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Russian Patronymics

Although Russia is the biggest country in the world and has played a prominent role in modern world history, few people have any first-hand knowledge of Russia or the Russians, let alone of the Russian language. One of the special linguistic and cultural features of the latter (which it shares with the other East Slavic languages) is the obligatory use of an individual’s father’s name plus the suffix {ov/-ič} for males and {ov/ič + -na} for females–called a patronymic (pronounced [ˌpætrəˈnɪmɪk])––as a middle name between one’s given name and surname. Every Russian person has and uses all three names. This triplet appears on all formal documents, and the first two together (i.e., the forename and patronymic) are routinely used in formal and semi-formal speech (minus the surname). In colloquial speech the patronymic can be and is used alone as a substitute for the forename.

In Russian, therefore, Y-H-B––whose father’s name was Constantine, i. e., Константин in its Russian form–– goes by Михаил Константинoвич ‘Michael son of Constantine’ with stress on the ultima in the forename and the antepenult in the patronymic.

In allegro speech routinely and a few instances regularly for all styles, the patronymic utilizes a contracted version of the father’s forename, so that, for example, Y-H-B’s daughter Abigail (‘father’s joy’ in Hebrew, as in reality) is called Авигея Михайловна ‘Abigail daughter of Michael’. The case of the name Михаил ‘Michael’ is unique as to vowel contraction because in fact the last vowel is elided before the patronymic in formal speech as well, as it is in the patronymic, so that Y-H-B’s name comes out as Михал Констиныч (note the dropping of the suffix {-ov-}), and his daughter’s as Авигея Михална.

The existence of this onomastic pattern in Russian turns out to be uniquely useful as a cultural norm in ordinary discourse because if affords an intermediate stylistic means for addressing persons with whom the use of the forename alone would be ruled out because of familiarity and that of the surname preceded by a title (like Mister or Professor) awkward because of its formality. Thus, for instance, a student can avail him/herself of the forename + patronymic in addressing a professor instead of resorting to the equivalent combination in the typical Western European formal pattern.

As it happens, a particular irony of Y-H-B’s forename and patronymic duo is the fact that Mikhaíl Konstantínovich just happens to be the name historically of a Grand Duke (Великий Князь in Russian), i. e., a member of the Russian Imperial family. You can be sure, therefore, that when he introduces himself for the first time to a Russian speaker by saying his forename and patronymic, he never misses the opportunity to add the phrase “like the Grand Duke.”

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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