Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Ethiopian Naming Practices (Information & Comments)

dited by Azizi Powell

This post presented excerpts from ten online articles, blog post, comments about Ethiopian naming practices. Excerpts from introductions to two databases of Ethiopian names are also included in this post.

The content of this post is presented for cultural purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.

Three undated excerpts are presented in the beginning of this compilation and are followed by seven excerpts which are presented in chronological order based on their online publishing date with the oldest dated article by year presented first.

I've numbered these excerpts for referencing purposes only. Of course, the entire article should be read.

This post isn't meant to provide comprehensive information about Ethiopian naming practices. Comments, corrections, and additional online sources are appreciated.
Excerpt #1:
From Naming conventions in Ethiopia and Eritrea
"The naming convention used in Ethiopia and Eritrea does not have family names and typically consists of an individual personal name and a separate patronymic. This is similar to Arabic or Icelandic naming convention. Although traditionally the lineage is traced paternally, legislation has been passed in Eritrea that allows for this to be done on the maternal side as well.

The word "Habesha" (English "Abyssinian") is an ethnonym for the Amhara, Tigray-Tigrinya, Tigre, Gurage, and Harari peoples. The naming convention broadly applies to this group, although it also does so for people within the Omotic and Cushitic language groups.

In this convention, children are given a name at birth, by which name they will be known.[1] To differentiate from others in the same generation with the same name, their father's first name and sometimes grandfather's first name is added. This may continue ad infinitum.[2] In the West, this is often mistaken for a surname (family name)—but unlike European names, different generations do not have the same second or third names.[3]

In marriage, unlike in some Western countries, women do not change their name, as the second name is not a surname."

Excerpt #2:
Australian African Children's Aid m
Heritage and Naming Ethiopian Children

Heritage is very important and traditionally a child grows up to know at least 7 generations of his / her ancestors. For example a child named Abraham Alemayehu Zerihun carries 3 generations of names, his own (Abraham), his father's (Alemayehu) and his grandfather's (Zerihun).

Why are children named like this?

One reason is that many people have the same first name so the father's name identifies them like the English "Robert - son" = Robertson.

The grandfather's name adds to this and also shows heritage which is important in determining status - the more names you know the higher your status in the community.

Another reason for naming children this way is that when Ethiopian men plan to marry, traditionally they send a delegation of 6 elders to the girl's family to negotiate the marriage. This negotiation includes determining if the bride and groom are related. Both families must provide the male lines of both sets of parents back 7 generations. Therefore, it is the names that are handed down through the generations that are the evidence of their family line."

Excerpt #3
From "Family Names Of Jews Of Ethiopia"

[This is part of the introduction to that database of over 1,200 names.]

..."All names of Ethiopian origin included in that database are given names and not hereditary family names. In Ethiopia, like in other Jewish communities of the past, each individual had his or her given name, which in some cases was accompanied by the father's given name...

The mass migration of the Jews of Ethiopia to Israel, especially during the 1980s and early 1990s, brought about changes in the traditional Jewish Ethiopian society; one of the results being that many given names became fixed hereditary family names."...
Excerpt #10 below also focuses on Ethiopian Jewish names.

Excerpt #4:
From "Naming Customs Differ in Various Cultures" by Yodit Taressa, 1997
"In this world there are many different customs and cultures. Different people do things differently.

One of the customs that people have in different cultures is they use their names in many unique ways. Ethiopia a person's father's first name is his/her last name. For example, my name is Yodit Taressa. Taressa is my father's first name, and his last name is his father's first name. That's how Ethiopian tradition goes. There is no such thing as a family name that is passed down.

Also in Ethiopia, "You don't change your name when you get married. Your spouse keeps her own name" said Lydia Abeb a 12th grader. This same custom is true for people in Vietnam.”...

Excerpt #5:
From Names, Naming
Update, Jan 2003
"This section has been written by a community member of Tigray Community Association and reviewed by Tsehay Demowez (Harborview Medical Center, Seattle, WA.)

Naming in Ethiopia, in general, is different from naming in the US. The use of a first name and a family name is unknown in Ethiopia. Everyone has his/her own name and also uses his/her father's name, which comes after the personal name. Occasionally, the paternal grandfather's name can be added if needed. There was a lot of confusion when newly arrived Ethiopian immigrants in the US were asked for their first name and family name. When asked for a last name, many immigrants asked, " You mean my father's or my grandfather's name?" Now when they have settled in the US, most Ethiopians use their fathers' name as their last name, although some use their grandfathers' name as their last name.

Newer generations now frequently use three names, their first name, father's name as a middle name and the grandfather's name as a last name.

Traditionally, American women in the US have changed their family name when they marry. If a woman remarried several times she might have to change her family name accordingly. But women in Ethiopia and Ethiopian women in the US do not change their names when they get married."...

Excerpt #6:
From What's the story of Last Names and Middle Names? In Ethiopia we have no such things..?
Aida, 2007
..."An Ethiopian neighbor of mine has just passed his last name, i. e. his father's first name, on to his newborn child. So the name of the father of this first-generation American will now be the last name of all his American descendants in the male line. This seems to be what happens to patronymics in many cultures: what started as a situation in which the second name simply revealed the father's name evolved one in which the name of the same man--father, grandfather, great-grandfather--became the name of the entire family."

Excerpt #7:
From "Ethiopian Naming System" By Fikru HeleboMarch 17, 2007
"A few days ago I received an anonymous email from a compatriot in Europe, who happened to be an EPRDF supporter, in which he stated that the current naming practice in Ethiopia (a given name followed by a father's given name and a grandfather's given name) was imposed by northerners and suggested that Southern Ethiopians should adopt a naming system that is used in the West: a given name followed by a family name (surname). The gentleman's argument for adopting the Western naming system was that the Western system will, in his own words, "enable us to see the contribution and role of the people from the south in the country".
…To further support his argument in favor of adopting the Western naming system, the anonymous person also stated that some ethnic groups in the South, like the Hadiya, identify themselves with big family names (surnames), for which he did not give an example. The Hadiya, like the Somali and their other Cushitic cousins, do identify themselves with big family names such as Baadogo, Soro, Gindo, etc. To the best of my knowledge, however, these names are not used in the same way family names (surnames) are used in the West.

Being a person of Hadiya heritage myself, I got curious about this and I decided to share the gentleman's email with a Southern email list to find out if there is any truth to the gentleman's assertions. What I learned from the discussions on the list is interesting and it's worth sharing with a wider audience. I will also share with you what I found out about this issue from my simple search on the internet. Here is what I have learned:

1. The Hadiya use the suffix 'manna', meaning 'house of' or 'people of', to identify lineage (ex. Degagmanna). This naming practice is not universal among the Hadiya. When asked for their name, Hadiya folks give their father's name first and their given name second. For example, I would give my name as Helebo Fikru instead of Fikru Helebo. I lived among the Silte people, who are neighbors of the Hadiya, and I am aware that they also have a custom of giving their name in the reverse order in their culture.

2. The Shekacho and Kaffacho people do have a naming system which resembles the Western system. In Shekacho and Kaffacho communities, people are identified by a patriarchal family name that they belong to. A person is known by his/her first name and then by the family name (surname). For example, if two individuals have the same last name, say Gatimo, it means that these two individuals have some kind of blood relationship. Unfortunately, the Shekacho and Kaffacho have been discouraged from using their indigenous naming system by the dominant (read Amhara) culture.

3. I searched on the internet and found out something that startled me. The 1960 Civil Code of Ethiopia, which you can read in its entirety here (Amharic version here), has an article that attempted to codify a naming system for Ethiopians. Regarding names, article 32 in chapter 2 states the following:

(1) Every individual has a family name, one or more first names and a patronymic.
(2) He shall be designated in administrative documents by his family name followed by his first names and by his patronymic.

I can't be sure, but I do not think that there is a people group in Ethiopia which practices the above naming system that the Civil Code was attempting to standardize. So, it seems to me, what this 1960 code was trying to impose was a brand new naming system on all Ethiopians, a naming system that, apparently, is an adaptation of the Chinese naming system, but with some modifications.”...
EPRDF = Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front ...
Note that a commenter rhetorically asked if “northerners” in that post referred to Tigreans.

Here are some comments from that article's discussion thread:
Anonymous, March 19, 2007
"selam Fikru,

This is an interesting discussion you brought.

My parents are from Gondar and my father tells me how in certain parts of Gondar(like Wegera) the names are reversed i.e people would refer to you as Helebo Fikru.

I was lucky enough to have had interaction with relatives from the deep countryside of Gondar. When they are tracing geneology verbally, they use this reverse order. They go:
Helebo - Helebo Fikru, Helebo X, Helebo Y(insert your siblings name for X and Y)

I say the Ethiopian system is lot more liberal in keeping the identity of women. The historical root for this may be land inheritance. (This is the main reason the Amhara used to memorize their geneology)Since in Ethiopia inheritance can come either through the maternal or paternal line you maintain the trace clear in either line.

One more thing, in rare occasion you will see people using their mothers name. I think there was a certain dejazmach called Kebede Bizunesh. The reasons go back to land tenure again. If the father is stranger to the land, especially in the Shoan highlands that are fiercly contested, people use their mother's name to avoid their descendants being challenged from their land."

Anonymous, March 19, 2007
"selam Fiqroo,

I would like to ask your friend to clarify his statement on the perceived advantages of the Sur name system to magnify our diversity. I do not see how our current system becomes an impediment to diversity.

Unless ofcourse his issue is with Southerners adopting common Amharic names like Fiqroo, Tesfaye etc. for their children. Thus few generations down the indentity may be lost. (The problem is shared by Amharas and Tigres as their urban elite give their children Biblical/ Hebrew names. I have also read a book by an Ethiopian Muslim raising the same issue with use of Arabic names.) If this is the case the Sur name system has an intrinisc advantage. But that is assuming the Sur names adopted will reflect the heritage.
Our current system can reflect the diversity equally provided parents have the desire to reflect their heritage in their children's first names. It seems to me the key is the will to stand up for your heritage in the face of popular culture and urban elitism.I live in the USA and I have three daughters- all are named to reflect my heritage. Can our friend who intiated the discussion say the same about himself?
Wednesday, March 21, 2007 11:54:00 AM
“sur” = Southern Ethiopian [geographical region]

Anonymous, March 22, 2007

Well, my brother, your ideas are quite OK. Sur name for preserving heritage and amplifying the diversity. Given names may reflect religion (Arabic/Biblical) or the modern ways of thinking. My kids carry biblical names. Given names keep on changing and evolving. For example, names like Aberash and Workitu may not represent the young generation in the cities. One can also be influenced by the country one is living in. To a person who is living in England, the name John best suits than the name Yohannis. Therefore, I would say given name should be clear and make life easy for communication. Many young Hadiyas, for example, may prefer Amharic names for their own since it simply makes communication with the majority of Ethiopians easier. However the Sur name would anchor one to its heritage and ancestors. For this we need to have a system in place that guarantees the sustainable usage of family names. Then my name may be Mr. Y. Sewore. Of course, one may think and believe that one does not live for either ancestors or for the future generations. Then we should avoid arguing about nationalities, heritage and diversity sort of things. One country, one people!"
This discussion thread also includes a number of comments about which language/s should be the national language/s of Ethiopia.

Excerpt #8:
From Kimberly Calderone, AUGUST 14, 2008
"Why do we change an Ethiopian's name when they visit ?

Some background Naming information-
The north and the south are very different in their thoughts and traditions and customs (note that the government that is in power currently is from a tribe in the north and this has it's impacts with-in the country). And understand that tribal segregation with-in the country is active, alive and well. Families often do not want their children marrying outside of their tribal back grounds and it seems that this tribal segregation keep the naming traditions for each tribe clearly delineated from another's.

Since a majority of Ethiopians often do not migrate far from where their family originated from- many tribes live in certain areas of the country. This creates divides or lines between each tribal region. You can often tell when you are driving with in the country when you have crossed a "tribal" line- the population (rural) will be dressed differently and the houses/landscape will often be different as well.

For those that are not familiar with Ethiopian naming it is widely practiced (although not entirely the case) that Children are given a name (usually given by their parents and significant in meaning to them)- then the first name of their father and then the first of their Grandfather. If you ask an Ethiopian their name (in Addis) they will generally say their given name and their father's first name in response along with it's meaning. Their grandfather's name is not recognized locally- it's mostly just for documentation purposes and unless you are very close to the individual and specifically ask it is unlikely you will learn the grandfathers name.

Now if you travel to the south and small sections of the north (to be fair in this discussion) - certain tribes use their father's given name and then their given name in response- you can learn more about this in this discussion on the following blog url:*

So to my point-
When you look at an Ethiopian's passport it "in general" contains- Their given name as their first name- their fathers first name as their middle name and their grandfathers first name as their last name. This is very confusing for a person coming to the west because they are then called by their Grandfathers first name. Now if you look at all of their documentation - Diploma's from HS or College, Doctor's information-etc.. it will only contain (again in general) their fathers first name and their given name.

For example I'll utilize a couple of my friends names:
Eldana ...........** Berhene . Eldana has never utilized Berhene but when she filled out her Visa paperwork- I laughed and said to her in a joking way- in America you would be known as Miss Berhene (she's a teacher). She laughed and said she'd have to teach herself to respond to that-because she never really knew her grandfather and that if she did respond she would think they were looking for her father. Although in Ethiopia she is Ms. Eldana- because they utilize first names.

Another example- Aron .........** Hagos. Aron's father passed away when he was young and he is known locally as Aron ......... He has a strong attachment to his "sur name" because of this-but when he comes to America he will be known as Mr. Hagos. Having not known his grandfather and his father dying at a young age- he does not associate with the name Hagos at all-but has a strong identity with ..........- so- as he fills out his visa paperwork and considers what his name would be in America he feels uncomfortable in some ways with going by Mr. Hagos- as it feels like he is disconnecting with his life (and perhaps his father) on this journey...

In the process of Adoption*** - We often want to do all we can to keep the given family name intact thus allowing them to maintain some of their identity/connection to their culture. But it's interesting to consider that if an Ethiopian simply choses to visit America as an adult- that we "respectfully" call them by something they've never been referred to as"...
*Excerpt #7 above in this pancocojams post provides portions of that hyperlinked article.
**These ellipses were found in the original article.
***This blogger writes about here experiences in Ethiopia and her experiences adopting a child from Ethiopia.

Except #9
Names [Alphabetical Database] Posted in July 21st, 2008
..."The system of personal Ethiopian names (Amhara and Tigrean) is different from the one in the west. The woman doesn’t take the name of the husband and besides there are no surnames but each person has his own name followed by the first name of the father. For example if someone’s name is Abebe Menelik, that could be interpreted as Abebe the son of Menelik. If Abebe Menelik marries Berhane Meseret, their children will have as a second name Abebe, for example Kebede Abebe for a boy or Hanna Abebe for a girl.

Many names contain two elements, for example Gebre Mikael and most of them have a religious origin. Besides that most of the Christian Amhara names have some meaning or in the Christian tradition or in the Muslim tradition. We should also take into account, that many times the full meaning of given name is the result of the combination of the two names given to a child.

Sometimes is difficult to recognize a name in a written text simply because the Amharic characters don’t have capital letters and the names don’t stand out. When Ethiopian names are transcribed in Latin latetters, not always the same system is used so that’s why is difficult to know the exact pronunciation and the names have small variations according to the transliteration."...

Example #10
From The Names Ethiopian Jews Lost By RUTH EGLASH, Jerusalem Post, OCTOBER 19, 2010
..."Documentary explores the names Ethiopian olim lost...

The short but poignant tale, told by veteran Ethiopian immigrant Zoe Gidamo, who herself admits to having several Amharic names that all sound strange but that are rich with meaning, sets the scene for this short but hard-hitting documentary written and directed by journalist Ruth Mason.

“Ethiopian immigrants are different from other immigrants because their names are so laden with meaning,” Mason said Monday just hours before These Are My Names had its official premiere at the Jewish Eye World Festival in Ashkelon.

“They are all named after important events or feelings and emotions, representing something that happened at the time of their birth; it is part of their identity.”

As the 30-minute documentary, which was filmed and edited by Naomi Ataraz, unfolds, however, Mason also draws attention to the intake of the first mass immigration of Ethiopian Jews, many of whom were forced to change their names to sound more Israeli and thereby lost some of their identity.

“I had a teacher and she said that I looked like her friend Tziona, so she decided to call me Tziona and that’s what I have been called ever since,” says one of the women interviewed for the film, who made aliya* as a child as part of Operation Moses in 1984-85.

“No one protested because it was part of becoming Israeli and I really wanted to become Israeli,” explains another woman in the film.

“Operation Moses was 23 years ago and those children who came here then and had their names changed are all grown up now,” said Mason, about why the name-change phenomenon has recently become an issue within the Ethiopian community. “That generation is today facing an identity crisis; their identity is in limbo and the name change is part of that.”

Indeed, many of those interviewed for the film stated that even though their original names are very difficult to pronounce, they had chosen to revert back to their Amharic names because they are laced with meaning and have a connection to the old country and their ancestry....

In the film, one of those interviewed states, “We were given Hebrew names without thinking about our past, we were told, ‘You are new people and you will start from the beginning.’” Mason’s film, which will be screened again at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on November 9 as part of the annual Sigd celebrations, is the latest in a long line of steps being taken by Israeli society to explore and redress some of the early prejudices against Ethiopian Jews."...
Here's information about the term "made aliyah" from
"What is Aliyah?

Aliyah is the word that describes the return of the Jewish People from the exile in the Diaspora back to the Land of Israel. The word Aliyah is derived from the verb "laalot" which means "to go up", or "to ascend" in a positive spiritual sense. A person who makes Aliyah is called an Oleh, meaning "one who goes up".

Why make Aliyah?

There may be as many stories as the millions of Jewish People who made Aliyah to Israel. But, probably the most overwhelming is the desire to maintain the national identity in the face of strong assimilation in foreign lands. The Jewish population is constantly on the decline in the Diaspora, while the population of Israel increasing steadily."

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