Kinship and Naming: The Semantics of a Russian Address Form Usage

The issue of kinship terms and personal names has had a patchy coverage in anthropological, linguistic and philosophical literature. I’ve been always curious about the semiotic relationship between the two, but has never had a chance to tackle it in-depth. In Ivan Bunin‘s “Village” (Bunin I.A. Derevnia. Moscow, 1981, 61) there’s an interesting social explanation of why one of the peasants, Yakov, was called by his fellow villagers, Yakov Mikitich. Mikitich is a patronymic referring to Yakov’s father’s name Mikita. As a general rule, the Russian naming tradition requires a patronymic to be spontaneously (i.e., without any special ceremony) added to the first name of the person as the person becomes older. A person grows into his patronymic. A patronymic is one of the last stages in the hierarchy of Russian naming forms, from the soft diminutive applied to little kids and beloved family members (e.g., Yashen’ka), to the standard diminutive applied to older kids, adolescents and peers outside the family (Yasha), to the full first name applied to peers and young adults outside of the family (Yakov), to the first name plus patronymic combination applied to older people outside of the family (Yakov Mikitich) to, finally, the full first name plus patronymic plus family name applied to an individual in formal bureaucratic contexts. The exact age at which a patronymic is added varies by social context. In this case, however, Yakov was called Yakov Mikitich because he was “‘rich’ and greedy” (bogat i zhaden). Bunin puts ‘rich’ in quotation marks because Yakov was rich only by the standards of rural poverty, but the fact remains that he stood out as being well-off as compared to his peers.

The name phrase “Yakov Mikitich” does not “mean” “rich and greedy” in the same way as “cow,” say, means “a full grown female animal of a domesticated breed of ox.” But the fact that the referent is “rich and greedy” is the reason for the shift from “Yakov” to “Yakov Mikitich.” It seems that the “Yakov Mikitich” usage deviates from Saul Kripke’s “rigid designator” description of personal names, as it does connote certain socially recognizable properties of the referent that make him different from other villagers of the same age referred to by their first names only. However, it does conform to analytical philosophers’ general understanding of personal names as rooted in the act of baptism: once the name is bestowed, it becomes valid in all possible worlds. It’s just that personal names, just like kinship terms, can have several baptismals acts during the lifetime of the referent making them into indexical, deitic forms. At the same time, they are different from such deictic forms as personal pronouns because they shift not with every single speech act, but with every significant event in a referent’s life, and not with every speaker, but with every social role that the referent assumes. The semantics of personal names and kinship terms are, therefore, paced up differently.

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