Azerbaijan International

Autumn 1996 (4.3)
Pages 54-59, 63, 82

History in a Nutshell
20th Century Personal Naming Practices in Azerbaijan

by Jala Garibova and Betty Blair

Names are the DNA of the social organism we call community. One tiny strand of letters carries an incredible amount of vital information in terms of a person's social heredity. From a single word, it is often possible to determine a person's gender, education level, social and economic status, language, religious preference, sense of aesthetics and values, political inclinations, nationality, age (in terms of historic period), and sometimes even birth sequence.

Like DNA, names not only reflect the inheritance of the past, but in a general sense, they map out expectations and possibilities for the future.

Sara Ashurbeyli
Left: Sara Khanum Ashurbeyli, daughter of one of Baku's most famous Oil Barons at the age of one and a half in 1907. She celebrated her 90th Jubilee in January 1996.

No one is more conscious of the inherent power of names than those who have lived under repressive systems, whether they be economic, political or religious, or, in the case of the Soviet republics like Azerbaijan, all three. Under such circumstances, the prudent selection of a name can give an individual a slight edge or advantage over another.

The historical record of most nations is written exclusively by those in powerful positions. Names as the DNA of communal experience provide a more subtle and, at the same time, more comprehensive record of the perceived influences and forces that have shaped the destiny of a community. The history according to names is inclusive and, therefore, more accurate. The pen of every name giver counts, not just those who enjoy status.

Note: Many names for this study have been gleaned from official documents-mostly birth certificates. It's a normal practice in such research; however, in the case of Azerbaijani names, the process has been rather painstaking in Baku since the republic has had three official alphabets during this past century. To acquire the data meant deciphering handwritten records of all three scripts: Arabic (up to 1929), Latin (between 1929-1939), Cyrillic (1939-1991) and Latin again (1991 to present).

Right: Child playing on statue that commemorated the coming of the Bolsheviks which brought Soviet power to Azerbaijan. In Baku, 1995.

This overview of naming practices begins with the Soviet period (1920-1991), which was primarily influenced by Russian naming practices. It then reverses in history to discuss the Pre-Revolutionary period (before 1920) when Islam shaped many names. Finally, it discusses trends that seem to be evolving during this contemporary period since Azerbaijan gained its independence (1991 to present). Generally speaking, it's a period marked by a quest to return to their own Azerbaijani and Turkic roots.

Ask Azerbaijanis these days about some of the personal names that emerged during the Soviet Period, and words like Traktor (tractor) and Kombayn (combine) often top their lists. Needless to say, these names no longer "work," but earlier this century when there was great emphasis on the industrialization of agriculture, such farm machinery obviously captured the imagination of people as they moved from a feudal system to a centralized government, which provided the means for mass production.

Left: Inner City of Baku. Sketch by Jahangir, age 11. January 1996.

Names such as Traktor and Kombayn were not very widespread, but the fact that they did exist indicates how even children's names came to be used as tools of persuasiveness to express loyalty to the Soviet system, especially during the period now known as "Stalin's Repression" of the 1930s and 50s. During this period, hundreds of thousands and even millions of people throughout the Soviet Union were shot, imprisoned or exiled to Siberia if their allegiance to the State was, in any way, questionable or, in some cases, even questioned. [During the 40s, there was a slight reprieve from these internal purges; Stalin and other Soviet leaders were preoccupied with "The Great Patriotic War" (World War II), so much of which was fought on Soviet soil].

Some of the other names that emerged during that period were based on concepts related to the Communist party and governmental structures. For example, there was Narkom (from Russian, Narodniy Komitet which means People's Committee) and Raykom (from Azerbaijani, Rayon Komitesi meaning Regional Committee).

Even commonplace words like "organization," Tashkilat (tash-ki-LAT), which frequently appeared in the media, found their way into the repertoire of personal names as there were local Party and Komsomol (collective farm) organizations everywhere. The word Tablighat (ta-bli-GHAT), meaning "propaganda," came to be used as a male name (it does not carry with it the negative connotations so common to English; simply, it meant "dissemination of ideas" in Soviet ideology). Even "information" was created as a name-Malumat.

Right: The Russian Orthodox Cathedral, the most dominant landmarkin Baku, which Stalin totally demolished in the 1930s.

Of course, such names were not widespread among Azerbaijanis, but again, the fact that they even existed provides evidence of the influence of the political system upon the society as a whole. Though it may appear otherwise from these examples, name givers the world over are extremely conscious of the names they give their offspring, as they are always trying to anticipate how well the name will be accepted among the circle of people whom they want to influence.

Names of months were also given, especially those which related to significant Socialist or Soviet events. Oktyabr (ok-TABR) commemorated the Great Socialistic Revolution which took place in October 1917. Mayis (Mah-YIS) marked the holiday of the Solidarity of the Workers, which today is often referred to as May Day (May 1) around the world.

Influenced by Soviet Personalities
Another category of names that emerged during the Soviet period was based on personalities and heroes of the Russian Revolution and the Communist party. One Azerbaijani family named their two sons after Marx and Engels though it wasn't long before they realized their mistake. Neighbors would come running to complain that the boys were fighting and that Marx was hitting Engels or vice versa, and in one case, that they were even urinating on each other. The scenario wasn't exactly "politically correct," nor what the parents had in mind, and soon the boys were given new names to remedy the situation.

Left: Children at Kindergarten No. 83 in Baku, playing "Metro" game marking the opening of Baku's Metro in 1968. Courtesy National Archives.

Name givers in Azerbaijan, like elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, were also inspired to give names related to Lenin, Founder of the Russian Communist party (Bolsheviks) and formulator of Marxist-Leninism, the official Communist ideology.

Lenin's real name was Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov, and variations and combinations incorporating his first name or initials were used to create new names. There was Vilen (composed of Lenin's first two initials combined with the first three letters of his surname). Vladlen was formed by combining the first syllable of Lenin's first name with the first syllable of his surname, and one of the most popular variations was Ninel (Lenin spelled backwards).

Most of these names that were related to Soviet personalities have not survived in Azerbaijan with, perhaps, the single exception of Telman (from Ernest Thelmann, leader of the German Communist party). However, the popularity of this name is more likely due to its proximity in sound to the Azerbaijani name, Elman, than to any political alignment or affiliation.

Abstract Values
During the 1920s and 30s, a new category of names began to emerge: abstract concepts relating to expressed values of the new socialist system. Male names began to appear such as Azad (freedom), Bakhtiyar (fortune), Saadat (happiness), Ingilab (revolution), Mubariz (struggle), Mubarak and Tabrik (both meaning congratulations) and Vugar (pride).

Female names also followed this pattern. Soviet Power officially gave women the same rights as men, and leaders wanted the populace to perceive women as strong, powerful and free. New names began appearing in Azerbaijan such as Irada (will or determination), Matanat (strength, steadiness, tolerance), Azade (freedom), and Rafiga (friend, companion-suggesting comradeship with men in building the new society).

Perhaps, the implicit ambiguity of such names enabled them to survive throughout the Soviet period. Who knows whether the name givers intended to praise the political system or challenge it?

Influence of Russian on Naming Patterns
When Soviet power imposed their government on Azerbaijan beginning in 1920, the role of the Russian language gradually increased until it became the "prestige language" of the country. Official policy encouraged this trend. In 1924 the first Soviet Constitution was adopted, and Russian was declared the official language. Children of privileged families spoke Russian at home and attended Russian schools, which gave them an edge for gaining the best education and the most prestigious and influential jobs.

(It should be noted, however, that in 1978, with the adoption of the third Soviet Constitution in Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev, now President, but at that time serving as General Secretary of the Central Committee Communist Party in Soviet Azerbaijan, managed to reinstate the Azerbaijani language as an official language along with Russian).

The national policy of the Soviet Union, orchestrated from Moscow, was to impose the Russian language, Russian culture, and Russian traditions on all the peoples throughout that vast empire that stretched across 11 time zones. Soviet policy, which was essentially Russian policy, sought to undermine and, if possible, eradicate the national identity of the other 14 republics that made up the USSR. Government policy emphasized the brotherhood of nations and mankind but not specific nationalities that comprised that combined union. Holidays, unique to individual republics, usually were officially banned. Always, it must be added, with exceptions being made for Russians.

One of the first measures that Soviet government leaders undertook was to unify the Soviet Union with a single alphabet. Naturally, Cyrillic, the script for Russian was chosen. In the case of Azerbaijan, there was a deliberate, systematic effort to physically destroy all books, textbooks or manuscripts written in Arabic script because of its association with Islam. Stories are told how people were ordered to throw their private collections onto bonfires (See AI 3:4,79, Winter 1995. "Purging Arabic Script: Loss of Medical Knowledge").

At the time when Cyrillic was imposed in Azerbaijan (1938), Azerbaijanis had already officially replaced Arabic with a modified Latin script (1928), but as so few books had been produced during that short, chaotic period, Soviets viewed the Arabic script with its close associations to Islam as the greater threat to Soviet unification.

Russifying Female Names
Inevitably, political realities began influencing naming practices as well. Birth certificates during the Soviet period indicate that many Azerbaijani families tried to imitate patterns of naming that they associated with the more prestigious language, Russian.

For example, in Russian, most female names contain three syllables, with the last syllable ending with the vowel sound "-a": Ludmila, Svetlana, Natalya, Marina, Maria, and Tatyana. In such cases, Russians stress the middle syllable (lud-MI-la, svet-LA-na, etc.); whereas, in traditional Azerbaijani names, the stress is always on the last syllable of a name-Leyla (ley-LA), Sevda (sev-DA), Rena (re-NA), etc.

Azerbaijanis rarely adopted a Russian name outright for their children during this period. It raises the question of whether such a gesture would have breached and overstepped the boundaries and norms permissible by Russians, by Azerbaijanis, or both.

However, there was an obvious trend of selecting names that imitated the phonological structure of Russian names. Often foreign names that sounded very much like Russian three-syllable names were chosen, especially for female names. Many were borrowed from world literature, such as Elmira, Zemfira, Amalia, Ophelia, Aida, Tamilla, Tamara, and Esmira. Elmira comes from Moliere, Esmira is the Esmeralda in Hugo's "Hunchback of Notre Dame," and Zemfira originates from Pushkin's "Gypsies."

Although these examples were new in the repertoire of Azerbaijani names, the tradition of choosing literary-related names runs very deep in Azerbaijan naming practices. In this situation, the literature simply originated from authors beyond the borders of Azerbaijan.

Another technique of russifying traditional Azerbaijani female names was to add a final third syllable "-a" to original names. For example, Narmin became Narmina; Gulnar became Gulnara. This final "-a" suffix was also added to traditional Azerbaijani male names to make them female (Adil-Adila, Farid-Farida, Ilham-Ilhama, Natig-Natiga, Ramiz-Ramiza). As this pattern also existed in Persian (and would have been a common naming practice among Azerbaijanis living there), one cannot say with absolute assurance that the motivation was purely influenced by Russian; however, the fact that it became very popular during the Soviet period indicates its convenience for Azerbaijani families who were trying to facilitate their children's entry into Russian schools where they could begin developing lifelong relationships among Russian circles.

The effect of russification becomes even more evident in diminutive forms as the same Azerbaijani names were clearly shaped by language preference. The pattern of diminutive or endearing forms for female names among Azerbaijani speakers tended to be made by adding a final suffix "-i," "-ish," or "-ush," while Russian speakers preferred "-a." For example, with the Azerbaijani female name, Gyulnara, Azerbaijani speakers were more likely to prefer Gyuli or Gyulush, but those aspiring to Russian circles were more likely to choose Gyulya. The same pattern existed with names such as Irada (Irish-which is pronounced "ee-REESH" in Azerbaijani, but Ira-Russian); Narmina (Narmish-Azerbaijani, but Nara-Russian); Mirvari (Mirish or Miri-Azerbaijani, but Mira-Russian).

Russifying Male Names
The same tendency of russification occurred in Azerbaijani male names. The most prevalent pattern of the 1940s-50s was to select a fairly short Azerbaijani name of two syllables. Invariably, the first syllable contained an "-a" or an "-o," and the second syllable, an "-i," as in Rafig, Faig, Shaig, Namig, Natig, and Tofig. Even then, the final "-g" sound was often pronounced as a final "-k" found in traditional Russian-sounding names (for example, Vladik from Vladislav, Slavik from Svyatoslav, and Stasik from Stanislav, etc.) In fact, many such Azerbaijani names are of Arabic origin, but sometimes as they entered the language through Turkish, they were pronounced and spelled with a final "-k" just as in Russian (Rafik, Faik, Shaik, Namik, Natik, and Tofik). So the transformation was quite natural and easily accepted, obviously by both communities. This pattern of final "-k" which imitates Russian names is still fairly predominate today.

Foreign Names
Examination of birth certificates of people born in the 1960s-1990s shows that Azerbaijani naming patterns remained almost the same during this period, although new names of foreign origin became fashionable, such as Dinara, Diana, Elza, Elvira, Ellada, Elina, Kamilla and Emil.

However, there seems to be a distinctiveness in the ease with which russified families in Azerbaijan began to embrace "foreign sounding names" that imitated the Russian phonological patterns. For example, from 100 names of female students in the "Russian Track" at one of Baku's central schools (1967-1980), 13 had foreign names. However, during the same period, there were no foreign names among 80 names registered in the "Azerbaijani Track." Though this sample is not very large, it indicates the tendency among Azerbaijanis who wanted to become russified to give foreign names to their children. Some of the most popular Azerbaijani "foreign-sounding names" included Samir, Samira, Sabina, and Jamila, which are all favorites among Russian-speaking people.

Opposing Russification
It's true, however, that not everyone was eager to embrace the Soviet system nor the new russified categories of names that began to emerge. As Soviet philosophy had been imposed, naturally, some Azerbaijanis did not endorse it and, as was only natural, naming became a subtle tool by which to express resistance.

While some Azerbaijanis were trying to gain social and political status by russifying their personal names, others made equally calculated efforts to preserve their national identity by deliberately choosing names of Azerbaijani origin. In search of "fresh, new-sounding" names, Azerbaijanis once again drew upon various sources, especially literary ones-Azerbaijani books, novels and plays. In fact, many new names were introduced by the early 20th century Azerbaijani poets and writers.

For example, at least 14 names were incorporated into the Azerbaijani naming system from the works of Jafar Jabbarli, Azerbaijan's first major playwright of the Soviet period. These included male names such as Oqtay (one who stays with his tribe or people), Yashar (existing or living), Elkhan (pronounced el-KHAN, one of the earliest Turkic ranks), Aydin (clear), Qorkhmaz (pronounced qorkh-MAZ, fearless), Donmaz (not shifting or turning from "The Way") and Sonmaz (eternally burning or eternally lit).
Jabbarli's female names included Almas (diamond), Solmaz (unfading, always fresh), Gyultakin (pronounced gyul-ta-KIN, like a flower), Sevil (se-VIL, be loved), Gyular (smiling, laughing), Gyunduz (daytime) and Gyulush (laughter).

Sometimes an entire new Azerbaijani category was created. For example, new combinations emerged which related to the Moon. In Eastern cultures, the Moon is admired for its mysterious beauty and light and has traditionally been part of Eastern naming patterns, particularly in Arabic and Persian. It also existed in Azerbaijani naming practices in choices such as Gamar (Arabic, moon) and Mehpare (Persian, a piece of the Moon).

In the late 1940s and 50s, names for the Moon using the Turkic root "Ay" (pronounced like "eye") were introduced by the famous Azerbaijani poet Samad Vurgun [see feature in AI 4:1, 20, Spring 1996].

Vurgun created names such as Aygyun (ay-GYUN, moon-sun) and Aybeniz (ay-beh-NIZ, moon-faced). Vurgun's own daughter was named Aybeniz and his granddaughter, Aygyun.

After these names became established in the society, people began creating new names with the stems "Ay" (moon) and "Gyun" (sun), in names such as Aynur (moonlight), Gyunay (sun-moon), and Ayten (like the moon). Even today, Azerbaijanis still build upon this stem and continue to introduce new names, such as Aytaj (moon crown), Ayshan (moon-happy) and Aysel (moon-rushing waters).

Azerbaijanis incorporated names found in the works of Georgian writers, too. For example, the Azerbaijani translation of the epic "The Warrior in the Tiger's Skin," by the 12th century Georgian poet Shota Rustaveli, was very popular during the 1930s. Two characters-Tariyel and Avtandil-were especially loved by the Azerbaijanis and incorporated into the treasury of male names. However, Tinatin, the name of the heroine in the same epic, was rarely used in Azerbaijan.

No Official Policy
Though russification of names was a logical outcome of the Soviet national policy, the government did not issue any official decrees or ultimatums relating to personal names. The choice remained highly expressive of the inherent values within the society. As deviation from established norms and practices in any society could possibly subject a child to rejection and discrimination, few parents would deliberately risk their own child's future at the expense of their own egos. In that sense, under such circumstances, names can become a vehicle of negotiation and compromise.

Choosing names from literature or shaping Azerbaijani names around Russian phonological patterns allowed people to identify with current status trends while maintaining their own ethnic identity. It allowed them to participate in the new power structure without actually crossing the line to embrace it-at least, in their own minds. In the selection of a great many of these names, the argument could be made for either Azerbaijani identity or Soviet identity depending upon the pragmatic need of the moment.

At the same time, one of the most dramatic changes in naming practices that occurred in the Soviet Azerbaijan Republic was the tendency to get rid of Islamic personal or first names.

Although names such as Ali, Mohammad, Husein, Hasan, and Mahmud still do exist in the Republic today, they are not as frequent among Azerbaijanis in Iran, whose population is estimated to be three or four times (25 to 30 million) that of the Azerbaijani population in the Republic (7.5 million).

Curiously, though personal names tended to be "secularized" in the Republic after 70 years of Soviet rule, surnames (family names) still maintained their religious association. As ironic as this may sound, it can be explained.

The practice of the general public adopting official family names began during the 1920s after the Soviets had come into power in Azerbaijan. Until that time, the majority of people did not have official surnames throughout the region, including Turkey and Iran. Of course, there were exceptions.

But for the majority of people who did not have official surnames, Soviet bureaucrats often resolved the problem simply by taking the name of the individual's father and adding traditional suffixes, such as "-yev" / "-yeva" or "-ov" / "-ova", meaning "born of." Examples: Ali becomes Aliyev (male) or Aliyeva (female), Husein becomes Huseinov or Huseinova, Mammad (short for Mohammad) becomes Mammadov or Mammadova.

Azerbaijanis in the Republic had great difficulty officially clinging to traditional suffixes of Azerbaijani surnames, such as "-zade" (Persian origin, meaning "born of" as in Pashazade or Alizade) and "-li" / "-lu" (Turkic origin, meaning "with" or "belonging to" as in Khanli or Koprulu).

The irony of this process is that, despite the tendency during this period towards secularization, the Soviet officials handled everything in such a bureaucratic fashion that, despite their official atheistic position towards religion, nearly every family name in Azerbaijan retained a religious association. This pattern, created nearly 80 years ago, has fossilized today, despite the fact that the personal names which reflect more of the nuances of political and social trends do not convey religious affiliations nearly as often.

During this same period of the early 1920s, the same process of secularization was occurring in Iran. However, the policy of the government of Reza Shah Pahlavi penetrated even to the choice of surname. Reza Shah forced women to take off the chador; he legitimized Western clothing for both men and women. Intellectually, the Shah sponsored linguistic and literary studies to search for the historic roots of the Persian and Pahlavi identity (as opposed to religious identity).

In such a social environment, people were encouraged to be more experimental and creative in choosing surnames and not simply to take on the names of their fathers (with the Islamic overtones), as was done in Azerbaijan. Some religious surnames were chosen. As well, some family names were selected that ended with "-pour" and "-zadeh," meaning "born of," which would generally have required the adoption of the name of one's father (in most cases a religious name). in general, a much broader range of categories came into existence because of the Shah's policy. Some family names related to topography, others to professions, and some borrowed abstract concepts which enveloped positive human characteristics.

For example, many Azerbaijanis in Iran acquired family names from the cities in which they were living (Tehrani, Tabrizi, Isfahani, Shirazi, Meshadi). Some took on the names of their occupations (Kaffash-shoemaker, Ipakchi-silk trader, Faturachi-rope maker, Damirchi-blacksmith, Chorakchi-bread maker, Attar-spice seller). Others defined abstract terms (Omid-hope, Roshan-enlightenment, Azad-freedom, etc.)

Once again, there is a certain historical twist that today many surnames of Azerbaijanis living in the Islamic Republic of Iran do not carry any religious association while the majority of surnames in the Republic of Azerbaijan do, despite the long term domination of an atheistic governing body.

The opposite holds true for personal names of Azerbaijanis living in each of these countries. In the Republic, there is a tendency for most personal names to be secular; while in Iran, most personal names carry religious connotations.

Before the Soviets Came
Pre-Revolutionary Names (Before 1921
A study of names in Azerbaijan between the 1890s-1920s (prior to the imposition of the Soviet government) indicates that religious personal names were very well established in Azerbaijan. Shah Ismayil of the Safavid Dynasty (16th century) had established Shiism in the region where Azerbaijanis lived. (Shia is distinguished from the majority Sunni branch of Islam, primarily through the lines of descendance and authority rather than through doctrinal differences. In Shiism, political power was directed from Prophet Mohammed to Ali, his son-in-law, who was known as the fourth caliph). Obviously, names such as Ali and other Shiite Imams (religious leaders) became incorporated with names of other Imams, to account for combinations such as Alireza and Alihusein. Sometimes names contained the element "-gulu" (servant), as in Rezagulu (servant of Reza) and Aligulu (servant of Ali).

In fact, the custom of giving religious names was so strong that, on occasion, people would randomly select a word from the Koran, and if they liked its sound, might choose it as a name, without even knowing its meaning. For example, the Arabic word "Tukazzibani" is a phrase used in one of the "suras" which means "you are skeptical, doubting that something is true." One female child was given a shortened version of this name, Tukazban, possibly because the element "ban" sounded so familiar to the middle name of the well-known Azerbaijani woman poet of the 19th century, Khurshid Banu Natavan.

However, a careful analysis of names indicates that the influence of Islam was beginning to weaken somewhat during the first decades of this century. In the choice of many personal names, no reference was made to religion at all, especially among female names.

Another phenomenon during the Pre-Revolutionary period was the use of double personal names. For females, many personal names conveyed the idea of "lady," such as Khanum, Beyim, Banu, and Khatun, or the word for "girl" or "daughter"-Guiz. Among 140 female names in birth records from 1880-1919 in one region of Baku, 62 ended with the element Khanum.

Double names were also formed with the words indicating relative relationships, such as ata-father, ana-mother, baji-sister, ami-uncle (father's brother), baba-grandfather, nana-grandmother, bala-baby or child, and bibi-aunt (father's sister).

These appeared in combinations, such as Nanaguiz (grandmother's girl), Anabaji (mother's sister), Atabala (father's baby), Bibikhanim (aunt's lady), Amikishi (uncle's man), etc.

Curiously, the words khala-aunt (mother's sister) and dayi-uncle (mother's brother) were not found in this system of double naming, indicating that a child was considered to belong more to the father's family than to the mother's.

A few names during this period provide evidence that the birth of a girl was less desirable than that of a boy. Such attitudes were obvious with female names such as Basti, Tamam, Yetar and Kifayat-words which all mean "enough." Guizyetar, Guizbas and Guiztamam mean "girl-enough." And the name Guizgayit even expresses the wish, "girl, go back." These names seem to have been given in families where parents were looking forward to having a son, but ended up with a daughter.

Giving birth to a boy after having waited for a long time produced a new pattern of male names containing the component verdi-meaning "given," as in Allahverdi, Haqverdi and Tanriverdi, all meaning "God-given." Examples exist for Imamverdi (Imam-given), and even Shahverdi (King-given).

However, other secular patterns were beginning to emerge as well. Persian secular names were finding their way into the repertoire of Azerbaijani names; Khavar, a female name meaning "East," and Rukhsara, another female name meaning "beautiful face," are but two examples.

Arabic words also provided a rich reservoir of names. Curiously, many of the Azerbaijani names of Arabic origin do not seem to have been part of the naming tradition in the Arabic language itself. Possibly name givers who experimented with Arabic were trying to achieve freshness and mysteriousness. A beautiful-sounding name was considered valuable in creating a stronger effect when its meaning was finally revealed. Therefore, people attempted to use Arabic words whose meaning was not obvious to most. Many of these names originated in literature. For example: Majid (magnificent), Anvar (feeling of lightness), Gudrat (power), Rugiyya (slim, tender), and Durra (bead).

So, in general, in can be said that Pre-Revolutionary names were strongly influenced by Islam although there was a gradual tendency during the early decades of this century to move away from religious names. Perhaps, the international influence brought about by the Oil Boom influenced such a trend.

Future Trends
Naming Practices Since Independence (1991)
In 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan gained its independence. The ratification of the new Constitution in 1995 once again reinstated the Azerbaijani language as the single official state language.

Many Russian-speaking families are beginning to entertain serious thought about sending their children to Azerbaijani schools-a consideration they would never have made before.

Though it may be too early to clearly document the trend, evidence seems to indicate that names are being chosen that sound more Azerbaijani.

Narmina has reverted to Narmin again, dropping the Russian-sounding final "-a" syllable. Among 200 birth certificates studied between 1990-1996, there were five Narmin's but only one Narmina, which is the opposite pattern found in the archival records of 1967-1990 among 180 female names. At that time six Narmina's and one Narmin were listed.

Some of the most popular female names during these years have included Gyunel (kinsmen's sun), Aysel (meaning flooded by moonlight-a newly created name possibly chosen because of the root "ay" which is very popular), Aydan (belonging to the moon-considered to be a positive characteristic for a female), Laman (glittering), Nazrin (Persian, meaning white mountain wildflower), Narmin (slender), and Fidan (sapling; a young tree).

Popular male names include: Tural (long-living), Aykhan (khan of the moon), Eshgin (love), Fikrin (thought), and Ilkin (first, implying firstborn).

The trend towards russification seems to have weakened even in Russian-speaking families. Instead, there has been a tendency towards Turkish names and, even more recently, an emphasis on the Turkic origin of Azerbaijanis. Turkey was the first country to establish international relations with Azerbaijan after independence. During the Soviet period almost all relations with Turkey had been deliberately cut off. Immediately after independence, there was a sudden surge towards embracing Turkey (though it is not as strong today as earlier). The word Turan (all the countries where Turkic people live) has been used as a name. The Turkish names Semra, Selma, and Aydan have become very popular.

In the process of Azerbaijanis rediscovering their own roots, there seems to have been a tendency these past six years to return to some older names that were clearly Azerbaijani. Once again many of these names-Leyla, Murad, Rustam, for example-are found in classic literature as in Fuzuli's Leyli and Majnun. Names like Tural and Seljan have come straight from "Dede Gorgud," an epic probably known many generations before it was penned in the 14th century.

The Question of Surnames
Again when Azerbaijan first gained its independence, there was a rush among many people to shed the Russian suffixes "-ov" and "-ova" and "-yev" and "-yeva" from their last names. But the process proved cumbersome, and many gave up, especially when they were told that once the new identification cards were distributed, people would have a chance to choose the ending they wanted for their last names. In other words, they could opt to retain the Russian endings or to take on a variant Azerbaijani ending, "-li" or "-lu" or "-zade," both of which mean "born of."

Of course, these days, more pressing needs distract the average person from worrying much about changing his or her surname. Economic pressures tend to make people postpone dealing with such problems. And so once again, the surname stays more or less fossilized while the personal name becomes more of an accurate barometer of the nuances of political and social change.

Time will tell which direction Azerbaijanis will go. It's likely that a wide range of names will be accepted in the community. With the presence of foreigners and foreign companies in Azerbaijan, it's also likely that foreign names or Azerbaijani names based on the phonological structure of foreign names, especially English or English-sounding names, will also become incorporated into the vast treasury of names being chosen by Azerbaijani parents. It's all part of the game of trying to anticipate the future for their children and trying to provide their children, through the choice of names, with the best possible equipment for dealing with it.

Other contributors to this article include: Sevil Aliyeva, head of the Department of Baku's Central Archive Office; Tamilla Taghiyeva, head of the Bi-Citizens' Registration Office of the Sabail District of Baku; Negar Asker-zade, Director of Bul-Bul Music School in Baku; and Dr. Edwin Lawson, President of the American Name Society, who resides in Fredonia, New York. Also referenced was Osman Mirzayev's book, "Our First Names" (in Azerbaijani), published in Baku: 1986.

Azerbaijan International (4.3) Autumn 1996.
© Azerbaijan International 1996. All rights reserved.

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