19 February 2007

Russian Names 101

I feel a bit lukewarm toward this post, which I wrote partly the week before last and partly last week. I'll post it anyway. And rest assured, I went on an outing yesterday (в шашлыках, just like Tanya and Misha in "Live from Moscow," for those of you in the know), so soon there will be more pictures to distract from actual content! Hooray!

I've just finished my second week of class with my new students, four groups of third-year future teachers and translators. I like them and they seem to like me (so far), with the possible exception of one really, really quiet group. I mean disturbingly quiet. I hope they're just shy... But anyway, I've already decided that the most notable thing about my students this semester is that I don't have a single one named Olga!

Last semester I had a whopping ten Olyas, with group 544A topping out at four Olyas in the same class, not to mention three Yulias and two Tanyas. That left three girls – a mere 25% of the group – who didn't share a name with someone. Group 544B came in second, with three Olyas, as well as two Natashas. Also, of the four male students I had, 50% were named Vladimir (and were, of course, in the same group).

In case it's not clear from that, Russian given names aren't nearly as varied as American given names, especially American given names of the currently-being-born generation. (Nevaeh, anyone?) There might be thirty men's and thirty women's names that get used and reused, with (as far as I can tell) little noticeable generational variation in the past fifty years or so. There's a whole slew of names (lots of Orthodox saints' names and Biblical names) that don't get used because they long ago became associated with the peasantry, and the association has remained. So we beat on, boats against the storm, borne back ceaselessly by the unending waves of Olgas, Annas, Yekaterinas, Ksenias, Vladimirs, Alexeis and Andreis.

Since this has clearly devolved into an educational entry, maybe I should mention that every Russian has an official name like those above (Vladimir, Yekaterina), but they rarely go by this name unless you're calling them by both their name and their patronymic, like my oft-mentioned boss, Ludmila Petrovna. Instead, most names have casual forms – Olya for Olga, Anya for Anna, Vova (not Vlad!) for Vladimir, Tanya for Tatiana, etc. (I was quite amused to find out that cute little Slava, the boy I teach English to, is actually a very important-sounding Vyacheslav.) Anyway, the tendency to use casual forms helps, because often a name has more than one casual form, not to mention an anglicized form that can be used in English class.

For example, this semester, the three Annas in one of my classes have tried to alleviate the confusion by dubbing themselves Anya, Annette and Anyuta. But the Yekaterinas are somehow always uncooperative, invariably insisting that I call them Kate. I'm puzzled both by their unwillingness to be called Katya and by their apparent ignorance of other English variations – after all, why not just Katherine? Or Katie? Kat? Kathy? Kathleen, maybe? I think it's a conspiracy.

Somewhat relatedly, I think today I permanently lost the respect of Leonid, a student in the really quiet class. He said his nickname was Lyonya/Лёня, but I misheard him and called him Lyolya/Лёля (which is short for Yelena/Елена, clearly a girl's name). I definitely got scowled at for that. Oh well. He didn't look like he was inclined to like me anyway, and if he had shown up for the first day of class and written his name and preferred nickname on an index card like everyone else, we wouldn't have had that problem. So there.

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