and that has usually been the name from the male side of the family. In the Czech Republic the additional requirement that women use a ‘femine’ version of their husband’s name is a tradition that the people in the region are used to.

But the question ‘why’ has persisted. Why attach advertisement of a person’s gender onto their surname? What exactly is intended and expressed? Because as with any title or word, when gender, ethnicity, or anything else is conveyed through a name there are implications broadcast, with the potential for biased responses. One could argue that in most societies a significant number of the implications carried by feminine name variations are negative; after all, men are not asking to be able to use the feminine version of names and women consider the male version to be essentially neutral.

Whatever the history of reasons involved, some Czech women grew tired of this variation being mandatory. In 2021 Radio Prague International reported that 28% of women would prefer to use the masculine version of their surname, which their counterparts even next door in Slovakia are allowed to do. In January of 2022 the Czech MPs voted 91 to 33 to allow women to choose their own surname variation.

Radio Prague International also reported that some linguists are against this option because the feminine ending is integrated into Czech grammar and change will cause confusion. Well, such is the nature of language, always in flux. It is these details of culture and language that make translation so fascinating and sometimes challenging. Skrivanek’s roots and headquarters in the Czech Republic have made our language services for this region one of the keystones of our global success.



J. V. McShulskis