Latvian names, like in most European cultures, consist of two main elements: the given name (vārds) followed by family name (uzvārds). During the Soviet occupation (1940 - 1991) the practice of giving a middle name was discouraged, but since the restoration of Independence Latvian legislation again allows giving of up to two given names and it has become more common to give a middle name to children.
Latvian male names end in 1st or 2nd declension masculine endings, either -s/-š or -is (with a handful of mostly foreign exceptions ending in indeclinable -o, such as Ivo, Raivo, Gvido, Bruno, Oto and only a couple belonging to the 3rd declension ending in -us, such as Ingus, Mikus, Edžus, Zemgus.) Latvian female names have the feminine 4th or 5th declension endings -a or -e respectively.
The vocative case is used when addressing someone directly, for example, Jāni for Jānis. The diminutive form is often used to express endearment or when addressing children, for example, addressing Jānis as Jānīti (vocative diminutive).
Writing of Latvian names always conform to the highly phonetic Latvian orthography and in the case of foreign born Latvian nationals or marriages between Latvian women and foreigners (whence they assume the family name of their husband) the foreign names are modified to conform to the phonetic spelling and to acquire the respective case ending. For example, Barack Obama is Baraks Obama, while George Bush is Džordžs Bušs.
This has given rise to at least half a dozen lawsuits over the last couple decades, mostly ethnic Russian Latvian nationals not content with addition of case endings as well as a Latvian woman contesting her foreign husband's name being transcribed phonetically in her documents (Mentzen alias Mencena v. Latvia case) where the plaintiffs were turned down as well as legal proceedings by a Latvian couple to allow them to register their child as Otto (instead of Oto) and a claim filed with UN HRC by a Russian-Jewish Latvian national Leonid Raihman whose claims were upheld.
Before the emancipation from serfdom (1817 in Courland, 1819 in Vidzeme, 1861 in Latgale) only noblemen, free craftsmen or people living in towns had surnames. Therefore, the oldest Latvian surnames originate from German or Low German, reflecting the dominance of German as an official language in Latvia till the 19th century. Examples: Meijers/Meijere (German: Meier, farm administrator; akin to Mayor), Millers/Millere (German: Müller, miller), Šmits/Šmite (German: Schmidt, smith), Šulcs/Šulca (German: Schulze, constable), Ulmanis (German: Ullmann, a person from Ulm), Godmanis (a God-man), Pētersons (son of Peter). Some Latvian surnames, mainly from Latgale are of Polish or Belorussian origin by changing the final -ski/-cki to -skis/-ckis, -czyk to -čiks or -vich/-wicz to -vičs, such as Sokolovkis/Sokolovska, Baldunčiks/Baldunčika or Ratkevičs/Ratkeviča.
The official records of Latvian names were often variously forcibly assimilated into the foreign culture dominant at times in Latvian lands. For example, local pastors, who were often of German descent, used to issue marriage and birth certificates with Germanized names: e.g., Kalns was written as Berg (both meaning "mountain" in Latvian and German respectively). Sometimes "de-Germanization" produced a slightly different name, e.g., Daugmants was Germanized as Daugmann and then de-Germanized into Daugmanis.
Most Latvian peasants received their surnames in 1826 (in Vidzeme), in 1835 (in Courland), and in 1866 (in Latgale). Diminutives were the most common form of family names. Examples: Kalniņš/Kalniņa (small hill), Bērziņš/Bērziņa (small birch).
During the times when Latvia was part of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union, in official usage Latvian names were commonly russified. In particular, it followed the three-part pattern of Russian names: given name, patronymic, family name. Also, the masculine endings of first names were often truncated. For example, poet Imants Ziedonis was officially called Imant Yanovich Ziedonis (Имант Янович Зиедонис ).
In the 20th century, in particular in the interbellum period of the Latvian national movement and during Ulmanis dictatorship of the late 1930s, when Baltic Germans left Latvia, there was a tendency to change the Germanic names back to their Latvian origins or to adopt Latvian versions. In one such example Minister of Interior Kornēlijs Veitmanis became Kornēlijs Veidnieks.
See Name day#Latvia
Latvia is among the European countries that celebrate name days (vārda dienas), a celebration almost comparable in importance to that of a birthday. Most of them are related to the Saints days in Church calendar, but in recent decades new names are added to calendar by a special commission. Some names and their name days bear a connection with important holidays, for example, arguably one of the most important holidays, summer solistice, referred to as Jāņi starts on June 23 with Līgo diena (name day for females named Līga) and continues through June 24 - Jāņu diena - name day for males named Jānis. Similarly Mārtiņi on November 10 coincides with the name day for males named Mārtiņš, Mārcis and Markuss.
Most common Latvian names
Below are the most common ethnic Latvian names. However taking into account the large Eastern Slavic diaspora (Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians) that make up around one third of Latvia's population, names popular among the Slavic population make it high on this list, for example, the most popular male name in Russia Aleksandr (or Aleksandrs in its Latvian rendition) makes it as the second most common name in Latvia if all ethnicities are counted.
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