This is an extension of the questions that I have asked in the German and French communities: some languages have a subset of family names that are indistinguishable from given names, occasionally resulting in confusion. E.g., when talking about Édouard Philippe one cannot be sure whether Édouard is the given name and Philippe is the family one or the other way round (i.e., whether it is Édouard Philippe or Philippe Édouard.) Anecdotally the prevalence of this phenomenon in French can be attested by the proliferation of jokes on the subject.

On the other hand, many languages possess specific markers for family names:

  • suffixes, like -ov/-ić/-skii in Slavic languages, -oğlu in Turkish, -son/-sohn/-dóttir in some Germanic ones
  • proclitics like ben/bin/ibn in Semitic languages

As far as I understand, the origin of these markers is the same as the origin of the given-name-like family names - indicating the ancestor (typically father).

I would like to learn more about how the family name markers arise and why some languages do not have them:

  • Is this a matter of a historical accident or is this related to the structure/grammar of the language?
  • How prevalent is the existence or non-existence of such markers in languages with a defined notion of family name?

In principle French/English/German do use proclitics de/of/von, but these seem to be limited to geographic (rather than family) origins.

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    How they arise? You mean how ‘son of X’ or ‘from/of X’ goes from being a simple descriptor to being considered part of a person’s name? I’m not sure that’s objectively answerable. In most cases, it took place centuries ago, and we can’t really delve too far into the psychology of why it took place in speakers’ minds then. Many languages have both (e.g., Scandinavian has tons of -sen/-son names, but also unmarked names like Lindskog, Ravn, Hauge, etc.), though it does seem to me offhand that languages that put family names first generally don’t have the markers. Commented Sep 6, 2022 at 11:24
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    ben/bin/ibn isn't a preposition. It's a noun in the construct state meaning "son of". It is equivalent to the -son/-sohn seen in many Germanic languages
    – Tristan
    Commented Sep 6, 2022 at 13:26
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    I don't know if it's the cause in these instances, but iirc some languages use the father's name in the genitive as a patronymic. As the case system collapses, this could then merge into the nominative resulting in a situation like that seen in French
    – Tristan
    Commented Sep 6, 2022 at 13:27
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    All the languages that I have any exposure to have a standard order to write given name and family name (hence them frequently being referred to as "first" and "last" names in English). So there's no confusion within one language, and thus no strong "problem to solve" demanding that such markers develop. It's only when names from another language with a different order convention are spoken in your language that confusion arises, because you're not sure whether the speaker has used the order of the language they're speaking or of the language the name is from.
    – Ben
    Commented Sep 7, 2022 at 3:42
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    Even in those Slavic languages those endings are far from clear surname markers. They are usually just completely ordinary adjectival endings (Czech:-ový, -ský,...). They are common in surnames but are common in normal adjectives as an.but some adjectives became used for surnames. Many surnames are, however, based on nouns and do not have any such ending. Commented Sep 7, 2022 at 13:46

2 Answers 2


The use of grammaticalized family-name markers as in the Slavic etc. cases is relatively infrequent, so the better question is, why or how do such constructions arise in some languages? The ordinary case is that they don't exist.

I also think one should pay attention to the fact that family names in the contemporary sense are far from universal, and in many cultures, a person has only one name. This is often paired with a rule to the effect that "You can't have more than one (living) person named Libulule", a rule that works in a small society but would not work in London or even Oslo. In the older Norwegian system, somebody would have the name Tore, and every fourth male was named Tore, so to avoid hilarity at parties, the convention of further distinguishing which Tore you mean by also mentioning the father, hence "Tore son of Knud" versus "Tore son of Tore" or "Tore son of Lars" (a syntactic expression, not a suffix). Likewise "Marit daughter of Tore". Still, there were 5 Knud Knudsens, therefore they also started mentioning which farm they are from. The patronymic system isn't used in Continental Scandinavia anymore, but it is still used in Iceland.

In Kalenjin languages (Kenya), people traditionally followed an analogous construction of personal name plus phrasal construction "son of X", hence former Kenyan president "Daniel (Toroitich) arap Moi" was simply "Daniel", and his father was "Moi": but, that effortlessly turned into a family name. (Another complication is that he was named Toroitich at birth and adopted a Christian name later). His children have the family name "Moi", and that is the end of the patronymic system for his line. There is a similar construction in Maasai with ole. Kalenjin differs from Icelandic in the degree of grammaticalization.

There is ample room for debate over which cases are syntactic expressions and which are affixes. Some people call Arabic abu (father) and bin (son) affixes, but they can also be treated as syntactic word collocations. Turkish -oglu and Persian / Armenian -ian are more clearly affixes. This page assembles a number of such affixes and constructions in the bigger languages, though one would have to investigate the specific etymology of an affix. The Turkish suffix -oğlu can be derives from the noun oğul "son", and the ubiquitous Slavic -ov (or other spellings) derives from a construction like the Kalenjin / Scandinavian (Ivan Petrov syn "Ivan son of Peter"), where -ov is possessive marker.

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    "[H]ilarity at parties" sounds like a euphemism for "quarrels and manslaughter".
    – EvilSnack
    Commented Sep 6, 2022 at 23:54
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    Ivan Petrov syn actually is used when both - father and son are well known with the same names (whether or not they have identical names), so "syn" means they talk about the son, not the father. It is not part of any name, just a clarification when talking about somebody. Similar to "Jr." in English. See an example bg.wikipedia.org/wiki/… Commented Sep 7, 2022 at 8:02
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    @akostadinov Similarly Johann Strauss (Sohn) and Johann Strauss (Vater) - quite wide spread and even adopted to Czech as Johann Strauss syn, even though normally "mladší"="younger","junior" would be used. Commented Sep 7, 2022 at 13:48
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    @akostadinov You are confusing the modern usage (which is as you describe) with the old usage that predates last names. In very old census records, every line (describing the people that live in a household) looks something like "Матюшка Григорьев сын у нево сын Ивашка да Фомка" - "Григорьев" is not yet a last name, peasants aren't allowed to have last names at this point, it's just a possessive. Commented Sep 8, 2022 at 1:46
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    Just to make it more detailed, the Slavic -ov is an adjectivizing suffix turning the noun it is attached to into a possessive adjective, a kind of adjectives that exist in the Slavic languages.
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Sep 8, 2022 at 9:19

First of all, family names are far from being universal. In many places of the world they are pretty recent introductions. The existence of family names is also not determined by linguistic factors (like affiliation to a certain language family) but rather the requirement of a growing and complex society. We can find roughly the following naming systems around the world:

  1. Single individual given name

  2. Given name + patronym

  3. Given name + fixed family name

    • 3a. Given name + patronymic + fixed family name (Russia and other Eastern Slavic countries)

    • 3b. Given name + two family names (paternal + maternal, the Spanish and Portuguese model)

Family names are known from many cultures and times, they were used in Ancient Rome, in China, Korea, and Japan, and in Europe since late medieval time. Family names can disappear with the fall of their related civilisations, this happened in Ancient Rome.

Given name + patronym was the norm in the Muslim civilisation and among Jews for a long time as well as in Scandinavia (still the norm in Iceland today).

A clear distinction between family names and given names is usually achieved through legal prescription (e.g., German law forbids "typical family names" as given names, The peanuts inspired given name Schröder was rejected by German registrars and courts) but there is still some overlap, depending on the country and naming traditions. The fact that many European family names are based on given names and often identical in form to given names creates the situation described in the question. Naming law in the USA is specially permissive and allows family names as given names, and they are used quite frequently (Evelyn, Harper, and Madison for girls; Jackson, Logan, Watt, Hudson and Grayson for boys).

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    While I agree that the existence of family names is not determined by the linguistic factors alone, I do think that linguistic factors play a role - hence the question. Please take no offense, but, if you think the question has nothing to do with linguistics, why answer rather than recommending closure?
    – Roger V.
    Commented Sep 6, 2022 at 14:55
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    I consider onomastics as a part of linguistics, therefore I don't start a close vote here. You probably know I am an active close voter (and sometimes also reopen voter). Commented Sep 6, 2022 at 14:58
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    It is up to the point: In Germany we have surnames like Peters (genitive of Peter) or Petri (Latin genitive of Petrus), in Italian there are name like this jewel Frescobaldo Frescobaldi. Genitives are one way of forming surnames from given names. Commented Sep 6, 2022 at 15:28
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    In Ethiopia, and Somalia, it is normal to use the father's name as the second name, and often the grandfather's name as the third, both as they stand, without any affix.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Sep 7, 2022 at 16:23
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    In the UK, Hilary (alternatively Hillary, it's just a variant spelling) can be a surname, male first name, and female first name. Similarly in the US there's Madison Cawthorn, though that's really his middle name
    – Chris H
    Commented Sep 8, 2022 at 15:03

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