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Saturday, April 20, 2013

What is at stake in the introduction of family names?

We are all aware of the problem of "family names" in India: if one looks for family names one runs the risk of having a long bibliography filled of (honorific) titles such as Dvivedi, Trivedi, Caturvedi, Miśra, Bhaṭṭa, Śāstri, Svāmi where one misses exactly the distinctive purpose of family names in the Roman State and, hence, in the West. However, using first names creates conflicts with bibliotecary and similar systems, where the standard has always been the Wester ones. Scholars focusing on other areas of the world will also confirm that they have similar problems.

On Wednesday the 10th of April, the Institute of Iranistic at the Austrian Academy of Sciences has celebrated its first ten years with a great speech by Prof. Houchang Chehabi on the introduction of family names in Iran in the 1920s. It was thought-provoking and entertaining and has shed much light on the major implications of this seemingly marginal point.
Chehabi pointed out that the introduction of family names in Iran was almost simultaneous with the abolition of all titles, in the 1920s. Until that point, one had first names, mostly of Islamic origin (although Persian names never completely disappeared they were an exception). In addition, one could be known through adjectives (such as "the tall" —I will have to skip the Persian equivalent here and in all that follows and I apologize for that), definitions related to one's profession, patronimics (as in the case of the philosopher best known in the West as Avicenna), or place of origin. Poets had noms de plume and people who had accomplished a pilgrimage also had an additional name. There were also special names for people (claiming to) descend from a prophete, for merchants, princes, or for those who could write. Additionally, the rulers might bestow honorific titles. At a certain point the latter could just be purchased. It is, hence, no wonder, that after 1921 the reformistic press started laughing at them and presented titles as remainants of the "Ancient Régime". Moreover, whoever had visited Europe had already experienced the fact that one needed a family name there.

More interestingly, however, Chehabi showed also the political side of the question: before the 1st World War, only a few countries (China, Japan, Abyssinia…and Iran) could claim themselves independent from the West. Thus, having family names was important, in order to be considered "civilised" and be, thus, able to keep one's independence. Chehabi has quoted several interesting studies on family names current at that time, explicitly pointing out the use of family names in Ancient Rome as a sign of civilisation and threateningly underlining their absence in the Arabic and other contemporary contexts.
On top of that, family names are, in fact, useful in a modern state in order to identify every citizen (for instance, for his military service).

The introduction of family names, continued Chehabi, meant that each family had to choose one. This leads to two interesting consequences:
1. one had to define what a family was (narrow family? broad family? household, including servants?). The final decision was in favour of a narrower understanding of it, so that married brothers had to choose different family names.
2. the faculty to choose led to disputes about who had the right of using a certain name (since only one family per town was allowed to have a given family name).

Long story short: Chehabi is able to make one look through a small episode while perceivinig its global significance. Chapeau!

When/in which case did you have the pleasure of perceiving the conjunction of detailed information and general significance?

On the importance of maintaining a double perspective (in-depth investigation on details and global significance of them), see this post.

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