Seferian: What’s in an Armenian Name?

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.

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Nareg Seferian received his education in India, Armenia, the United States, and Austria. His writings can be read at naregseferian.com.

22 Comments

  1. Thank you Nareg,for a very informative article.May i add the different pronunciations of Armenian alphabet  Eastern and western Armenian.Strangely i found that my cousin’s name ..written KAKIG  which i was saying it is actually pronounced as GAGIK.I was corrected several times.Another example is the trans pronunciation of the letters P &B   also D & T.
    DANKS

  2. Hi Nareg:
    I thoroughly enjoyed your article. I have a question for you. I am a 3rd generation Armenian from St. Louis, MO. I am learning Armenian very slowly–the most significant break has been over the past 5 years or so, now I have Armenian font on all Linux and Windows boxes. Many years ago, before I had access to Armenian font, I also was of the opinion that ‘yan’ was Soviet Armenian in origin and ‘ian’ was everyone else.  I use the ‘most hits’ rule to verify spelling in Armenian. Now it seems to me the correct ending for all Armenian names is   ‘ յան ‘   which should transliterate to  ‘ yan ‘ or ‘ jan ‘   and that
    ‘ ian ‘ transliterated directly to Armenian is ‘ իան ‘ but I have yet to ever see an Armenian name spelled that way.  Also, is not the correct pronunciation of an Armenian name ‘ xxx- yan ‘  (without any syllabic stress )  for example  ‘ Iz mirl yan  ‘ or
    ‘ Se rif yan ‘ ??

  3. Interesting essay. I am at a loss, however, to comprehend the author’s name, ending with a G instead of K (unless he has submerged himself into too much LOS type stuff, or he thinks the majority of the readers of Armenian Weekly are Arevmtahay, HOS-HOS folks). For an Armenian from India, I also don’t quite understand the root of his last name. I have quite a few relatives and relatives of relatives that lived in India for many years (my mother’s sister’s husband was the chief priest for the Indian “tem” and my uncle was a champion field hockey player of the Calcutta team) and I have never heard anyone else with the author’s last name (you guessed it right; my mother is Jughayeci, and I grew up in Iran – law degree). But this can be attributed to my own ignorance. The hard core Armenians of Iran, when it comes to identification, in addition to one’s last name also ask, oumoncic-as? (from whom are you?) Every family has a nickname of sorts in addition to the last name, that further identifies the person, and these nicknames run the gamut. One that comes to mind from my childhood days is Mistik-Xacenc, that means small-piece-of-bread, and Nazaretencic, meaning from the Nazarets. This locks the person to a clan, un-mistakenly. I vaguely remember there is, probably, research made in this area; if not, perhaps this is another interesting topic to look into.
    And yes, I know a Najjarian who became Carpenter and a Galoustian who became Gale. I have used Steve Canyon for casual acquaintances and Aber-ham in delicatessens, not realizing that the former belongs to a pilot cartoon character. I changed it to Salvatore Gianini. Vito for short. My very pure and very rare Armenian first name contains seven letters, plus eleven letters for my last name, eighteen in all with lots of A’s, and I wouldn’t change them for anything, even Robert Taylor, or Clark Gable, not even George Clooney. How do you like to spell eighteen letters fifty times a day over the phone? By the fifth letter everyone gets confused. Anything more than two syllables confuses Americans. 

  4. I love the colorful history of our Armenian names.
    How about this variation on the common Eastern Armenian name Mkrtchyan: ‘Mkrtschjan’, where the transliteration was done in German and the ‘sch’ is used for the ‘ch’ sound, the ‘j’ is used for the ‘y’ sound. And both of these variations are considered mistakes by the Western Armenian speaker who insists that the proper name should be Megerdichian or Mugardichian.

  5. Just an observation regarding the addition of “h” at the end of names ending in “e” such as Armineh, Narineh, Karineh, Marineh… In English speaking world the “e” at the end of the words is often silent, thus the above mentioned names will be pronounced incorrectly as Nareen, Kareen, Mareen, and Armineh will be peonounced as Armayne! Hence the addition of “h” at the end. Same parskahays will not add the “h” to the end of their names in France, or other other non-English speaking countries where the word ending in “e” is not silent.

  6.  
    Hi Ashot

    Nareg=Narek, Vicken=Vigen etc… It is just the difference between the pronunciation in Western and Eastern Armenian. When people transliterate, they do it as they hear it. As Parskahay, you speak Eastern Armenian, so as we (those from Armenia), hence we pronounce all the consonants correctly, unlike Western Armenians, whom don’t pronounce 7! Watch this video, it explains it better: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fuZZKsguDYY
    Great article, though two groups of surnames were missed: priesthood surnames having Ter- prefix, or Der- in Western Armenian, and nobility surnames with -uni ending, which are all by the way of Persian stock and origin, instead of -yan, e.g. Saharuni, Rshtuni etc.
     

  7. Good article. If I may slightly disagree, where the “yan” is indeed used by Armenians from Armenia because it corresponds with reformed orthography, the “ian” does not correspond to old orthography. The old orthography suffix would be transliterated as “ean”, not “ian”. The i-a-n ending is a sort of translation across Indo-European languages. In English, it is generally the suffix used to denote “of”. It is the same suffix used by Armenians, Iranians and others to denote “of” which we use for our surnames (of Petros, of Marash, of the pot-maker, etc). Armenians transliterate their name “ian” because of this common spelling in the English language, and not because it corresponds to the old orthography of Armenian.

  8. Every year while my sons were campers at Camp Haiastan in Franklin, MA, my wife would send them many letters of course, all of them in English and they would respond (well sometimes). My tactic was different. I would send them 1-2 letters…the words were all in English, but written in the Armenian alphabet. The response (usually on visiting day in person) oof Baba.   So for example
    “The Red Sox won yesterday, David Ortiz hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning”
    comes out something like
    “տա րէտ սոգս ուան եէսդէրտէյ Տէյվիտ Օրթիզ հիդ է հոմ րան ին տա պադոմ ավ տի նայնդ ինինկ”
    Of course my letters were a couple of paragraphs like this or about հաու ուուրգ ուազ տիս ուիգ. The amusing thing here is that when you are forced to read this, you sound like you are speaking English with an Armenian accent.
     

  9. Armen, that’s interesting because the Armenian alphabet has been used in the past, in some limited fashion to write in other languages, including Turkish.

  10. I agree, ashot yerkat. I too, wish Nareg had elaborated on his surname. Sefer is the Jewish word for book. I wonder how his family came to use it.

  11. Dear Ashot Yerkat,

    I think author’s last name Seferian is the same as Safarian and Safar in Farsi means Travel.
    I want to put my 2 cents in regarding the “Nicknames” that Iranian Armenians have, it was about late 1930s or early 1940s that Iranian government started issuing Identification/Birth Certificates, at that time Armenian population of Iran was growing fast and in large cities like Tabriz, Esfahan, Tehran and etc.  there were numerous name duplications creating problems in daily conversations and correspondence forcing people to create additional identifiers for similar names like “Big nose”, “Crippled”, “Loud”, “Blind”; “Stooge”, also city names with “tsi” at the end and even “Bread & Cheese”, you name it; all king of names even nasty and impolite ones depending on habits, looks, actions of the bearers, and believe it or not it was doing the job and also comic; until the government started issuing the Identification Booklets with proper identifiers, which eliminated all those “Nicknames” but of course wasn’t perfect and the author already explained how Armenian names are getting twisted when was written in other languages.      
    And finally Ashot a friendly correction, my intention is not to insult you and please accept my apologies upfront if you are going to feel so.
    In your first paragraph you were asking where the author’s last name is from, and when you wrote Arevmtahay it was very clear that who you were referring to; up to that point it wasn’t quite but sort of polite; then you continued with some ridicules words ending with “HOS-HOS folks” which to my knowledge was unnecessary and totally out of line.

  12. One way to have harmony between nations is to have a common language. That language ought to be Armenian. It has only 27 characters and is easy to learn.

    Margaret Mead, 1901-1978, U.S. Anthropologist (COMING OF AGE IN SAMOA), talking about how to do away with warfare as a method of solving conflicts between national groups..

  13. My name is Levon Seferyan, Levon with yetch and huen, never Leon and Seferyan with the equivalent of e and yetch as I learned in a school run by the Mekhitarist order. As for foreigners cannot pronounce it nor they cannot write it, hogwash I say, that is exactly the way my business is called, in my name , every supplier and customer whether anglo, franco or other, they know how to pronounce and write it, too, and that’s the way it is lettered on my service truck also. That’s just the way it is, if you hide and make up excuses for your name, of course some two bit foreigner with a barbarian name will give you a tough time, be a bit in the face you people and they will learn, eventually; I’m as stubborn and pushy as an Armenian can come, what can I say, ays marte hin hogh e.
    Best regards.

  14. Hi there! My grandma was born it Georgia of Armenian parents. Because of the Armenian Holocaust, WWI and the Russian Revelution my Great-grandparents and my grandma traveled from Armenia or Georgia to Shanghai and changed their last name many times as they went. To track down our ancestry, my dad wants to find all the clues he can. One thing that we thought would help is finding out what the traditional naming practices were. In some cultures the first born is given the first name from one grandfather and a middle name from the other. Is there any tradition that is something like that which would help my dad track things down? I would appreciate any input!

  15. Hi Wanda, aside from the “yan” and “ian” endings of last names, Armenians take their fathers name as a middle name. For girls, it will often be their fathers name + “a” or “ovna” sometimes (although this one is more Russian). So for example, my dad’s name is Danik, so my middle name is Danika. While I was named after my grandmother (fathers mother), I don’t think that’s 100% always the case. Hope that helps!

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