When you hear the name Kromowidjojo you now probably know that it is a Dutch surname, though it may have been unexpected for those not familiar with the Netherlands’ Indonesian past.
China is assumed to have known surnames for several thousands of years. Much more recent examples of surname introduction concern the Netherlands (1811), Turkey (1920) and Thailand (1934). Although clearly cultures’ surname histories vary hugely, most cultures did at some point introduce surnames. Significantly, the more general term for ‘surname’ is ‘family name’, indicating one of its essential characteristics: it’s being passed on from one generation to another. In many cultures the term ‘surname’ is appropriately used relating to its position after the first name, but there are also loads of examples where the family name is used first, for example in East-Asia, Africa, and sometimes even in the French language.
Most languages have a couple of family names that are both very common and have a direct equivalent in related languages. Compare for example Johnson, Jansen and Johansson and you probably also realise that they are all deduced from a man’s first name – a very common phenomenon in European languages. Moreover, many Slavic languages have a separate surname ending depending on the gender of the name-bearer, so that Jan Jambor and Katerina Jamborova could be a Czech brother and sister.
As to how common a particular family name is, the mere handful of surnames found in certain languages may seem daunting to most of us! Korea for example counts some 200/300 family names but a mere three names make up about half of the population. Completely different is the case of Portuguese, where children are given two surnames, one from each side of the family. Imagine all the possible combinations!
If you are interested in the spatial distribution of surnames, there are many online databases to have a look at. A good Dutch surname database, for example, can be accessed here. It shows the occurrence of surnames per municipality, and contains numbers for comparisons with 50 years ago. So apparently there are quite a few Spanish Rodriguezs in the Netherlands, not so many French Rouxs and the Polish Czerwinskis haven’t exactly procreated since 1947.
Did you know bab.la regularly does a name game where you can find out what your name would be in another language? It is a fun way to find out if your name has a real equivalent or similar form!
Do you know which are the most common names in your language? And if your language is spoken in more than one place, are the same ones found everywhere?