Fighting for her German husband's name

  • 2001-11-29
  • Jorgen Johansson
RIGA - The debate over the "Latvianization" of names is about to reach the constitutional level, as the first ever Constitutional Court case filed by a private person is heard.

Latvian citizen Juta Menzen married a German citizen, and now she is trying to convince the court that her surname should not be Latvianized into Mencena as this creates problems for her.

Menzen's lawyer, Jautrite Briede, said her chances of winning in court are 50-50. Both of them are waiting for the court's final verdict, which will be read on Dec. 21.

"My client has already had problems in Germany because her surname is written in Latvian and not as her husband's," Briede said. "She was trying to get registered for an apartment."

In court, the state claims that non-Latvianized names could create confusion and misunderstanding. Linguists summoned by the court say it is important to protect the Latvian language and that it is important for Latvians to see how to pronounce names.

"But these arguments are purely emotional and not realistic," Briede said. "In Lithuania, it is possible for people to choose how they want their names spelled, and then they have the freedom to explain how to pronounce them themselves."

Briede also gave another example, of a woman with a French last name working for the Ministry of Justice in Estonia.

"If somebody has a problem with pronouncing her name, she simply explains how to do it," Briede said.

Gunars Kusins, who is defending the language law for the Parliament in this case, said non-Latvianized names could lead to a breakdown in communication.

"I don't know what the consequences would be for Latvia if Menzen wins. Every Constitutional Court decision sets a standard for the country," he said.

In court, Kusins said that names in other languages are represented so that pronunciation is as close to the national language as possible. He explained to The Baltic Times that he got this example from the Bible, where the biblical figures have their names spelled differently in different languages.

"The translation of the Holy Bible is very traditional, and it sets a standard for many languages," he said. "Latvian is a difficult language and this is why it's difficult for people here to become citizens."

It is necessary for people who seek Latvian citizenship to be sufficiently proficient in Latvian.

Kusins said the language law clearly states that names are re-written according to Latvian language standards and traditions.

"This means that if our language standards or traditions change, the law is flexible enough without any amendments," he said.

The status of Latvian and Latvian language traditions are a hot potato said Nils Muiznieks, director of the Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies.

"If Menzen wins, the Cabinet would have to make changes to the language law in order to provide for people to have their names spelled in the national language," Muiznieks said.

Kusins also believes the ruling could swing both ways. The Constitutional Court has a hard case to consider. There are no clear preceding cases in the European Court of Human Rights, according to Muiznieks, who added that there are exceptions to the language law in Latvia already and that authorities here are pretty lenient when it comes to the spelling of names in general.

"If her surname is different to her husband's and children's, there could be problems when it comes to travel and inheritance," he said.

Latvian differentiates between female and male names. Male names usually end in "s", while female names end in "a" or "e".

Individuals have had the right to file claims at the Constitutional Court since July.