regional names

Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Mon Mar 22 04:53:54 UTC 2010

I want to be clear that I don't want to create an typology of ethnic
names in Eastern Slavic territories, but I do want to respond.

I have to disagree with Wilson's analysis for two reasons. First, my
claim was not meant to be universal--and, as I mentioned, there may be a
number of alternative theories for this lack of universality. But you
Wilson is also confusing suffixes. It is true that -vich is the most
common suffix for patronymics--i.e., it serves the same function -son,
-sen and -sson serve in many Scandinavian names that have, with time,
become surnames or ibn and ben "prefixes" in Semitic languages. In fact,
there is more than one use for the -vich suffix and it need not involve
patronymics. But even if you take such a prototypically Russian name as
Ivan (John) and use -ovich to derive the patronymic Iv'anovich, you are
only half way to creating a surname. From here, you have two paths--you
can drop the -ich part and make Ivan'ov, or you can keep the suffix and
create Ivan'ovich, but, in either case, to get a surname, you must
switch the stress (Iv'anov is a typical Bulgarian surname, while Ivan'ov
is Russian; Iv'anovich may be Serbian and 'Ivanov is how most English
speakers try to pronounce it first). Now, the interesting part is that
if you ask an average Russian, they will identify the first name as
likely belonging to an ethnic Russian, the second--to an ethnic Jew. So
the issue has nothing to do with the semantic interpretation of the
suffix, but rather is attached to each name individually. This is
precisely why I initially did not want to get into this subject--the
twists and turns are just too unpredictable and any attempt at
generalization is fraught with risks.

You can also add to the complexity the fact that several versions of the
-ich/-vich/-ovich type suffixes are actually quite common with Southern
Slavs, which turns any attempt by Hollywood script writers to create
Russian-sounding names into a failure with native speakers. Virtually
every book and film in English that has ethnic Russian characters tend
to sound more like there is a bunch of Serbs and Bulgarians running
around. And the -ski/-tski surnames that they create are more closely
associated with Poland (and, perhaps former Czechoslovakia) than with
Russia. In fact the Car Talk guys succeed where many authors and script
writers fail--and they are just making a joke. Until recently, most
mistakes were made because of confusing patronymics with surnames, but
that problem appears to have been largely fixed.

Modern Russian incorporates names created under a large number of
diverse dialects, some of which might have been very close to becoming
separate modern languages (and some succeeded). As such, a name that
sounds odd under standard Russian formative rules may actually have come
from territories that are closer associated with Ukraine or
Belorussia--or even Poland and the Baltic states. In fact, -vich, -ovich
and -shevich suffixes fall precisely into this category.

Conversely, Russians and Ukrainians often associate Germanic names with
ethnic Jews. Yet, there are notable numbers of ethnic Germans, Swedes
and Estonians whose names may easily confuse a Russian bent on ethnic

It is best to leave such things alone. I only brought the issue up
because we were discussing surnames based on location.

When it comes to Mockvin, Moskvitin, Moskvich and Moskovich, it is
Moskvich that literally means a native of Moscow. Moskovich, depending
on how you place the primary stress, is either a Yiddishism or something
associated with Western Slavs. The other two are just odd formations,
but ones that are parallel to other surnames. Someone who has actually
studied these patterns rather than simply observed them might give a
better perspective on this differentiation. Native speakers tend to be
prejudicial on the patterns of their language.


On 3/21/2010 11:22 PM, Wilson Gray wrote:
> I'm no native speaker of Russian, by any means. But, daring to use my
> non-native-speaker's sprachgef=FChl, Moskvich, Moskovich strike me as Jewish,
> since ethnic-Russian surnames never end in -vich, which means, like ben-,
> "son of." Clearly, Mosk(o)vich could not mean "son of Moskow" in any
> ordinary sense, but it could possibly mean, "from Moscow" or "descended from
> a person originally from Moscow."
> Cf. Riurikovich, the clan name, I guess you could call it, of all rulers of
> Russia through 1612, who were considered to be direct descendants of the
> (legendary?) Swedish Viking, Hr=F6rekr), who is credited with the foundation
> of what we now know as Ukraine and Russia as states. Obviously, all these
> Riurikovichi were not literally *sons* of Riurik, but they were all accepted
> as *descending* from him. In like manner, a Jew from Moscow or descended
> from such a person might consider himself to "desend" from Moscow in a sense
> similar to the way that the Riurikovichi considered themselves to "descend"
> from Riurik.
> As for Moskovitin, AFAIK, this strikes me as a genuine, Slavo-Russian name,
> as do Ryazansky "inhabitant of Ryazan," Tobolski "inhabitant of Tobolsk,"
> Smolensky "inhabitant of Smolensk," and Varshavsky "inhabitant of Warsaw."
> Moskvin "inhabitant of Moscow" is as genuinely Slavo-Russian as Putin. This
> doesn't mean that these names couldn't be borne by Jews - I don't think. I
> know nothing of the social position of Jews in Tsarist Russia, beyond random
> references to scenes bad enough to make me glad that I'm a black now and not
> a Jew then. And that time predates Hitler!
> -Wilson

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