Your last name is always your last name, right?

“Of course my last name comes last,” you reply! “That’s why it’s called my last name!”

Well, no.

Your surname is not always your “last” name. And I’m not talking about the “Doe, Jane” construction used in bibliographies and official class lists and the like.

This is a follow-up to my July 17 post about Hispanic surnames, raising a different issue with surnames.

About a hundred years ago, I was in Hungary for an all-too-brief period of time — maybe three or four days — and being the sort of person I am, I made hotel reservations way ahead of time. Of course there was no internet in those days, and international phone calls were prohibitively expensive (along with the language problem), so I followed the recommended practice of sending snail mail. Well, airmail actually. This was part of a much longer trip to Europe during my summer vacation as a rising college senior, so I sent off a lot of reservation requests.

Well, I was initially confused by the responses from both of the small hotels I wrote to in Hungary. Their responses — like my own letter — were in English (fortunately, since I don’t know Hungarian), but both of them began “Dear Mr. Laurence.” (This was a different linguistic problem than the letter I got from one hotel in France, which began “Chère Laurence,” but that’s a linguistic tale for another day.)

So why did the Hungarian letter writers both think that Laurence was my last name, not my first name? Of course I googled it — no, wait, I couldn’t have! There was no internet yet, and search engines hadn’t been invented — so I tried to look it up in one of my relatively comprehensive linguistics books

I found the answer! I learned that surnames come first in Hungarian.

Live and learn!

Of course, as a budding linguist with an Indo-European bent, I already knew that Hungarian isn’t an Indo-European language (even though Hungary is in the midst of Europe right next to Austria, where the very Indo-European language German is spoken). And I knew a few other random facts about Hungarian, such as its complicated case system and the existence of vowel harmony (let’s save that for another day too), but I knew nothing about naming. Yes, like most people I knew that surnames came first in Chinese, but why should that have anything to do with Hungarian?

It shouldn’t, of course. It’s just that there are a few disparate languages that do this. And it causes complications for travelers and others who exist in two worlds. If you (an American) travel to Hungary, which system do you use? If you (a Hungarian) emigrate to the U.S., which system do you use? No matter what you choose, somebody is going to be confused.

C’est la vie, as they say in Budapest.

Categories: Life, Linguistics