Moacir P. de Sá Pereira on April 29th, 2008

Via, I read an article in Delfi by Eglė Digrytė about the recent surge in “non-Lithuanian” names among children of Lithuanian emigrants in the UK. The lede is worth reproducing in full:

Shakyra, Lee, Leya, Sameeras, Adnan, Radu, Kvinta, Younas… Tai – ne muzikos ar kino žvaigždžių vardai. Taip savo atžalas šaukia Didžiojoje Britanijoje įsikūrę naujosios bangos išeiviai. Todėl mūsų šalies ambasada pradėjo raginti juos mažyliams duoti lietuviškus vardus.

I’ll be getting back to this troubling paragraph later in this post. In any case, Digrytė worries that UK Lithuanians have started competing among themselves for who can have the most exotic name. Or they borrow names from stars, or, ultimately, she writes, they choose such unfamiliar names that guessing the gender of the child becomes difficult. (!)

In steps the Lithuanian Embassy in London, with their promotion “Mano vardas LIETUVIŠKAS!,” which encourages emigrants to encourage the spread of Lithuanian linguistic traditions without forgetting Lithuanian names. The article concludes with the usual non sequiturs regarding the age of the Lithuanian language, but the conclusion is clear: Lithuanians should be naming their children Lithuanian names, preferably ancient ones (such as “Eglė,” one might surmise).

o not mean to pile on Digrytė, who is simply covering a story, when the real target here should be the embassy itself. Naming is truly a strange phenomenon, and anyone who has read Freakonomics knows a bit about how class status plays a role in choosing which names to use (something that may get reflected in the case of Lithuanians in the UK choosing “exotic” names), but the discussion of what is a “Lithuanian” name is truly problematic. Which of the following, for example, would one consider “Lithuanian”:

  • Povilas
  • Kazys
  • Tadas
  • Ona
  • Stasys
  • Valdas
  • Daiva

Trick question… Either none of them is Lithuanian, or they all are. “Povilas” and “Kazys” come from Latin sources through Slavic ones. “Tadas” and “Ona” are of Hebraic origin. “Stasys” is straight up Slavonic, and “Valdas” is Germanic. “Daiva,” on the other hand, was invented by Vydūnas from Sanskrit. Yet all of these names are held by people I know who would consider themselves Lithuanian. And, furthermore, I suspect that they would consider their names Lithuanian, too. If I saw a “Povilas” on a name tag, I would guess that this person was Lithuanian.

But at some point in time (the 1850s for “Daiva,” the 1300s for the others), these names were certainly not Lithuanian. And now they are. So why can the same not be said for the names Digrytė gives above?

Here it is worthwhile to see which names she bumps up to the top of the article:

  • Shakyra
  • Lee
  • Leya
  • Sameeras
  • Adnan
  • Radu
  • Kvinta
  • Younas

Of these names, at least three are obviously Arabic in origin (“Shakyra,” “Sameeras,” and “Adnan”). “Leya” feels like a variant of “Lėja,” which is an old Hebraic name (Leah was Jacob’s wife). “Radu” I cannot pinpoint, but many names that begin with “Ra—” end up being either Arabic or Sanskrit. “Kvinta” I can only guess as being a Lithuanization of “Quinta,” which is a Latin name, and “Younas” is a mystery (though it reminds me of Wakar Younis or of Arabic names like “Yusra” and “Yousef” which have their own religious histories). Oh, and “Lee” is a straight up old English name.

So discounting “Lee,” all the names Digrytė uses to shock the reader into wanting to know more are either from sources long mined for names for Lithuanians (Sanskrit, Latin, and the Bible), or they are Arabic. Is the panic, here, then, that Lithuanians are comingling with Arabs in the wide metropolitan streets of London? When did Delfi become an organ of the Department of Homeland Security?

But Dirgytė’s list points out the absurdity both of her article and the promotion by the embassy. Starting to decide which names are or are not Lithuanian is a political gesture made in reverse. By complaining that someone does not have a “Lithuanian” name, one exposes the full depth of their own cultural bias. Certainly, there is a nice long list of old Lithuanian names that can still be plumbed for sources for babies, but look at the short history of the Lithuanian Republic: of the 13 men who have acted as president of the Republic, only two (Landsbergis and Brazauskas) had profoundly Lithuanian names—the overplayed “Vytautas” and the deep album cut “Algirdas.” The short history (< 200 years) of the Lithuanization of the Landsbergis family is well-known. So that leaves, then, Brazauskas, as the most Lithuanian President? Seriously?

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