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Video:What Are Patronymic Surnames?

with Zoya Popova

Patronymic surnames often explain a person's family history. Learn more about patronymic surnames and how they evolved over time.See Transcript

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Transcript:What Are Patronymic Surnames?

Hi, I'm Zoya Popova for About.com, and today we're going to talk about patronymic surnames. In the early middle ages, people didn't really have much need for surnames. They lived in tribes and small communities where everybody knew each other, so having a single given name was sufficient.

Patronymic Surnames are Derived from Fathers

However, as populations grew, people had to find a way to distinguish themselves from others bearing the same given name. They did so by adopting a second name. That second name was, in a vast majority of cases, a patronymic, which means they were derived from the given name of a person's father.

And of course, patronymics were not hereditary as they change from generation to generation. However, at a time when Europe was growing both culturally and economically, many people felt the need to reflect descendants over several generations.

For example, in medieval Italy it was not uncommon to have a name construct such as Paolo di Pietro di Benedetto d'Alberto, which means, "Paul, son of Peter, grandson of Benedict, and great-grandson of Albert," reflecting Paolo's claim not only to his father's fortune, but also to the whatever privileges and property his earlier ancestors had.

Patronymic Surname Systems Evolved

These legal and economic considerations played an important role in the process of patronymics becoming fixed and turning into hereditary surnames. Fixed patronymic surnames were first adopted by the nobility and the wealthy. People of lesser social status didn't see as much need in using hereditary surnames, because didn't have much to pass on.

The rate of the adoption of fixed patronymic surnames was also different in different parts of Europe. Scandinavian countries – Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark, have a very strong tradition of using actual patronymics as last names. Absolutely undeterred by the confusion that is caused by having a new family name in each generation, they stuck to that tradition until the 19th and even 20th century. And notably, Iceland still uses that old patronymic system.

Surnames Note Family History

Patronymic surnames are very helpful in terms of genealogical research because they contain many pointers to your ancestors' origins. Most patronymic surnames either have the words "son" and "daughter" in them, or use prefixes, suffixes, and prepositions that indicate a relationship of belonging.

Of course, all of these grammatical units are peculiar to the language they originate from. For example, surnames featuring the prefixes O' and Mac are of Celtic origin, while surnames ending in -i are most likely to be Italian.

Similarly, the suffixes -ez and -iz, are indicators of a Hispanic surname, while the suffixes -ov and -ev, and their feminine versions, -ova and -eva, as well as surnames ending in -ic point to Slavic origins. And this is it for patronymic surnames.

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