Neutral Lithuanian Surnames – A Linguistic Controversy

On September 14, the Council of the Institute of Lithuanian Language announced the results of its discussion on proposed changes to the law on name and surname spellings in official documents. This has been a highly contentious issue, and linguists maintain that the official spelling of names should comply with Lithuanian grammar rules.

In Lithuanian, female surnames end in suffixes that indicate marital status. Unmarried women’s last names traditionally end in -aitė, -ytė, -iūtė, added to their father’s surname, for example, Vytas – Vytaitė, Brazys – Brazytė, Milius – Miliūtė. The suffix -ienė is added to the husband’s surname when she marries and takes his name. The proposed amendments hoped to allow a woman to use the ending -a or-ia on her surname when the husband’s surname has that same ending. Lydeka, Varna, Daugėla, Alekna, Stundžia are examples of the surnames in question. The Council contends that allowing the proposed change would mean that in some cases the surnames would become overly similar to those used in Polish or other Slavic languages, and lose their Lithuanian uniqueness. Many Lithuanian surnames derived from Slavic have endings such as -enka, -anka, -ka (Bondarenka, Zaranka, Svirka, Ambraška, Baciuška), therefore women’s surnames would identify with the Slavic. (For example, Valinskas – Valinska,  Navickas – Navicka, Baranovas – Baranova.

The amendment would also open the way to women using the male form of any surname (-as, -aitis, etc.), and would be problematic because they could not then be declined (changing cases and therefore endings depending on context, in answer to “of whom”, “to whom”, and so on).

According to the Council, such changes run contrary to the intrinsic system of Lithuanian grammar and its proper functioning.

A law was passed in 2003 allowing the ending -ė as a female surname form, eliminating the indicator of marital status, for example, Sakalauskas – Sakalauskė. This change allows grammar to function normally, because the female form can still be declined, although it does still signal the sex of the user – which is the rationale behind the proposed amendment.

The new proposals are deemed linguistically incorrect, defying logic and contradicting the laws of the language. The proposal to change the system of surnames implies that the form of one’s surname is an individual’s private decision, and the government’s refusal to do so is an infringement of personal rights. However, the Council argues that surnames function in the public realm and form the relationship between the individual and the state. Linguistic research shows that the proposal is an artificial construct and is an anglicization of the grammatical system regarding surnames, and a detriment to the structure of the language.