I got an e-mail forward on Armenian surnames from a friend some time ago. The e-mail categorized them under four groups: surnames based on the name of an ancestor (such as Garabedian, Petrosian); surnames based on the name of a place (like Marashlian, Istanboulian); surnames based on a profession (Najarian, “carpenter,” Kouyoumjian. “jeweler”); and surnames indicating special characteristics (Geozebouyoukian, “big-eyed,” Mavisakhalian, “blue beard”). Of course, the above examples are derived more from Turkish and pertain to Armenians from the former Ottoman Empire to a greater degree, but nevertheless, they apply to Eastern Armenians as well, especially after a lot of movement across borders—voluntary or otherwise—which took place over the last century.
The Armenians of the former Soviet Union and of Iran, for their part, have interesting surnames often derived from Persian and sometimes from Russian, which may include titles of nobility like melik (“ruler”), bek (“lord”), or even knyaz, which is Russian for “prince.” I have even met someone with the surname “Zaprosyan,” or “enquiry.” Apparently his ancestor worked at a Russian consulate in Armenia and dealt with the zapros of those seeking to travel farther north. It would not surprise me to come across a family with a surname of Georgian or Kurdish roots either, and there certainly are plenty with Arabic source words, whether or not they have attained their present form via Turkish or Persian. (Just to give an honest plug, one of my favorite sources for discovering the meaning behind Armenian names is the “Uncle Garabed’s Notebook” column in the Armenian Weekly.)
I grew up in India, where a surname can say a great deal: one’s caste, social status, native language, religion, and even where one’s ancestors come from, sometimes down to the village. I always found that phenomenon fascinating, and didn’t think that that was the case for Armenians. But it turns out that we have managed to acquire such a characteristic to some degree. Take the surname “Atikian,” for example. You can be almost sure if you run into one that he or she is either from Kessab in Syria, or that his or her parents or grandparents came from there.
The way Armenian names are rendered across cultures, in different parts of the diaspora, may also reveal some secrets. The Armenians of India, for instance, were great practitioners of outright translations and Anglicizations of their names. So, Poghos Ghoukasian would become “Paul Lucas” and Movses Soghomonian would be “Moses Solomon.” And then one comes across the names “Arathoon,” “Carapiet,” and others, which are the versions of “Haroutiun” and “Karapet” adopted in India alone, as opposed to the “Harry”s and “Charlie”s in the States. To give another example, “Gérard” often takes the place of “Jirayr” in France, not so much because it is a translation or convenient nickname, as simply because they sound alike.
And then the transliteration of the name—that is, how the name is written out in Latin letters, in English, for instance—can also hint at the origins of the bearer of the name. Of course we are all familiar with the “-yan” ending—rather than “-ian”—being more widespread among Armenians of the former USSR. The reason is probably that the way the surnames are written in Russian and, in fact, in the reformed Soviet Armenian orthography, turns out to be a “y” more regularly in English, and not an “i.” (A friend told me that the exception had been made in Soviet times, and that Armenians were in fact given official documents with “-ian” surname endings in English, but I have not confirmed whether or not that was the case.)
There can be more subtle hints, too, such as the time I came across a note signed “Narineh.” She turned out to be a parskahay, and it occurred to me that that had to be the case, because the way the “e” ending is written in Farsi can only take place with an “h” attached; otherwise, the average Persian reader would pronounce it “Nareen.” So, when it goes from Farsi to English, the “h” remains, as opposed to spelling it simply “Narine” in English, or “Nariné” or even “Narinée.” That last one is very interesting, as it clearly points to a Francophone person, because the “e” with the accent near the end has to have an additional “e” to indicate that the word—the person—is feminine, in keeping with French grammar rules.
As such, the way Armenians transliterate words into Latin letters is fascinating to investigate. The Armenian alphabet has been available for use on computers and over the internet for some years now, but many still prefer to use Latin letters. However, in order to fully comprehend what is being conveyed in a text message or in chatting online, one might need to know both Eastern and Western Armenian pronunciation, while also being acquainted with English, French, German, Russian, Turkish, and other European languages, depending on where your Armenian acquaintance comes from. The “sh” sound in English, for example, is rendered “ch” for a French-speaking Armenian, and “sch” for a German-speaking one, and just “s” for an Armenian from Turkey (which is really an “s” with a cedilla, or a little tail underneath it, but that cannot always be typed in).
Or the sound in Armenian which an Anglophone person would often write out as “kh” would be “x” for a Russian-speaking Armenian, since that letter in the Cyrillic alphabet is read with that sound, while it would be “ch” or even just “h” for someone from Germany or elsewhere in Central or Eastern Europe (where, again, a “y” or “i” could end up being a “j”). A “j” can also be used for the sound in Armenian of the “s” in “measure,” which is often a “zh” in Russophone places. And let’s not go into the schwa, or “uh” sound, which can be rendered anything from “u” to “e” to “@.” I imagine that last one is used because it resembles the Armenian letter for that sound, ut. The fact that it isn’t really a letter of any alphabet of any language at all doesn’t seem to bother anyone.
But back to names, and what’s probably the most interesting reflection of the way we handle our identity outside of Armenian circles. I was at a coffee shop with an Armenian friend of mine, and the person who took our order asked for a name to go along with it. I immediately said to myself, “No way am I about to spend half an hour going through ‘Nareg’ with this white American,” and then I looked at my friend. His name is “Shant.” I sighed and said, “Joe.” It was a coffee place, after all, and so “Joe” came naturally. Ever since, Joe has been my “restaurant name” in the States. A friend with a name even harder to pronounce for the average English-speaker had a similar story, but his included the restaurant at the time showing the film “I am Sam,” and so he went with “Sam.”
Having a “restaurant name” is probably not something unique to Armenians. I guess it is a subtle reflection of the necessity of conformity with society at large on the one hand, along with a certain sense of adaptability on the other. It’s also simply a convenience, as I imagine I shall not run into that coffee shop person again in my life and, if I do, then being “Nareg” and explaining the name would not be a hard thing to do; my friends at college call me by my name, after all. But the name I bear—the names all of us Armenians bear—have some meaning, and often have a story behind them, and so, having to put them aside momentarily for the sake of a cup of coffee or a table at a restaurant can seem a little short-sighted. But I think it also adds something to our ongoing story.