Sunday, October 24, 2004

What's in a Name? Ask Mongolians

I found this L.A. Times article about Mongolian surnames fascinating – first, because I have an odd obsession with names in general, and second, because it provides an intriguing example of the law of unintended consequences.

Mongolians don’t have surnames. But unlike some societies in which surnames just never evolved in the first place – like some cultures in Indonesia and Malaysia – in this case government is to blame. Eighty years ago, the communist Mongolian government banned surnames as part of a plan to improve tax collection and to wipe out old clan loyalties that could compete with allegiance to the state.
Mongolia did have family names once. … This tradition was ended, however, when Mongolian Communists took power in the early 1920s. Clan names were initially banned to improve tax collection. So many people at the time shared the same last name, said Lonjid, a Mongolian State University historian, that using your first name — and occasionally your father's for clarity — was seen as a way to make names more distinct.

Once in place, however, the surname ban stuck, in part because it suited Mongolia's often-brutal regime, historians say. By wiping out old clan names and destroying historic baggage, the revolutionaries hoped to stifle resistance by the former aristocracy — "golden relative" clans that traced their lineage to Genghis.
The tax justification makes little sense to me. Even if many people share the same surname, dropping surnames just throws away information. If you have three men named Larry Smith, Larry Jones, and Tim Jones, last names alone aren’t sufficient to distinguish among all three men – but dropping the last names only makes the problem worse. So I suspect the elimination of clan loyalties was the real underlying motivation for the policy.

Whatever the justification, the no-surname policy created some unexpected problems:
Mongolia's drive to add surnames, whatever they may be, reflects a bid to reverse some of the social problems resulting from the overturned ban.

One of these has been unwitting inbreeding. Communist resettlement policies in the 1950s and '60s conspired with Mongolia's lack of surnames to multiply marriages among close family groups, medical experts say. Unfortunately, poverty and Mongolia's expanse — it's larger than Germany, France and Spain combined — have prevented detailed studies of the problem, they add, or the use of genetic testing.

"It was a very big mistake to stop using surnames," said Purevdorj, head of the genetics department at the Health Sciences University of Mongolia, as he leafed through pictures of deformed children. "Partly because of this, Mongolia's genetic structure is not in very good shape."

Odonbayar, the herder, concurred. "During the socialist times, two of my relatives got married without knowing they were related," he said. "After a big wedding party, they had children who were all deformed. Hopefully, surnames can help protect against this sort of thing."
What’s especially notable about this case of unintended consequences is that it resulted not from one government policy in isolation, but from two policies that interacted to create an unforeseen disaster.

The article mentions several other problems resulting from lack of surnames, such as the difficulty of tracking credit histories and finding people in the phone book. As a result, the Mongolian government is now requiring people to adopt surnames. A great many Mongolians with a sense of (possibly bogus) history have chosen Borjigin, the clan name of Genghis Khan. But in the spirit of the modern era, some Mongolians are happily choosing names that reflect their personal identities:
School principal Baast chose the name "Nomad" in keeping with his wandering spirit. Defense Minister Gurragchaa — the only Mongolian to venture into space — settled on "Cosmos." And anthropology student Vanchigdash picked the Mongolian word for wisdom. "It makes me feel rather wise," he said. "I'm very proud of my new name."
Which raises an interesting question: if you had no last name and suddenly had the opportunity to choose one, what would you choose? Given my personal fascination with names, this question will likely amuse me for months.


Anonymous said...

How liberal (and wise) of the Mongolian government to let them choose their own last name. I sincerely hope that none of them chooses "Idiot" for a last name no matter how much inbreeding has taken place.

Anonymous said...

There is also a problem with common last names in Sweden and Korea. The mistaking of one person for another with the same name can be quite a problem in those countries. It's all the more reason to give children unique first and middle names if you can find decent-sounding ones. I've never heard of an inbreeding problem in those countries. Does one Swede shy away from another Swede of the opposite sex with the same last name or do they consult a genealogist? With modern biology, a DNA analysis can be performed to determine degree of genetic relatedness. In the past, many foreign immigrants to this country, anglicized their last names for a variety of reasons such as ease of pronunciation and to avoid discrimination. I've also heard that immigration officials, in the past, changed (Chinese?) people's names if they felt like it. Our society resists people changing their names willy-nilly for fear they are trying to create a new identity to avoid past responsibilities. There is quite a legal rigamarole involved to change your nom de naissance.

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised noone's mentioned using their Internet screen name. Of course, if you're something like "drrtygrrl428" then that could pose a problem. :)

And my screen name is, accidentally, already a last name (waves to the "adopted relatives" in England).


Will Wilkinson said...