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Evolution of Surname Over the World | Was it Given for Identification or Own Selfish Means?

Evolution of Surname Over the World |  Was it Given for Identification or Own Selfish Means?

The surname, also a family name, is an integral part of an individual’s identity, often denoting their family, tribe, or community. In many cultures, surnames are used as last names. Surnames not only relate an individual to their family, but also help us identify their culture, language, ethnicity, and native region. And in certain cases, their religion as well.

It is amazing to think about how certain given names have become so very fundamental to our present identity. One cannot help but wonder how this custom came to be when it began, and if our ancestors from the ancient past had any surnames at all.

So let us throw some light on the past and dig deep into the evolution of surnames!

Individual identities to inheritance

The oldest historical records attest to the use of certain given names to identify individuals. The advent of inherited surnames, however, seems to be relatively recent. In the past, many cultures had used descriptive terms to identify individuals by their unique traits, generally indicating personal attributes, region or location of origin, clan affiliation, patronage, parentage, occupation, and so on.

Over time and across multiple generations, these descriptive terms took the shape of fixed identities indicating clans or communities, and ultimately became the family names that we go by in the present day. A name ascribed to an individual passed down to his sons and so on, creating a neat inherited family line represented & identified by the said name.

The past & the evolution

Like most other things, the evolution of surnames has followed cultural & regional distinctions, emerging at separate times and following different evolutionary processes across cultures all around the world. In fact, surnames are not universal even today and continue to be an insignificant or non-existent custom in several cultures even in the present day.

The first examples of surnames as they resemble today were perhaps documented in the 11th century by English barons. English surnames initially identified a particular aspect of the individual, for example, his trade, father’s name, birthplace, physical features, etc. As such, surnames in England were not always deemed hereditary or indicated family names. However, this changed during the end of the 14th century and by 1400, most families from England and Lowland Scotland started using hereditary surnames or family names.

The use of surnames, which are not necessarily family names, can be traced back much earlier. In Europe, for instance, surnames became a thing during the Roman Empire and spread throughout the Mediterranean and Western Europe. Even though Germanic, Persian, and other influences wipes out the practice of using surnames in the majority of the area during the Middle Ages, it gradually re-emerged during the late middle ages, once again going through a process of evolution. They first re-emerged in the form of bynames typically indicating the person’s area of residence or occupation, and then steadily evolved into surnames that resemble our modern ones.

The backstory of surnames in China goes way back. According to several sources, surnames have been in a thing in vogue in China since at least the 2nd century BC. A Chinese legend describes how family names started with Emperor Fu Xi in 2000 BC when the naming system was standardized by his administration to facilitate census management. Most interestingly, Chinese surnames originally used to be matrilineal, i.e., following the family name of the mother’s family. By the 1st century BC, however, the Chinese surnames seem to have become patrilineal (or deriving the father’s family name).

In the Middle East, an early form of tribal surnames was used among the Amorite and Aramean tribes as early as 1800 BC. In ancient Iran, too, surnames were likely to be in vogue but were perhaps predominantly belonging to the aristocracy and nobility. Not only did this class of men bear their own surnames but also had their seals, coats of arms, banners, and estates.

Patronymic, toponymic, occupation, & cognominal surnames

Patronymic surnames are the oldest and most common types of surnames. They originate from the given name of an ancestor from the father's side, thereby following a patrilineal descent. The tradition of patronymic surnames varies between cultures.

Here it is important to note that while patronymic surnames are the most common of ancestral surnames, they are not the only ones - several cultures around the world follow the tradition of matronymic surnames, following the name of a fore-mother and indicating matrilineal descent.

Surnames originating from patronymics were common in ancient Greece and instances date as far back as the Archaic Period clan names. For example, Alexander the Great was known as Heracleides, or a ‘son of’ or descendant of Heracles. Several other such examples can be found in the works of Homer.

Although the naming conventions underwent several changes throughout the length of the Roman Empire, surnames that were inherited patrilineally and identified group kinships were predominant by 650 BC. The forenames, in such cases, identified individuals within the kinship group and distinguished them from other kinsmen.

The use of patronymics as surnames is well attested in the Arab world as well, during the early Islamic period (600 - 900 AD). it became a common custom for people to derive their surnames from a common distant ancestor and was written with the prefix ‘ibn’ or ‘son of’.

Similarly, medieval Spain too used patronymic surnames. For instance, a son of an individual with the forename Rodrigo used the surname, Rodriguez. Rodrigo’s grandson(s), however, would use the forename of his father as his surname, instead of Rodriguez. Over time, the custom of using patronymics for individual surnames evolved into family names, most of which are still widely prevalent even today.

Apart from patronymics, another common and widely used form of surnames was toponymic in character, derived from the originating or native region or topography of the bearer. Examples of toponymic surnames have been attested in Ancient Greece where formal identification included the place of origin. It was common in the medieval Arab world as well.

An example is the famous scholar Rhazes, who is referred to as ‘al-Razi’, literally meaning ‘the one from Ray’. This indicated his origin in the city of Ray in Iran. Toponymic surnames evolving into family names is a common phenomenon in Japan as well. Ishikawa meaning ‘stone river’, Yamamoto meaning ‘the base of the mountain’, and Inoue meaning ‘above the well’ are some examples.

The use of cognominal surnames became a common phenomenon as well and can be traced back to the Roman Empire between the 5th and 2nd centuries BC. Noble patrician families started using cognominal names initially as personal names or forenames, indicating the unique physical features of the individual. Pūblius Ovidius Nāsō is an example, the name indicating ‘nose’. Over time, cognominal names evolved into surnames, particularly in the later centuries of the Empire.

Surnames derived from occupation also became common. Molinero (‘miller’), Zapatero (‘shoe-maker), and Guerrero (‘warrior’) refer to the professions, and Molina (‘mill’), Guerra (‘war’), or Zapata (archaic form of Zapato, ‘shoe’) referring to the trade itself are some such examples from Spain. The evolution of occupational surnames into family names is particularly evident in Indian society. There are several instances of occupational names evolving into family names among the English as well, for example, Smith, Miller, Farmer, Thatcher, Shepherd, Potter, etc.

Evolution of surnames in the modern times

Following a gradual evolution, surnames came to be ultimately adapted as family names in modern times. While for some countries and communities, the transformation into recognized family names goes back to the 18th and 19th centuries, for several the transformation only culminated in the past century.

The majority of this transition is due to administrative reasons during the age of European expansion which gained momentum during the 17th century. The tradition of using surnames as family names has thus been in vogue in England, France, and Spain beginning in the 1600s. A similar tendency can be witnessed in the Indian subcontinent as well. Japan, on the other hand, formalized its structure of names - with the family name first followed by the given name - only in the 1860s.

The use of surnames, however, is not universal even today. Several communities and groups in East Africa, Java, Burma, and Iceland do not use family names unlike most of us.

It is interesting to note that the evolution of surnames, particularly in the modern day, often runs parallel to given names. Simply put, family names sometimes undergo a change under political pressure, to avoid persecution, or to meet personal convenience and/or religious commitments. They are changed and/or replaced by non-family surnames or are completely eliminated. Such cases have been attested by migrating ethnic groups, slaves, and indigenous people across the world.

A recent development in the evolution of surnames has been to use of compound surnames, hyphenating two surnames into one. This has become an increasingly dominant norm for married women in our modern-day society.

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