Thursday, September 2, 2010

Improper Nouns

If you think about it, there is little that is more tightly connected with your identity, your persona than the name you carry.  For most of us this is an inheritance from our parents, and we live with their gift, grudgingly or otherwise, throughout our life.  Some of the braver of us change our names legally, when we think that another moniker would suit our character better.

In Moldova names are also important.  Your first name tells others something about your parents and their preferences, and possibly about conditions prevailing at the time of your birth.  Those born in Soviet times were likely to bear slavonic first names such as Svetlana or Veaceslav.  Only the brave would call their offspring by traditional Romanian names such as Catalin or Alina.  The clever could hedge their bets by using Vlad (Tepes or Lenin?) or Bogdan (a name of Slavonic origin but widely used in Romania as well).

Surnames also have meaning, although this can refer both to recent and more distant ancestry.  Those whose names end in “escu” would typically have had an ancestor from the old ‘Tara Romaneasca’ in the south of modern Romania.  “Eanu” endings would indicate origins in other part of greater Romania, often being very specific in their description (e.g. “Dobrogeanu” for a native of Dobrogea).  Name endings in “iuc” or “enko” reveal some form of Ukrainian ancestry, just as “in(a)”, “ev(a)” and “ov(a)” reveal Russian forebears.

Sometimes names can be very reveling, although sometimes they can be highly misleading.  One of the most ardent supporters of the Russian / Soviet cause that I have ever met carries a purely Romanian name.  Similarly I have met very pro-western Moldovans whose first and last names could be straight out of Dostoevsky.  That is the nature of the Moldovan fault line between the Slavonic and Latin worlds.

One particular issue I want to highlight pertains to the use of names in identity documents.  After the Soviet (Re)occupation in 1944, Russian became the official language and cyrillic the official script.  The names of the people of Moldova were transliterated into cyrillic for the purpose of issuing Soviet internal passports.  Three problems arose:
1.  There are several Romanian sounds and letters which cyrillic does not handle well.  For example, the latin letter “h” has to become “kh” or “g” in cyrillic.  Hitler became Gitler, hamburger became gamburger etc.  Also, there is Romania’s “ă” which in English is kind of a grunt while in Russian transliteration becomes a very different sound “eh”.
2.  The Russian passport officials were pretty careless.  The surname “Ciobanu” (Shepherd) for instance, was variously recorded as “Ceban”, “Cioban” etc, and similar mistakes were made with first names, e.g. the Romanian “Tudor” becoming “Fiodor”, “Feodar” etc. when transported into Cyrillic.
3.  There are no second names in Russian.  Instead there are patronymics, such that, e.g. Maria Ramona Lungu becomes Maria Octavianevka Lungu.

When Moldova became independent in the early nineties and reinstated the Latin script, a second round of linguistic bloodletting took place as the names were all rewritten back into something possibly resembling their original forms.  The end result is that many people have discrepancies in their identity documents.  Very frequently birth certificates, identity cards, passports, marriage certificates and death certificates can contain various forms of the same name, written in two different scripts.

This makes life difficult for those who wish to apply for new documents, or who would like to obtain a visa to travel in Europe, as invariably they need to clean up the mess that has been made of their names first.  And that is not an easy process.  It involves lots of queueing, lots of fees and lots of dealing with disinterested public officials.

Here’s my point:  Why can’t parliament make everyone’s life easier by enacting a law which makes the various forms of names legally equivalent, obviating the need to revise identity documents.  Then it wouldn’t matter if you had “Dimitrie” on your passport and “Dimitrii” (in Cyrillic) on your birth certificate.  Public officials would just look up an annex to the law which lists the equivalent names.

Of course, there would need to be controls to prevent identity thefts and frauds (e.g. use of personal identification numbers to check that the two names belonged to the same person), however I believe that these could be put in place relatively easily.

There are votes in anything that makes it easier for citizens to go about their personal business.  AIE, please take note.

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