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Latvian names are more than just Janis

  • 2002-02-28
  • Timothy Jacobs
In the second of a three-part feature, Timothy Jacobs finds that over the centuries Latvian names have been influenced by everything from German knights to American soap operas.

There could be some debate over what the most popular name given to Latvian baby girls last year was (officially Laura, for anyone who might be interested), but when it comes to the names given to baby boys, anyone could tell you that Janis is king...and they'd be wrong.

According to the Latvian National Registry Office, Janis was forced to take a back seat not only to Arturs, the most popular name for boys in 2001, but to Roberts as well. Before you Arturses and Robertses start tipping back the Zeltas, though, remember that although you may be king for a year, Janis has been at or near the top of the list for popular names given to baby boys in Latvia for centuries.

According to Janine Kursite of Latvia University's philological faculty, the first written use of the name Janis dates back to 1290.

"The reason it has survived so long is because it had both a pagan meaning and, later, a Christian equivalent," she said.

The pagan name Janis, or "John" in English, could be attributed to the early Latvian pagan god Janus, who was the god of light. "Jani" the festival celebrated by Latvians every summer on the solstice, the longest day of the year, is a celebration in his honor.

Later in the late 16th century, when Christian Germans occupied Latvia, Janis was an existing name that satisfied both Germans and Latvians because it sounded very much like the common German name "Johannes."

Babe in the woods

Because Christianity didn't take hold in Latvia until much later than it did in most of the rest Europe, Latvians have a peculiar history of naming their children.

Until the Germans invaded, Latvians only took a single name, usually from their natural surroundings - a bird, an animal, or a tree. Irbe (partridge), Lacis (bear), Ieva (cherry tree), and Abele (apple tree) were all names commonly given to children at the time. Later many of these became last names.

If a child displayed a bad temperament or cried often, parents often blamed the name of the child, and they were allowed to rename the child any time before its first birthday.

People commonly kept their real names secret and went by a fictitious name in order to protect themselves from the evil forces they believed were around them. Only a person's parents and godparents knew their real name. When mothers sang lullabies to their children, they were careful not to use the child's real name, so instead they used diminutive versions of the name.

In pagan times, women referred to men that they were not related to as different types of trees. If a man was well-established in the community, then women would refer to him as "Ozols," which in English means "oak," whereas if he were just a commoner who hadn't made a name for himself, he might be referred to as "Alksnis," which in English means "alder." The names had a direct correlation to the value that Latvians put on the different kinds of wood.

At wedding ceremonies, the bridegroom was always called Ozols and the bride Liepa (linden), and the tradition is still evident in some of the songs sung at today's ceremonies.

For the love of God

When the Germans invaded and settled in Latvia, Latvians began taking surnames, or rather, they began giving themselves Christian first names, such as Marija, Anna, and Peteris. A Lutheran priest, H. Harders, came up with a group of quasi-Christian names for Latvians to choose from that depicted traits that a person might take on that would please God, such as Dievmilis (God lover), Stradulis (hard worker), Zelite (sorrowful person), and Skaidrite (clear person). Of the four names, only Skaidrite has survived to the present day.

An important chapter in the history of Latvian names unfolded when the Latvian poet known by the pen name Auseklis put out the Latvian Folk Calendar in 1875. In the calendar, Auseklis invented over 300 new names, around 200 of which were taken from Latvian, Lithuanian, Prussian and Indo-European folklore.

Only about 50 of the names invented by Auseklis have survived until today, but some of those are quite common, such as Liga, Daina, Dzintars and Dzintra. This is due mainly to the fact that many Latvian authors at the time took up the names for characters in their books and poems. For example Andris Pumpurs, who wrote the Latvian folk epic Lacplesis in 1888, used the names Spidola and Burtnieks in the story - names created by Auseklis.

Soviet times brought new changes to Latvian names, as people started looking to less traditional sources when naming their children. Two Western names, Oskars and Aivars, became extremely popular in the 1960's due to characters in novels by Latvian author Vilis Lacis. Aivars even gained some popularity in Estonia due to the popularity of Lacis' books there.

Professor Kursite has been watching this trend for many years. "I know of one woman, Karola, who was named after a popular Czech singer Karel Gott," she said.

Bold and beautiful

As for the trends since Latvia regained its independence "they are going off in all different directions. There is no one tradition or one trend anymore when it comes to naming your children in Latvia. Things are a lot more chaotic than they have ever been," she said.

That chaos, though, can be broken down into two very broad themes.

The first is what Kursite calls the "post-modernist" trend, "because there seems to be a little bit of everything."

"I think that for a small country, Latvia has a large number of names. I also think that it is interesting that people are starting to experiment with and combine names," said Julija Kulneva, 30, an editor in Riga.

Indeed, people are starting to combine existing names to form new names and in some cases create their own names for their children, such as a geologist couple who named their children, Morena and Ingera, after geological formations.

People are more conscious today of names that sound good, such as Vineta, Santa, and Sanita, and in some cases they choose names for their children that match their surname well, such as "Dens Dimins" and "Aija Akmene."

The flood of Western popular culture that has inundated Latvia since the country regained its independence in 1991 has also had an effect on the names being given to Latvian newborns. Some people are now naming their children after popular actors and characters, such as the character Kristiana from the soap opera "The Bold and the Beautiful," one of the most popular television shows here for many years.

Iveta Suraka, a 21-year-old manager in Riga, has noticed another trend in the way Latvians are naming their children. "I think that there are a lot of people who are giving their children middle names now, which is not traditionally a common practice in Latvia. I know of two such young children myself; one named Edvards Tomass and the other named Kristians Erhards."

Middle names, which are very common in the West, have never taken hold in Latvia.

Another trend that Kursite has observed is a return to the pagan and Christian names of Latvia's past. The pagan name Rasa, for example, has made a comeback in recent years. So have the Christian names Karlis, Andrejs, Peteris and Marta.

And although Janis wasn't the most popular name given to babies last year, history shows that it is unlikely to die out anytime soon.