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Saturday, November 10, 2012

Baby Naming Issue: South Indian Surname Traditions

Holly writes:
I love your blog and how fairly you weigh everyone's options. I have been thinking of writing in with our surname problem for a while and am curious to see if you have any suggestions.

So, let me give you the basics first. I'm Holly Sch1ltz (rhymes with stilts) and my husband is V1gnesh "Vic" Vij@y@kumar (pronounced Vih-jai-yah-koo-mar--emphasis on the jai and mar syllables). We've been married for 2.5 year and I still have my maiden name.

I like my name and will probably just keep it, but I also have no problem changing my name for the sake of our family having a common name (husband included--we could be the so-and-so's or the so-and-so family). I haven't changed it yet because we don't have a clear choice for a family name. Vic doesn't care at all about what name I keep as a surname and has joked w/ his dad about giving all future kids my name. We've talked about it with them and though I'm sure they'd prefer us to keep with tradition, they aren't very forthcoming with opinions. So, the decision is ultimately ours without fear of repercussions.

The problem lies in his family's South Indian naming tradition. There is no family surname. Once a man (Firstname Lastname) marries, his wife and kids all take Firstname as their surname (Wife Firstname, Kid #1 Firstname, etc.) and the man will always have a different last name. Boys then keep their dad's first name (pass on their own first to their kids) and it's assumed that girls will take on their husband's first name. So, Vij@y@kum@r is my father-in-law's first name. So, I'd become Holly V1gnesh if we followed tradition (as would our kids) and Vic's name would stay the same. We've been told that you can trace family lineage way back to a certain priest's family that had a surname that is very long but this hasn't been used for generations and wouldn't really tie us to his family at all.

The actual question is what last name do we give our future kids?
  • Option 1: We follow tradition and give them my husband's Indian first name, V1gnesh, and I take that name on as well. In this scenario, my husband would have a different last name than the rest of the family.
  • Option 2: We give them V1gnesh as a surname and Vic and I retain our respective "maiden" names. If I change my name, I'd prefer that my whole family ends up with the same last name, as a group. We will probably always live where this naming tradition is not practiced and would forever have to explain it, so wouldn't it just be easier to have different last names than to go through the whole schpeal any time someone asks?
  • Option 3: We ditch that naming tradition and take up a family surname, Vic's last name. His cousins plan to do this (different last name) and his sister already has. But, Vic doesn't really want to pass on Vij@y@kum@r since hardly anyone can pronounce it and there's a lot of rhyming potential for kids in those first three syllables.
  • Option 4: We hyphenate. Hyphenating seems like a nightmare, this is not an actual option.
  • Option 5: Friends have suggested we all make up a new name using an anagram of both of our last names, but that seems like trouble with all of the strange consonants: s_c_h_i_l_t_z_v_i_j_a_y_a_k_u_m_a_r
  • Option 6: We shorten Vic's last name to Kumar. He's brought it up a couple of times in the 100's of times we've had this same conversation. It's a more common name than his last name.
  • Option 7: We give them my last name. I do feel a little weird about this. My family has a patriarchal naming system, my in-laws may be moving back to India in the next few years, and Vic doesn't care to teach our kids to speak Tamil or Hindi, so I don't want to cut out such a strong family tie if I'm not adamant about my name being passed on in the first place.

We plan to name our kids American names rather than Indian names--resulting in names that will be radically different than the list of surnames of men in the family before them. They can carry on the South Indian naming tradition if they want, but we figured the pattern would be broken our generation or the next. How bad would it be to make up a new name? Are there any identity issues involved with kids having different last names than both parents? Our kids will be ours and neither of us has strong feelings about them representing our family through surnames, but I'm concerned about how they'll feel growing up. Do you have any other options you'd recommend?

Thanks for any advice you could send our way!

My favorite option is to use the names from your husband's side of the family, combined with the surname traditions from your side of the family and the culture in which you live. That is, all of you become the Vij@y@kumars---or the Kumars, as your husband prefers. This seems like the best compromise for a complicated issue: it keeps a part from each side of the family while also giving you a unified family surname.

Another possibility is to give all the children V1gnesh (the name that would be their surname in South India) as a middle name or second middle name. Then they would have their complete South Indian names, but with another surname you would all take (Kumar, perhaps) tacked onto the end for ease of usage in your culture and for unity of family surname. Perhaps your original surname could be the first middle name, for ultimate inclusiveness.

If you were going to combine the names, I don't think I'd try to use all the letters. I'd use Schi1tz-Kumar to hyphenate, or something like Schilmar to combine.

As for the other questions (is it a problem to make up a new surname, are there identity issues involved in having an assortment of surnames in a family), those fall outside my area of experience. I suspect you will get anecdotes from across the entire spectrum, from "Everyone in our family had a different surname and I never even noticed, and no one else ever had a moment's confusion about it" to "I had a different surname from my mom and step-dad and it always made me feel excluded."

So many other issues contribute to such feelings: the cultural norms of the area the family lives in, whether there are other reasons a child might feel the surnames are symbolic of family cohesiveness, the personality of the particular child, etc. It seems like in this case the explanation of the issues involved in choosing a surname (and the exposure to the various surname systems of both sides of the family, as well as living in a culture where many families have assorted surnames) would be enough to make any solution untraumatic to a child.


Gail said...

Best simplest option: Go with Kumar. It's easily pronounced, rather easily spelled, pretty universal in sound, yet still honors (albeit in the form of compromise) all the traditions......

Erin said...

I agree that Kumar seems to be the simplest option and the one that would cause everyone the least amount of grief. As you said, the naming tradition would probably die off in the next generation anyway, so unless it's really important to his parents (and to him because of that, but it doesn't really sound like it is) I don't think you should worry about carrying on the tradition.

Beth said...

Agree that going with Kumar seems like the simplest and best solution.

Jill said...

I'm of the opinion that you should go with the option that will be the easiest for your future kids to work with. I think reversing each scenario helps clarify how it will feel to be the one who's name gets used in either tradition. If you go with the American naming tradition you would either use Sch1ltz as a last name or any form of Vij@y@kumar. If you pursue his naming tradition you end up with last name for V1gnesh for you and your children or last name Holly for your husband and kids. If there are no tears being shed over who's name get's used, and no one has plans to return to an area where this tradition prevails, then I think I would be inclined to make one of the last name option work, whether it's the original form or the shortened Kumar.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to interject that Vij@y@kumar is a beautiful name, rhyming issues aside, and South Indian names really aren't that difficult once you build up the confidence to just start saying syllables (and Vij@y@kumar is simpler than a lot I've heard). Kumar does sound like a reasonable compromise if that's what your husband wants though. I would make a point though of telling your children that they have a different Indian name as they grow up though, even if it doesn't exist in a legal sense. In my experience kids love having secret names, and who knows...they may end up using it if their life takes an unexpected turn and they want to join the Tamil Student Association in college or something.

StephLove said...

I think hyphenation would be less unwieldy if you shortened his name to Kumar. Then either the adults keep their names and the kids hyphenate, or everyone hyphenates.

My kids have a hyphenated last name and it hasn't been much trouble so far. (The oldest is 11.) In fact, my partner and I are thinking of adopting it for ourselves (we still have our original last names) when we get legally married next year.

Christina Fonseca said...

Another vote for Kumar. You're all taking on a new name; might as well keep it simple.

Anonymous said...

My preference would be to give the kids your surname (because you actually have a family surname & he doesn't) Then use his first name as the middle or 2nd middle for all of the kids. This seems like it'd be honoring his culture's naming tradition as closely as possible while living in a society where inherited family surnames are the norm. The kids could easily drop your surname as adults if they decide they want to continue the naming tradition from their father's culture.
My 2nd preference would be for everyone to hyphenate to Yoursurname-Hislast (or just Kumar). It wouldn't be seen as odd or confusing in our culture, thought it might be a bit of a mouthful.
I think having you all take his first name as your surname would just be confusing in our culture. People will assume he's Mr. V!gnesh, which seems odd since that is really his first name.
Another option you didn't mention (perhaps because it isn't an option your husband would consider) would be for him to change his name entirely and legally become Vic V!gnesh, then you could all be the V!gnesh family or the Sch!lz-Vignesh family.

Nicole said...

I vote Kumar as well!

Please keep us updated on what you decide!

Heidi J said...

I like the suggestion using Vignesh as the family last name with your husband also changing his first name to the nickname he goes by.

Nedra said...

If I were in your shoes, Options 1 and 2 would be unacceptable. Option 1 would be confusing for most people in the culture that your children will be raised in, and it doesn't sound as though it is particularly important to your in-laws or your husband to do this. Plus, the fact that you'd be the last generation to do it seems like a downer. I think if I were in your situation, I'd feel pressured to give my sons American names that could work as last names -- just in case they wanted to carry on the tradition....but even then, it would only highlight the fact that this is a naming tradition that just doesn't fit with the culture that your children are being raised in. (For example, if you named your son William....even though it isn't outlandish as a last name, if he carried on the tradition he'd have to deal with people thinking it strange that William V1gnesh was married to Jane William or whatnot. It would just sound weird for Americans.) Option 2 seems even more complicated -- it doesn't follow the tradition and it confuses the issue even further by giving your family three different last names.

Option 6 seems to be the best in my opinion. Clearly, your husband is fine with it and it seems to fit the goals that you have as well (having a family last name). It's a last name that won't result in nearly the teasing potential of the original. Total win-win for everyone in the situation. If your husband were uncomfortable with altering his surname, I could understand. But given the fact that he's the one who has been bringing it up, I'm surprised that you haven't jumped on that idea already.

I also like Swistle's suggestions of Schilmar and Sch!ltz-Kumar.

Good luck! It's a tricky situation, but I think you are lucky in that your husband's family seems flexible and understanding. If I were you I would take advantage of that understanding and go with it!

Anonymous said...

Vij@y@kumar is a beautiful name, rhyming issues aside, and really not especially hard for Americans to pronounce compared to some others. Does shortening it to Kumar strip it of it's ethnicity? It sounds like your husband is Tamil, and I'm not an expert...but judging from the Tamils I've met, length seems to be a distinctive feature of their names. I'd suggest, no matter what you decide, telling your kids as they grow up what their Indian/Tamil name is. Kids love having secret names, and don't really care if it's on their birth certificate or not, and it will give them a tie in to that side of their culture if they ever find themselves wanting it as adults.

Eva.G said...

Ooo, I love hearing about other culture's traditions as far as surnames go!

I think Option 6 seems the easiest and smoothest. You're both changing your names and taking Kumar, and it's a very easily pronounced name. If your husband himself has suggested this, it seems like the perfect scenario!

I think Option 4 could work too! If you hyphenate Sch1ltz-Kumar, that is. I think this would work brilliantly if you & your husband also take the same hyphenated name. So you're all the Sch1ltz-Kumar family.

I like what others are suggesting! Vic Vignesh! And you could all be the Vignesh family!

I think all the other options are too complicated for the American culture, if this is where you're planning to live. I think you do have some good ideas though. Please share what you end up doing!

Helena said...

I love hearing cultural traditions like this - so interesting!

I vote Kumar.

Anonymous said...

Another vote for Vic Vignesh and the Vignesh family!

Erin said...

What do his parents think? My hubby is Nepali and in his culture, input from the parents is very important. You might disagree and decide to go against their wishes, but I would still find out.

Personally, I think the Vic V1gnish suggestion was great and would honor tradition, plus allow you all to have the same last name.

liz said...

No suggestion, but thank you for gratifying something I'd been curious about for years! I do political canvassing during the election season, and had always wondered about this naming tradition, which I'd noticed at homes with more than one south Indian voter.

Rita said...

I'd use Vignesh as a middle name (possibly even adding the "V-kumar one as a second one), and your surname as their last. This way his culture is honoured in the *traditional* way, no one has to change names, and it would be a lot easier for your kids to grow up in an English-speaking context, sharing the name with one of the parents.

(From an outsider POV, I'll never understand the American aversion to give kids the maternal name, to the point where you guys prefer to make up an artificial name before using the one you already have!)

Anonymous said...

I also like Schi1tz-Kumar as a nice compromise option--then everyone can have the same name, it is still shorter than your husband's current surname, and it has a nice rhythm to it in spite of the hyphen. My second choice would either be Vic Vignesh with everyone else taking Vignesh (or with you keeping your maiden, if you prefer) or to give the kids your last name, for all the reasons the previous posters have noted. I'm not feeling Kumar on its own at all--it's not actually your husband's name, and it's not a mash of both your names so there's not that logic behind it. Good luck; it's a tricky dilemma!