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Surname Changes and Popular Surnames

In the interwar period, many Latvians changed their surnames. As I was browsing the abstracts for the name change documents, I saw many of the changes took place in the first half of 1940. When I went to the Latvian National Library, I was able to read a book that described what people who wanted to change their surnames needed to know in regards to the new law passed in 1939. The book is called “Kas jāzina uzvārdu mainītājiem”, by Alberts Kalniņš (produced by the author in Jelgava, 1940).

Along with information about the new law, the book also has some of the only lists of Latvian surnames that I have seen thus far in published writings. I read some other books on Latvian surname acquisition and origins while I was at the library, but in general there has been very little scholarship done on Latvian surnames. With my own Surname Project, I’m trying to change that and make things more accessible to non-Latvian speakers. But I’m a genealogist, not a linguist, so I’m sure if some linguists can get to the subject, a lot of good work could be done. Until then, I can only share what I know and what I’ve been able to glean from others.

So, back to the book. The law set down the reasons under which surname changes would be permitted:

  1. the current surname is slighting, unsightly or indecent;
  2. the current surname does not sound nice;
  3. the current surname does not reflect the person’s ethnicity;
  4. the current surname is made up of several names;
  5. the current surname is too common;
  6. the surname change has a different reason that is accepted by the Interior Ministry.

The newly chosen surname had to be pleasant-sounding and uncommon. Surnames could not be negative, understood in different ways or easily misunderstood. Ethnic Latvians could only choose Latvian surnames, non-Latvians could not choose Latvian surnames.

Surnames could not be changed if the person requesting the change was in any sort of legal trouble, if the change would interfere with a third party’s interests, or if the person was mentally ill or under care.

While the government hadn’t yet issued a list of names considered to be “too common”, Kalniņš created his own list. These names are found all over Latvia, acquired independently by thousands of different unrelated families, so if you are researching a family with one of these names it is imperative to know where they lived. The names might seem unusual to people who do not speak Latvian, but in terms of popularity in Latvia, they are the equivalents of Smith, Brown and Taylor in English-speaking countries.

So, the list:


Ābele Dūmiņš Liepa Skujiņš
Āboliņš Eglītis Liepiņš Sproģis
Ābols Jaunzems Lukstiņš Strazdiņš
Alksnis Kalējs Lūsis Turiņš
Apinis Kalniņš Paegle Vanags
Apsītis Kaņeps Pērkons Vīksna
Auniņš Kārkliņš Podnieks Vilciņš
Auziņš Kauliņš Polis Vilks
Avotiņš Kļaviņš Priede Vītoliņš
Balodis Krastiņš Priedītis Vītols
Baltiņš Krēsliņš Puriņš Zaķis
Bērziņš Krieviņš Purmals Zālītis
Birznieks Krievs Riekstiņš Zariņš
Bite Krūmiņš Roze Zeltiņš
Briedis Krūze Rozītis Ziemelis
Caune Kundziņš Rubenis Zirnis
Celmiņš Lācis Rudzītis Zvaigzne
Celms Lagzdiņš Saulītis Zvirbulis
Cīrulis Lapsa Siliņš
Dzenis Līcis Skuja

You will notice that there are a number of pairs that look similar – this is because one has the diminutive ending (-iņš or -ītis), while the other does not. Diminutives, while officially discouraged by the barons and lawmakers in the early nineteenth century, were, and still are, extremely popular.

To help people who wanted to change their surnames find a good one, the National Printing House provided a supplement of suggested names. These names are unmistakeably Latvian, but were not common names. Other name choices were permitted as well, providing they were of Latvian origin and sounded nice. In addition to the National Printing House supplement, Kalniņš also provided a supplement of “new Latvian surnames”, utilizing Jānis Endzelīns’ work with Latvian place names and surnames (Endzelīns was a prominent Latvian linguist). I’ll share some of these surnames with you in the coming weeks and months as a part of Surname Saturday (one of Geneabloggers‘ daily blogging prompts).

Do you have any Latvian surname change stories to share? How many of your family surnames are in the “most common surnames” list? Share in comments!

19 comments to Surname Changes and Popular Surnames

  • I have hit one of those walls that will eventually be hit by everyone doing genealogy research and it relates to name changes.

    I have an ancestor which I have clearly and unambiguously linked to my present family. His death certificate from Salacas lists his first, middle and last name (spelled TRUSCHINSKY in this instance). The document also lists his place of birth (Aizviki). When examine the records for that date in Aizviki, someone with the same first and middle name is listed but the last name is spelled “Kurschinsky”. One might think it were merely a half-drunk minister with sloppy writing, but I have found other “Kurschinsky” names from Kurzeme who later have the same birth date, birth place as well as first and middle name but with “Truschinsky” as their last name. This change happened seemed to happen in the late 1850s.

    I am at a loss to explain it. Do you (or anyone else reading this) have any ideas or suggestions for resources to examine that might help explain it? I’m sure there must have been a record at some time, but I expect it was probably lost…

  • Antra

    Hi Brian,

    Can you send me the Raduraksti citations for the records you’re describing? I could take a look and see what I can find. What social class were your ancestors? The only “name change” records I’ve seen from that time period typically consist of notations of both names in vital records, in the form of “X alias Y” or so, but if they were not of the peasant class a different record could have been created somewhere.

    Is the Aizviķi you’re speaking of the Aizviķi in southwestern Kurzeme near Priekule? This is quite a distance from Salaca. Not an impossible distance to move, certainly, especially if the family was of means, but typically such a far move wouldn’t be done in one go and there would be several intermediate stops along the way that could also generate records. What was their occupation?

  • It seems that Eduard was a miller while his father is listed as a smith (if I read the German correctly). All of my ancestors where in the German community until some of them married into the Latvian community. So, none of the them were peasants and might account for their mobility. I think in the examples I list below, it is clear they went from Kurschinsky to Truschinsky (w/ some other Truxxxsky variations…). I can’t wait to hear your comments and conjecture!!

    1. Eduard Truschinsky b- Aizviki, Apr 1838, Raduraksti- Gramzden 1834-1840 slide 211/337; d-Salaca, October 1884, Rad. Slide 43/45
    Parents: Johann and Bille shown on birth (same as some other Truschinsky/Kurschinsky individuals)
    2. Georg Johann Trussinsky b-24 Aug 1853 Ohseln, Rad. Gramzden 1851-1853 slide 83/103, father, Johann (Smith); Confirm- Libau, 1969 Slide 89/312, father, Johann (Smith); Marriage Riga, Gertrude, 1883-1891 slide 179/312
    All three dates and places of birth are the same, as are is the father listed, but the birth records show Kurschinsky.

    3. Laura Trussinsky b-21 jun 1854 Grobin, Rad. Grobin 1854-1854, Slide 17/45; Confirm- Libau, May 1871, Rad. 1862-1882 German, slide 116/312

    Her last name in birth record is Kurschinsky, while for confirmation is Trussinsky (as is her father’s). The birthdate and birthplace are exactly the same in the confirmation and birth records.

    There are more examples, but they say the same thing…

  • Thanks for your interest Antra!

  • Chelli

    Some of my ancestors are from Gramzden too! The surname mix-up I’m dealing with is Grinbergs alias Akerfelds… also spelled Hackerfeld, Hakenfeld. And as far back as the 1850’s I found Eichenfelds. Sometimes the Grinbergs is left out, and sometimes the Akerfelds is left out of a record. Confusing! Was it originally Grinbergs, changed to Akerfelds due to the popularity of the surname… or…?

  • grusausky

    “Grusausky” wish I had news about this surname (Riga). Thanks

  • Antra (and others)- if you follow the link to my blog, you’ll see an entry about which I am quite excited. It involves a lengthy legal document that I found via the saaga website in Estonia. Just an FYI if you were not aware of the source.

  • Antra

    Brian,

    Saaga is indeed a great website. I just wish I had relatives on the Estonian side of the border! Hopefully soon Raduraksti will have as much information as Saaga does. Saaga is also searchable by surname, which I don’t think Raduraksti will be anytime soon (with the exception of the indexing that I do).

    I took a look at the different Truschinsky/Kurschinsky records awhile back but I guess I forgot to comment! Can’t consult back to Raduraksti right now since it is down, but it does appear puzzling. I’d consult the revision lists that are now available on Raduraksti and possibly also the 1897 census (if it is available for the different areas you’re looking in), to see if you can get a handle on when the name changed (or changed back and forth, as the case may be).

    Grusausky,

    The name appears to be of Slavic origin. There are many Latvians who have names of Slavic origin as well, so your ancestors could be Latvian, or Polish, or Russian, or even maybe Jewish. Grusausky is not a name I’m familiar with, but if you look for a website on Slavic surnames, it might be able to help. Good luck!

  • Michael

    Hi, I noticed that there were some name changes in my family and I could never work out why they had occured. The original family name Cirkse inexplicably changed to Cirksis. I vaugely remember my father saying that this name might be a varient of CĪRULIS…

    I really glad someone with access to Latvian records and the Latvian language is researching this stuff. This website is by far the most enlightening I have found so far! Please take care that this research is never lost – it is extremely valuable for people like me.

  • Antra

    Michael,

    When did the switch from using Cirkse to using Cirksis occur? The change -if you could call it that, it isn’t really, just a standardization- is not that unusual – with modern Latvian spelling and grammar, “-is” would probably be the proper masculine ending to the name. Prior to spelling and grammar standardization (1920s), or according to German pronunciation and spelling rules(the system in place prior to Latvian independence) the name could have been recorded as “Cirkse”. It is also possible that the name was spelled in half a dozen different ways prior to standardization, depending on who was writing it. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it was also written Zirkse or Zirksis when written according to German spelling rules – Latvian “c” (pronounced “tz” like in “tzar”) was most commonly transcribed as “z” in German.

    So in old records it isn’t unusual to see names spelled many different ways, you just need to get used to the different variations that present themselves. All of them are valid for the time period they were recorded in, but for simplicity you may choose to use one (either the modern standardized form or the most commonly recorded form) for your records.

    I’m not familiar with the name Cirksis, but “Cīrulis” means “lark”. I don’t know all the possible Latvian regionalisms, but the jump from “cīrulis” to “cirksis” doesn’t seem likely to me. I’d be more likely to think that it is related to “čirkstēt”, but simply had the diacritic dropped. “Čirkstēt” means “to chirp/squeak/crunch”.

  • Michael

    Thank you for that information Antra! The switch does seem to have occurred during the 1920s. Unfortunately, the records I have so far consist mostly of information my farther wrote down from memory and stories he told me as a child. Apart from that, I have my father’s birth certificate and his academic record. No doubt knowing the variations of the spelling will help track down my ancestors in the future though!

    My father was Lutheran so I hope that my ancestors may be traceable through church records. Also there will hopefully be military records for my grandfather who fought during WW I and my uncle who was shot by the Nazis in WW II. I am also hoping to find any records relating to my father’s military service during WW II – he was conscripted by the Nazis in the final years of WW II.

    I would appreciate any advice if you have some….

  • Ryan

    Hello,

    My last name is Glaser which from my research is German in origin. But, my grandfather on my mother’s side (Last name Neilands) is from Latvia and goes to Latvian speaking church. I went with him to church a couple weeks ago and meeting some of his old friends from Latvia made me decide to write my upcoming research paper on Latvia and possibly my Latvian heritage if possible. Speaking to my grandfather I learned that his family’s original surname was Jaunzems which he translated the meaning for me to Jaun= new,+ zems= lands. He said it had been changed which made a lot of sense because anything I looked up for Neilands came up as Neiland and English or Irish in origin. Is Jaunzems simply spelled Jaunzems in Latvian? Any information or history you have on the last names Jaunzems or even what it was changed to Neilands would be appreciated.

    Thank You,
    Ryan

  • Antra

    Michael,

    Church records will definitely help. They are online via Raduraksti. This is not a searchable database though, you have to look page by page in the relevant parish.
    Some WW1-era records exist in the Latvian State Historical Archives (they are not digitized), but my experience has been that you need to know the specific unit that someone was a part of in order to find any information, since that is how the documents are arranged in the archives.

    I have yet to find any WW2 military service documents, though these would be more likely to be held by the Latvian State Archives rather than the Historical Archives, if they exist. Since these records would be more recent, there would also be a lot more paperwork and bureaucracy to deal with before you are able to view anything. When I went to the LSA to view my great-grandfather’s NKVD interrogation file (he had been a counter-intelligence agent in independent Latvia, so was one of the first people arrested and executed by the Soviets), I had to provide them with my birth certificate, my mother’s birth certificate, my mother’s marriage certificate and my grandfather’s birth certificate, all to prove that I was related to the man about whom I was seeking information.

    If you read more of my blog posts (you can see various categories on the side), you can find all sorts of tips to help you in your search. If you have any further questions, let me know!

    Ryan,

    Yes, Jaunzems is how it is spelled in Latvian. When was the name changed? It seems unusual that the name would be changed from the Latvian form to a German form (I’m not an expert on German surnames, but it could be that Neiland is related to Neuland, which would be German for “new land”). Latvian peasants acquired surnames in the early 19th century, and many chose or were given German surnames instead of Latvian ones, so when Latvia gained independence in the early 20th century, many Latvians with German surnames changed them to Latvian ones. I haven’t seen many cases of it going the opposite direction. Was it after they emigrated from Latvia?

    Where in Latvia were they from? What religion were they? These are important questions to answer before being able to start your research. Let me know if you have further questions!

  • Peter Sabolewsky

    Hi, I am Australian from an Australian Mother and a Latvian Father. My family name is Sabolewsky and I am trying to find if this actually came from Latvia or another area.

  • emilya polis

    hello
    i would really like some advice on how to go about tracing my Latvian relations.My father was from Ventspils,he was born on a hospital ship at Archangel ,he was a chef in the german navy.i dont know much about his early life,i know that his parents were farmers.if anyone has any helpful suggestions they would be much appreciated as i really dont know where to start and would very much like to know something about the rest of my family.my father is no longer alive.

  • Dean

    Hi,
    I am researching the meaning of the surname Ikaunieks. Any ideas?
    Thanks
    Dean

  • HTindall

    I would welcome any help in relation to the surname ‘Daurudbachs’ or ‘Davrudbachs’ as I am unsure about the correct spelling. It is believed to be the surname of a Latvian displaced person who worked on my neighbour’s farm after the Second War. Many thanks.

  • Hi Presumably the Baltic surname Leit Lait Laeta Luth
    etc later became Leitis?
    I note Leitt in East Prussia in the 18th century though
    Presumably this name means LIthuanian ?
    it doesnt seem to ne a German ethnic name
    Can anyone please advise me?
    my DNA points to Latvia Lithguania and is of the Tartar group R1a haplotype
    I resemble a Johann Leitt of Latvia
    circa 1900;
    the “is” ending was not used in the past ? only after 1920 is that so?
    Best Wishes Roger Christian Lett

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