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July 25, 2008

Belke, Rivke and Gitl

Philologos writes of children who took their mothers’ names (“How Did Jews Choose Their Last Names?”, July 18. I know of no other culture where there are surnames based on women’s first names.

A remarkable number of names are based on Yiddish women’s names or diminutives of these names, which often ended in “l” or “ke.” A woman named Bella or Beyle might also be called Belke. A surname could be formed by adding “s,” the Yiddish possessive ending, or “in,” a Slavic suffix with many meanings.

Belkin, Beilin and Beylis would all be possible names based on the same first name. We also find Rivkin, Rivlin and Rivlis from Rivke; Dworkin and Dworin from Dvoyre; Gitlin, Gutkin and Gitlis from Gute or Gitl; and many other names of this type.

It is interesting that Yiddish is the only language that gave the world female-based surnames.

George Jochnowitz
Professor Emeritus of Linguistics
College of Staten Island, CUNY
New York, N.Y.


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