Identifying Central Asian Surnames

Written by Amy Franz

If you were to meet someone named David Yusifov, would you be able to accurately identify the ethnic origin of his surname?

Linguistic intuition might kick in and have you suggest that the surname is Russian, and that would be a wise guess. The surnames Ivanov and Kuznetsov are among the most common surnames in Russia and are great examples of their Russian nature. Surnames in Russian are no different from other origins in that they often reflect familial or occupational ties. The suffix –ov, or –ova for feminine inflection, loosely translates to “son of” or “daughter of” in English. Sometimes it will indicate that the person is a descendant of a man named Ivan or a blacksmith, which is the case for the names Ivanov and Kuznetsov , respectively.

So if Yusifov has the same ending as the other two surnames, then it must be Russian, right? Well, not quite.

While in a many circumstances a suffix is very telling of the origin of the surname, it’s not the only place to look for hints. Yusifov is just one of many surnames that holds significance in its root. Yusifov translates into English the same way Ivanov does, meaning “the son of Yusif”. Yusif and its many spelling variations are the Arabic equivalents to Joseph. That’s where the role of the root becomes important.

The majority of Russia’s population identifies as Orthodox Christians, while the nearby Central Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Azerbaijan) are predominantly Muslim. This is an interesting example of a surname reflecting culture and, more specifically, religion. Joseph is one of the most well-known and prominent figures of the Abrahamic religions, including Islam and Christianity. The combination of the Muslim root and the influence of the Slavic suffix can allow one to deduce that its origins are tied to a Central Asian country as opposed to Russia alone. In fact, the majority of Yusifovs can be found in Azerbaijan.