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:
- the current surname is slighting, unsightly or indecent;
- the current surname does not sound nice;
- the current surname does not reflect the person’s ethnicity;
- the current surname is made up of several names;
- the current surname is too common;
- 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:
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!