Single Letter Indian Surnames
August 18, 2006 11:57 AM   Subscribe

What's the story behind Indian (as in the country) last names that consist of a single letter?

Are these abbreviations? Simplification for dealing with Westerners? Something else? In my companies' address book there are dozens, if not hundreds of people with the last name of "S" along with dozens more that have the last name of "S." For example, there are five people named "Ramya S".

This can't be how the Indian government deals with people because in a country of over a billion people, I would think this would get pretty confusing pretty fast.
posted by mmascolino to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Could they all be 'Singh' perhaps? And it's just a naming convention to save a little time?
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 12:18 PM on August 18, 2006

One company I worked for would reduce anyone with an "unpronounceable" name to a single letter.

I always thought it was immensely rude.
posted by zerokey at 12:19 PM on August 18, 2006

Best answer: singh is a north indian name.

these are likely south indian names. in a nutshell a lot of times south indian people only have one name; they will sometimes abbreviate their father's name and prepend that to their name. longer versions of their name might call out the village they are from.
posted by joeblough at 12:45 PM on August 18, 2006

Response by poster: Wow...a bit confusing but thanks valkyrie.
posted by mmascolino at 12:49 PM on August 18, 2006

p.s., a related question is, why would indians list their family names first, anyway? Lots of reasons for this, including:

-social convention

-in india, first names are extermely diverse. consider for example, the relatively homogenous first names in western countries, 'john, steven, etc'. Compare those with indian first names, which can be extremely diverse even within a given region. Additionally, because of kinship patterns, it is last names (family names) that are more widely shared in india; if anything, there are likely fewer last names in india, than first names. As a result, Indians are generally differentiated from each other by their FIRST names, not by their last names.

-For example, the "kasturi family" can have hundreds or thousands of members (all not only related, but knowing they are related; tracking kinship histories is a major activity in traditional india; many traditional families can trace their lineage names going back centuries; compare with kinship-caste groupings and its importance (traditionally anyway) in indian society); Thus its not their last name that differentiates them from each other, but their first names.

-therefore, last names become less important, are not the primary individualizer or identifier. Rather, it is the first name that becomes the primary individualizer (ie, tends to be unique; as opposed to the tendency towards homogenization of first names that you see in the west).

-for americanizing/westernizing indians, this has always been challenging, since in the west they are expected to have more 'generic' first names; which is sort of counter to the (traditional) expectation in india.

again, all this is changing rapidly and is probably more of an issue for the older generations.
posted by jak68 at 1:10 PM on August 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

Wow, that was an interesting link, valkyrie—thanks! Here's the relevant bit:
In Western societies, when there are two people with the same name, for example, Robert Jones and Robert Smith, in a class, they are refered to as Robert J. and Robert S. respectively to avoid confusion. But, two Ramans in South India do not have different surnames, since Raman is their only name. So the names of their fathers is used as an initial instead of a surname, meaning Raman son of Gopal would be called G.Raman and Raman Son of Dinesh would be called D.Raman. This led to the initial system, mostly followed in South India. Adding an initial before the name is something of a social obligation. Most schools automatically add the initials upon enrollment. In certain societies, a person without an initial (and therefore presumed illegitimate) is looked down upon. An initial is also compulsory for government records. A missing initial in certificates, bank transactions etc. is sometimes considered illegal and may cause inconvenience.
posted by languagehat at 1:49 PM on August 18, 2006

Glad the link was helpful. I was utterly entranced by the complexity of naming conventions when I read this several months ago. I'm almost certain the link came from a Metafilter discussion, but I can't find it now...
posted by valkyrie at 2:13 PM on August 18, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks as well jak68.
posted by mmascolino at 2:17 PM on August 18, 2006

Totally tangential, but this thread reminded me of the two Yang Yangs(A) & (S) — elite speedskaters who used trailing initials to distinguish themselves outside of China. (Their names in Chinese are different.)
posted by rob511 at 5:11 PM on August 18, 2006

Also tangential, but does this convention have anything to do with the way M. Night Shyamalan punctuates his name?
posted by limeonaire at 9:03 PM on August 18, 2006

I dont know M. Night Shyamalan's story, but he IS indian and the M likely is an abbreviation for something, unless the whole thing is just a stage name, which is possible ("night" sounds made up).

mmascolino, in the case of the "Ramya S"'s in your company's directory, if you were to ask them, I'd bet most or all would tell you the S is an abbreviation, and would be able to tell you what it stands for; and I'd bet it got into the directory that way because somewhere his name had been listed as "S. Ramya".

(I'd be curious to know, actually).
posted by jak68 at 12:36 AM on August 19, 2006

Well, I looked up the M. Night thing on Wikipedia. Too lazy to post the link, but M is certainly short for a full name, and Night is a stage name of sorts in place of another name that begins with N. My question was more trying to get at whether his names as listed on Wikipedia are in traditional Indian order or a Westernized order.
posted by limeonaire at 8:51 PM on August 19, 2006

i think "Shyam" is the root word for "Night", possibly in sanskrit.

so its probably 1/2 stage name and 1/2 real name.
posted by joeblough at 9:57 PM on August 19, 2006

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