01 March 2008

Sweet Billy Baroo

In class this week we listened to a dialogue in which a character mentions his children, Jasmine and Billy. My students were completely stumped when I asked them what name Billy is short for. I finally gave them the answer, and they were quite incredulous that the name William (which they were all familiar with) could get turned into Billy.

That surprised me; almost every Russian name has a casual form like Billy, and some are just as far away phonetically from their original. As an example, let's look at the class of nicknames formed by (Consonant + Vowel) (CV) + sha:
Masha for Maria,
Dasha for Daria,
Pasha for Pavel,
Misha for Mikhail,
Gosha for Georgii,
Grisha for Grigorii,
Sasha for Aleksandr or Aleksandra,
Alyosha/Lyosha for Aleksei,

Usually – as in the case of Daria/Dasha – the (CV) in the nickname is taken from the stressed syllable in the original name. But sometimes – in the case of Grisha for GriGORii or Lyosha for AlekSEI, for example – the (CV) is not from the stressed syllable, making the nicknames a little harder to connect to their formal forms. A name like Lyosha/Aleksei is further complicated by the fact that the vowel changes, too. Unstressed ye becoming yo under stress is a common alternation in Russian, but not necessarily intuitive to a non-native speaker. So I could imagine that English speakers learning Russian would have trouble deciphering nicknames like Lyosha or Alyona (a form of Yelena), or other vowel changes in names like Ksyusha for Ksenia, Vova for Vladimir, or Toma for Tamara.

But I don't remember ever feeling quite as puzzled about those peculiarities as my students were about William/Billy. Why should that be so? I pondered some more, and eventually noticed that these Russian name quirks are all vowel alterations. Just like we have in Katherine/Kate or James/Jim. Aha! I tried to come up with a Russian 'Billy' – an example wherein the nickname begins with a consonant not found in the original name. I eventually did recall the completely bizarre Shura/Shurik for Aleksandra/Aleksandr, but that was all.

That, I think, must be why my students thought Billy was so weird. I don't have any information on whether vowel alterations are less marked on the whole than consonant alterations, but I suppose not really having one or the other in one's own language's naming traditions would make them seem more unexpected in another language's. Maybe next lesson I'll teach them Peggy for Margaret and Dick for Richard. Those seem weird even to me!

Speaking of names, the subject of middle names has come up several times recently. Russians don't have them, and I've been completely unable to explain why I have a name (or two names, actually) that no one ever calls me by. It's made me stop and think – why do most English speakers have middle names? Does it come from the tradition of giving a saint's name at baptism or confirmation? If so, when did the two practices diverge?

(Ok, I just finished writing this entry, only to have the nickname Zhenya, from Yevgenii or Yevgenia, fly unbidden into my head. (Zh here represents the sound in the middle of the word 'leisure,' a sound that is absent from the original names.) It weakens my argument, but I'll still maintain that consonant alternation happens a lot less in Russian names than in English ones.)


Anonymous said...

I don't know why we have middle names and other cultures/nations do not. However, from my vast experience as your parent, I can tell you that you have been called by your WHOLE name -- that is, all four names strung together -- enough times in your short life that you surely do remember this ... such as when you got marker on your bed comforter. And other transgressions ... crayons in your pants pockets in the dryer also leaping to mind.


Anna-Martha said...

I always thought Billy was a strange nickname for William, I don't think I learned they were related until Bill Clinton was elected president.
Also, I, impressed that you do library research
And, In the Chekhov book Im reading there is a picture of his house in Taganrog!!

Anonymous said...

I think Sweet Billy Baroo is a putter.


Leslie said...

I was under the impression that Sweet Billy Baroo was your grilling spatula. Although I guess I also knew somewhere in the back of my mind that it came from Caddyshack.

Paul said...

In some cases, the middle name is an ersatz patronymic -- in my father's side of the family, at least, there was a line of 'Joseph John's and 'John Joseph's from at least my great-grandfather to my father (who though I should have a name of my own!). It might have been helped along in Europe by imitation of royal names, e.g. Frederick William, Franz Ferdinand, etc.