14 September 2006

At the IIJG: What's in a name?

Author Alexander Beider’s presentation on Jewish onomastics (the study of names), was introduced by Professor Aaron Demsky, Jewish Name Project director at Bar Ilan University, who underlined the importance of names in the Jewish people’s tribal framework, proving our identity and our place in the tribe.

Beider has authored a series of Avotaynu www.avotaynu.com books on Jewish surnames of the Russian Empire, Poland, Galicia, Ashkenazi given names and more, now standard Jewish genealogy reference.

He spoke on Jewish names and their relation to history (migrations, relations with non-Jews, languages, etc.), sociology, genealogy and linguistics (phonetics, morphology, semantics, etymology), and suggested future research projects:

* Ashkenazi names in the Hapsburg Empire, such as Czech lands (Bohemia and Moravia), Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Translyvania and Transcarpathian Ruthenia, since name adoption in 1787.
* Hungarian surnames since the mid-19th century.
* Alsace-Lorraine archival data for 19th century name lists.
* Romania, following immigration from Galicia and local surnames.

However, he said, the most important will be a comprehensive list of Sephardic and Oriental names to include Arabic literature, medieval Spain and Portugal sources, Ottoman Empire and Italian sources. Linguistic analysis will include phonetics, morphology of diminutive forms and patterns, and cover historical periods, countries and languages.

Beider compared six major Sephardic onomastics books indicating their conflicting information:

* Adda: Considered an Arabic male given name, an Arabic word meaning custom, an Arabic female given name and a place name.

* Azulay: Considered a Berber place name in Algeria, a Berber dialectal word meaning good, and Spanish azul=blue.

Crucial problems, said Beider, include where and when the names were first used (Iberian Peninsula, Ottoman Empire, Converso communities in Europe, North Africa). Are they toponymics, patronymics, matronymics, occupations, Iberian suffixes or common nouns?

The only fault in his comprehensive list of sources was lack of Persian literature and the rich material in Judeo-Persian sources.

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