Nguyen: the most common Vietnamese surname

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Dave Cragin writes:

I have a brother-in-law who is originally from Hong Kong and his last name is Yuen.  I learned from John McWhorter’s superb series on linguistics that this Chinese name is of Turkic origin.  I asked my brother-in-law about this and he said “Yes, family lore is that we originally came from North-West China” (i.e., where Turkic people had settled.)

According to Wikipedia, the Mandarin equivalent of Yuen is Ruan (阮) and the Vietnamese is Nguyễn.  Wikipedia further notes an estimated 40% of Vietnamese share this name.

I wonder if readers have information that contradicts the above – or is it correct?  (I’d like to know that our family story is accurate).  Is there a Turkish/Turkic equivalent of Yuen or did it remain Yuen?

Also, are there any other common last names that cover such a wide geographic, linguistic, and cultural span, particularly from such ancient times? (obviously, in modern times, people move everywhere).

Since the character 阮 existed already as the name of a feudal state during the Shang dynasty (ca. 1600 BC-1046 BC) and, with the pronunciation Yuán, as the name of a pass established by the Han (206 BC-220 AD) in what is now Hebei province, as well as for many other reasons that I won't go into now (but see the remarks by colleagues below), it didn't seem likely to me that Nguyen would ultimately have come from Turkic, so I asked John McWhorter to clarify.  Here's John's reply:

My "series" is either my four Great Courses sets or my Slate language podcast LEXICON VALLEY.

But, as you will likely intuit, I know NOTHING about Turkic origins of anything Chinese. That's your area! I'm baffled. It's only been over the past few years that I have ever tossed tidbits about Chinese into my public work, and not anything as obscure as that tidbit!

Peter Golden, a Turkologist, observes:

As a non-Sinologist, I venture tentatively into this question. Ruan 阮 in Early Middle Chin. is ŋuan’ , Late Middle Chin. ŋyan′, Yuan era: ɥɛn ̆ (Pulleyblank, Lexicon: 269 [170:4],  Middle Chin. ngjwonX (Kroll, Student’s Dictionary: 392)  — presupposing an initial n- (or ŋ-?). Except for ne “what” and words derived from that (e.g. nēče “how many”?, nečük “how, why? etc. – one does not usually find initial n- in Turkic. The name of the Nushibi  弩 失 畢 EMC nɔ çit pjit, LMC nuɔ šit pit  (Pulleyblank: 228 [57:5], 282 [37:2], 34 [102:6])// MC: nuX syijX pjit (Kroll: 329, 414, 18) seems to be an exception, although how it is to be read is far from certain (I will not catalogue the attempts here).

I have doubts about a Turkic origin for Yuen/Nguyễn.

Marcel Erdal, a linguist and Turkologist, remarks:

It seems to be pretty clear that 阮 originally had an ŋ onset. Also that the only Old Turkic words with /n/ onset are 'what' (with its derivates) and näŋ 'thing; (not) at all' and that there were no words with /ŋ/ onset. So the idea appears to be rather unlikely. Note that there is no limitation at all on onset /n/ in Mongolic and there are lots and lots of Mongolic words starting with n.

One might mention the view that some of the Old and Common Turkic onset y°s come from original n° according to the evidence of other languages: Cf. Turkic yIdruk and Mongolic nidurga both 'fist', or Turkic ya$ and Mongolic *na(l)-sun both ' (year of) age'. There now appear to be doubts concerning the connection of Turkic ya:z 'spring, summer' with Hungarian nya:r 'summer'.

Stephen O'Harrow, a philologist who specializes on Vietnamese language and literature, comments:

There is a pretty short set of answers to this question, at least as far as the Vietnamese family name of "Nguyễn" is concerned, to wit:

1) In common with many other Southeast Asian societies, in "days of old," family naming practice in Viet Nam frequently denoted loyalty to a leading figure – indeed in many such societies, family names were simply unknown and even today, a lot of people in Indonesia do not use family names. The same is true in Burma. That was probably the case in pre-Sinitic Viet Nam. Today, all family names in Viet Nam can trace to Chinese family names of some kind or other – this likely does not necessarily indicate any significant Chinese ancestry. Rather, it is the result of the development of Sinitic governing practices over the last two millennia.

2) This is a world-wide phenomenon. In Scandinavia, for example, people only used patronymics until sometime in the 18th or 19th centuries and in Iceland today patronymics are still the rule. In other places, ruling bodies would simply attach family names onto their commoners for reasons of state convenience (taxes, corvée, military service, etc.) or to label people in certain groups as subject peoples. Thus Jews under Germanic Christian rule became "trees," and "rocks," and "mountains," etc. The Vietnamese did the same to Chams and Khmers and other minorities under their ægis. The Spanish foisted family names like Ramos or Marcos on their Filipino colonial populations, taken directly from handy lists of names they found in the tax roles of Extremadura. The early Irish in any particular tribe had only the name of "THE" head man, such as "THE O'Brien" or "THE O'Hara," and the phony-baloney genealogies that so many Irish-Americans come up with nowadays to prove they're descended from Kings of Yore are unfounded bunkum of the first water. For example, the O'Harrows were members of the same clan as the O'Haras, but they apparently opposed Protestant "Orange Billy" and his impositions on Catholic landowners (not grand baronial estates – just simple potato patches qualified for expropriation) and were sent ignominiously in chains into indentured exile to Barbados or Virginia. No ancestral glories, I fear.

3) Common family names in Viet Nam, such as Nguyễn, Lê, and Trần, are often the names of dynasties and it was not uncommon for people to take the name of the ruling house either for protection or to show loyalty. For example, during the uprising against the Ming, the national hero Lê Lợi, bestowed his family name on his most outstanding followers – some accepted, some later demurred.

4) Many, if not most, of the large number of families with the name Nguyễn today were probably not Nguyễn in the more distant past, although many will tell you they are descended from a long and glorious family line full of scholars and generals, poets and philosophers of note.

In this they resemble the Irish.

Aloha from THE O'Harrrow of Honolulu

For those who wish to delve still more deeply into the origins of Nguyen, I recommend the lengthy, learned answer by Tris Nguyen on Quora (12/9/16).  It traces the 阮 sinogram all the way back to its origins more than three millennia ago in the northwest of what is now China, discusses the phonology of the word, and looks into its cultural associations, including as the surname of two eccentric intellectuals belonging to the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove (3rd c. AD) and a fretted lute, the ruan, named after one of them who was a celebrated expert on this instrument (I have amplified what Tris has to say about the scholar-musician Ruan Xian).


  1. Pat Barrett said,

    January 22, 2017 @ 1:39 pm

    I've never understood the etiquette and protocol of these blogs, but here goes: does anyone know of a scholarly study on first names of African-Americans? There seem to be three waves: my wife's name is Letha, reflective of the habit of slave holders to confer Greek names on "their people"; the next was taking names typical of the dominant culture, Charles, Mary, etc; and the third was to seemingly Africanize names to LaQueeta, Tanisha – my daughter's middle name is Tashiba and we have a Shaniqua, too. At the same time, Islamic names were taken up, like Khadija. I'd love to learn about this phenomenon.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    January 22, 2017 @ 1:41 pm

    From a Vietnamese historian:

    Now that I think of it, the surname Nguyen appears rather late in Vietnamese (actually Chinese) sources. This deserves investigation.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    January 22, 2017 @ 1:48 pm

    From a Vietnamese language and literature specialist:

    The etymology is very interesting. However, in Vietnamese it is simply a borrowing & any Chinese etymology is incidental.

  4. Amy Stoller said,

    January 22, 2017 @ 3:41 pm

    @Pat: I don’t know the answer to your question. But you may find this post from Word. interesting:

  5. Steven Marzuola said,

    January 22, 2017 @ 5:17 pm

    This account of the Irish reminds me, family lore has it that we are descendants of King Emmanuel of Italy, of 1334. Or 1834. We don't know.

  6. Dave Cragin said,

    January 22, 2017 @ 9:31 pm

    Thanks for your comments. As a scientist, I usually don't cite something without the text in front of me. However in this case, I didn't have it. Based on J McWhorter's comments, it sounds like the idea that Ruan/Yuen was Turkic came from another reference. However, it appears that reference was correct in attributing the origin of Ruan/Yuen to NW China.

    The Quora article offers some interesting thoughts, partly regarding why the State of Ruan was called such. If someone finds more background on the State of Ruan, I'd welcome it.

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 22, 2017 @ 10:49 pm

    I am interested to learn that despite Nguyen's massive market share in Vietnam, 阮 is not even in the top 100 for common surnames in the PRC these days (if wikipedia is to be trusted). Looking at another direction of onomastic influence from China, 金, which became the most common Korean surname (the Korean version being usually transliterated as "Kim") is 60th most popular in the PRC as of 2007, so it's certainly not dominant among Chinese, but not as rare as 阮.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    January 23, 2017 @ 8:59 am

    From Ruan Qi, one of my M.A. students:

    [VHM: For the identification of place names mentioned by Ruan Qi in her comment, see the note at the bottom.]

    In my and my father's hometown, Shangyu, Shaoxing, Zhejiang, around 70% of the people have the surname Ruan. And in the town in Shangyu, Daoxu 道墟, more specifically my family origin, around 90% of the people have the surname Ruan.

    There's also a book called Yuezhou Ruan Family Genealogy 越州阮氏宗譜 that records the origin of the surname Ruan starting around AD 1000. The title of the book contains 越, which is also the first character in the name of Vietnam 越南.

    According to the miscellaneous records in 越州阮氏宗譜, the Ruan surname in Vietnam and the one in Shaoxing have the same origin in that, during the Southern Song Dynasty, there was a group of Ruan surname people who sailed southward from the Caoe River 曹娥江, Shangyu, Shaoxing, and fled to Vietnam. In 1928, there were also Ruan people from Vietnam who went to Shaoxing trying to find their ancestors.

    It is pretty interesting when going back to Shangyu, Shaoxing, you can see many street stores and factories that have names like 阮氏水泥厂 (Ruan's Cement Mill),阮氏印染 (Ruan's Printing and Dyeing),阮氏便利店 (Ruan's Convenience Store), etc. all together in one place. Although we definitely know they do not belong to a single family group, it's very interesting to see all displayed together using the same name. I can try to take some photos next time I go back there.

    Although Ruan is a common name in Shaoxing, it is still rare in Hangzhou. I have barely encountered any people with the surname Ruan in Hangzhou proper, only 3 in my lifetime except for my relatives. The two cities are just one hour drive away and are in the same province. I'm wondering how this situation actually happened.

    P.S.: I have decided to learn the music instrument Ruan someday. The two Ruans' encounter must be interesting.

    [Note on place names: Shaoxing (birthplace of Lu Xun, China's greatest writer of the 20th century, and home to many famous scholars during the past millennium and more) is a culturally and historically important satellite town of the city of Hangzhou in Zhejiang province. Shangyu is a district / county of Shaoxing, and Daoxu is a locale in Shangyu. The Cao'e is one of the major rivers of the Hangzhou region. Yuezhou 越州 is the name of a prefecture in imperial China that was centered on modern Shaoxing.]

  9. Victor Mair said,

    January 23, 2017 @ 12:03 pm

    The semi-nomadic affiliations of Shaoxing / Yuezhou

    The history section of the Wikipedia article on Shaoxing begins with this intriguing note:


    Modern-day Shaoxing lies north of the Kuaiji Mountains, which were an important center of the semi-nomadic people of Yue during ancient China's Spring and Autumn period. Chinese legend connected them with events in the life of Yu the Great, the founder of the Xia. Around the early 5th century BC, the time of Yue's famous king Goujian, his people began establishing permanent centers in the alluvial plain north of the hills.


    Perhaps the semi-nomadic origins of the Yue people may account for the interesting felt, alpine hats that were traditionally worn by the people of Shaoxing. I've long been in quest of the origins of these hats, because they are like the hats worn by the earliest mummies of the Tarim Basin during the Bronze Age and also like the hats worn in the Alpine regions of Austria and Italy. See Victor H. Mair, "Stylish Hats and Sumptuous Garments from Bronze Age and Iron Age Eastern Central Asia", Orientations, 41.4 (May, 2010).

    These black felt hats are one of the famous "Three Blacks" of Shaoxing, for which see this website, which includes a nice photograph of a couple of men wearing them.

    About twenty years ago, I made a pilgrimage to Shaoxing to investigate these black felt hats (after seeing them in a film based on a Lu Xun story) and also out of respect to Lu Xun, whom my wife revered (she carefully read the 12 vols. of his entire collected works several times). I was delighted to visit many of the sites mentioned in Lu Xun's works (which I too devoured) and also to acquire for myself one of the Shaoxing black hats, of which I am the proud owner (they were already rather rare when I went there nearly a quarter of a century ago).

    As Ruan Qi mentioned in her comment above, the old name for Shaoxing during imperial times was Yuezhou 越州. Aside from the black felt hats, I have also been deeply attracted to a spectacular sword from the ancient kingdom of Yue that was centered in the same region, the famous Sword of Goujian (r. 496-465 BC), which has been miraculously recovered in archeological excavations that took place in late 1965. The sword is featured on the cover of my translation of The Art of War 孫子兵法 from Columbia University Press (2007).

    This spectacular sword is breathtakingly beautiful and incredibly sharp. The patterns embedded in the face of the sword are somewhat reminiscent of those on Damascus swords, though of more regular (rhomboidal) shape than those on the latter. In neither case is modern metallurgy able to duplicate the evocative effect.

    I am enchanted not only by Goujian's sword, but also by his disyllabic name, which is unusual for kings in Chinese history (same for his father, Yunchang).

    I have delved into the history of the state of Yue, its long and bitter war with the state of Wu, and the lore of magic swords in the notes to my translation of the Dunhuang story of Wu Zixu (Wu Tzu-hsü) in Tun-huang Popular Narratives (Cambridge, 1983). See also my review of C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor, From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail (Princeton, 1993) in Religion 28 (1998), 294–300, readily available in The Heroic Age, 2 (Autumn / Winter, 1999) and cf. John Colarusso and Tamirlan Salbiev, Tales of the Narts: Ancient Myths and Legends of the Ossetians (Princeton, 2016). Without going into detail here, I will note only that Iranian peoples are deeply implicated in all of this. See:

    "Sword out of the stone" (8/9/08) and this comment thereto.

    Shaoxing is not the only place in Central and South China that preserves clear traces of connections to the steppe. The same may be said of the famous Chu Culture 楚文化 (704-223 BC as a kingdom, but with earlier roots as a viscounty) in Hunan and Hubei and of the Dian Culture (ca. 4th c.-109 BC, but likewise with earlier roots).

    I believe that Iranian peoples were also involved in the formation of these states and their cultures, but a discussion of those topics will have to wait till another time, for this comment has already gone on far too long.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    January 23, 2017 @ 12:25 pm

    From Lan Nguyen:

    I enjoyed much these discussions. Though my surname is Nguyen, I have no idea of its origin. Research on Vietnamese surname leaves empty space and this is worthy to be investigated.

    I just want to add some relevant issues from my experience working with Sino – Nom documents over the past 12 years. Vietnamese Nguyen expressed their imagination of surname's origin of their own mostly via family annal forth-words as follows:

    – Pure Vietnamese origin, as there is no evidence to demonstrate the appearance of (immigrant) Chinese Nguyen in the area of ancient Vietnamese land (basically what is Thanh Hoa now).

    – Descendant of early Chinese Nguyen in what is Northern Vietnam now. The first Nguyen in Vietnam was Nguyen Phu — a Chinese governor at Giao Chau (Jiaozhou) in 353 (AC) and Nguyen Lang, Nguyen Di Chi later on.

    – Originated from Nguyen "state" under Chinese Shang dynasty. As this Nguyen later took Tran Luu (Chen Liu) district under Chu (Zhou) dynasty to be its native land, Vietnamese Nguyen called themselves as "A Nguyen who came from Tran – Luu District". This model is easily to be found in family ancestor worshipping oration or family clan curved on stone stele.

    – Traced back to mentioned Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove; musical instrument called the ruan(xian), etc

    It is great If there will be a research on Vietnamese surname in general as well as Nguyen surname in particular from mutil – combined approaches. It's not the matter of a surname, it's the history of a country.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    January 23, 2017 @ 12:27 pm

    From Hue Tam Tai:

    Regarding surnames, Vietnamese often try to trace their descent to a single Chinese individual. for instance, people surnamed Ho ( like me) are all supposed to be descendants of Ho Quy Ly who in turn was descended from a fisherman from Zhejiang.

    What is often forgotten is that Chinese often brought their entire clans, servants and slaves into Jiaozhi, especially after the Wang Mang usurpation (which eventually caused tribal leaders, including the Trung sisters to rebel in 39AD).

    I am fascinated by the account of Victor's student from Zhejiang about a district dominated by people surnamed Ruan.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    January 23, 2017 @ 1:07 pm

    From Hue Tam Tai:

    The Yue/Wu rivalry lived on in Vietnamese memory. Cf. Nguyen Trai's Great Proclamation on the Pacification of the Wu of 1428, in which he aligned the fifteenth-century Viet with the ancient Yue and likened the Ming To Wu. In the poem, he alludes to Goujian's "eating bile and lying on bed of thorns."

  13. Victor Mair said,

    January 23, 2017 @ 6:10 pm

    From Sanping Chen,

    The 阮s of Shaoxing ring a bell loudly in my family recollections.

    Seems that I have to give my two cents on this subject, not the least because my late father was appointed the principal of a local primary school 阮社小學 in Shaoxing in 1942, before leaving to attend college in inland China, and later joining the American-equipped KMT Youth Army fighting the Japanese invasion.

    I think after the Tang dynasty, there was no longer reliable association between geography and surnames in China. On the other hand, the entire southeast coast plus northern Vietnam undoubtedly formed part of a great Yue/Viet cultural complex down to early historical times. It has been progressively Sinicized since the Han dynasties, such that few distinctively non-Sinitic cultural relics remained. Probably some ancient Viet elements can still be traced in deep strata of local dialects that often pronounce the same characters differently (the so-called 文讀 and 白讀 – in some Zhejiang dialect the character 人 can have three different pronunciations). But I doubt how much.

    Another possibility is toponym. For instance, there are several place names in Zhejiang containing the character 餘 (e.g. 餘姚 and 餘杭). I read somewhere that this may have meant “salt” in ancient Viet language, marking coastal places that once produced this commodity.

    But I would not count on surnames, which are of uniquely Sinitic origin in East Asia, as that recent Tang Studies paper argues. Take my family name Chen for example, which, spelt as Tran, is very popular in Vietnam too. I have been told that even the grandfather of the late Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia was forced to assume this family name by the advancing Vietnamese in their 以夏變夷 efforts, just before the (timely?) arrival of the French colonists.

    For better or worse, the vast ancient Yue/Viet complex has been swamped by waves of Sinitic immigrants from Northern China, especially the two tsunamis of refugees escaping northern nomadic invasions. My paternal clan was said to be among the second tsunami from Henan 河南 fleeing the Jurchen cavalries in early twelfth century. So we officially belong to the clan of 潁川陳氏 – I think my father once received their extensive 家譜. But a learned late 學長 of mine spoiled my Sinitic roots by pointing out that Henan was where the Xianbei 侯莫陳 tribe had settled during the Northern Wei dynasty. Most of their descendants then shortened the tribal name to the last syllable.

    Incidentally, the last point would help my thesis that some Xianbei tribes spoke a Turkic language (though 侯莫陳 was not a “core” Tuoba tribe).

  14. Dave Cragin said,

    January 23, 2017 @ 7:15 pm

    @JW Brewer – The massive market share of Nguyen was one of the main reasons I asked about this, i.e., while a last name can move anywhere, that Ruan did so and became so popular in one country is notable. Also, like Hue Tam Tai, I found Ruan Qi’s note about its dominance in a few towns east of Hangzhou fascinating (and to think it originated in NW China).

    In my many trips to Hangzhou, I don’t think I ever met a Ruan. In the future, if I have students with this last name, I'll definitely ask them about the above.

  15. Roger Lustig said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 12:08 am

    "In other places, ruling bodies would simply attach family names onto their commoners for reasons of state convenience (taxes, corvée, military service, etc.) or to label people in certain groups as subject peoples. Thus Jews under Germanic Christian rule became "trees," and "rocks," and "mountains," etc."

    The idea that Jewish surnames were assigned by the authorities is remarkably free of any accompanying evidence. If anything, the combination names (Gold/Silber/Rosen/whatever + Berg/Stein/Baum/Thal/whatever were much like the names of the figures in Romantic novels around 1800. As to labeling Jews with "tree," "rock," etc.: most Jews in German-speaking regions had names very similar to those of their Gentile neighbors. The Russian Jews' surnames sounded Germanic, well, because Yiddish.

    Nor is "Germanic Christian rule" a good way to describe the situation. The first surname requirements for Jews were Austrian, promulgated by Joseph II–a reformer of all kinds of things and sometime Freemason. "Christian" is hardly the first word that pops into one's head when thinking of him. Aside from Russia (not exactly German either, for the most part), most of the rest of the surname-adoption wave came as a result of Napoleon's efforts–again, not Germanic or Christian.

    In most places, Jews chose their surnames themselves, sometimes subject to restrictions of one kind or another, e.g., no given names or place names as surnames. The assignment of surnames may have taken place occasionally in some parts of the Hapsburg empire, given the permutations that reappeared in town after town, but there's no direct evidence of it, let alone any intention behind it. The accompanying notion that the nicer names had to be paid for doesn't work in light of the facts that a) those newfangled surnames weren't of great interest to Jews, and b) there were far more nice names than Jews with money to pay for them.

    By the way, it wasn't just in Scandinavia that patronymics held out so long. Oldenburg in northern Germany was the last German state to require Jews to adopt a surname–in 1852, when it became mandatory for Gentiles as well.

  16. ajay said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 10:09 am

    "Also, are there any other common last names that cover such a wide geographic, linguistic, and cultural span, particularly from such ancient times?"

    Well, the various derivatives of "John" would fit – you'll find Johnsons, McEwans, Johannssens and Arjunas spread over most of the old world. But that may be cheating since they're all derivatives of a first name.

  17. Eidolon said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 6:59 pm

    There should never be any doubt as to the folkloric nature of most surname myths. Genetics studies have already proven, beyond any shadow of the doubt, that having the same surname does not imply having the same paternal ancestor, and further the deeper the time depth and the more popular the surname, the less likely it is to reflect any fact of descent. Though perhaps introduced originally to keep track of lineal ancestry, today it is more of a cultural construct, and in Vietnam especially I would doubt connections to the original lineages in northwest China. Perhaps some Vietnamese Nguyen families are indeed distantly descended but most, I reckon, have nothing to do with them, but, as in Korea, were simply the product of locals adopting a respectable Sinicized surname.

    That said, I think I have an answer as to where Dave Cragin might have gotten the story. Vietnamese Nguyễn is usually given as Chinese 阮 Ruan, which in terms of myths of origin do not have any obvious Turkic root. But a closely related Vietnamese Romanized form, Nguyên, is given as 元, for example in the name of, whose Chinese equivalent is 武元甲. The 元 here is a different character than 阮, and is pronounced differently in Modern Standard Mandarin, yet in Vietnamese they are both Nguyen but with slightly different tones on the e. In terms of surname myths, however, 元 has a distinct history from 阮 and was the Sinicized surname adopted by the Tuoba emperors of the Northern Wei, who were traditionally thought to be Turkic. It is easy to see how one might then confuse 元 with 阮 especially as they are Romanized as Nguyễn/Nguyên respectively, such that a blank Nguyen could refer to either.

    However, the original statement given by Dave Cragin makes me think that the confusion happened on the side of Chinese Romanization, as opposed to Vietnamese Romanization. This is because he gives the Chinese Romanized form as Yuen. This is, as far as I know, a Cantonese form for a variety of surnames, including both 元 and 阮. The mystery is then solved. Dave Cragin probably heard a surname story concerning the surname 元, Romanized according to Cantonese as Yuen, and applied it to 阮, also Romanized according to Cantonese as Yuen. This would explain the Turkic connection.

  18. Dave Cragin said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 9:16 pm

    Eidolon – I found the reference for what I thought said Yuen was a Chinese family name of Turkic origin. It was from one of the “Great Courses” (but not one of John McWhorter’s!) and it said Yu-wen, not Yuen.

    I asked for clarification from its author:
    You raise an interesting question. The Turkic name you mention is actually Yu-wen 宇文, which is an ancient clan name going back at least to the 4th century CE on the northern border of China. I’m afraid I’m not familiar enough with Turkic to be able to provide the original rendition of the name. The Yu-wen became one of the most powerful families in the later stages of the period of disunity, and became important players in the Sino-Turkic elite of the sixth and seventh centuries.”

    That I confused Yu-wen (2 distinct syllables) with Yuen (almost 2 syllables) made me laugh because of a lunchtime conversation. A coworker who is a scientist by day, but performs Peking Opera for fun demonstrated how she sings the word jia/家/home by breaking it into 3 parts; something like jjjjjjj iiiiiii aaaaaa (which sounds nothing like 家). I jokingly said “我不明白你在唱什么.” (I don’t understand what you are singing.) She laughed and said 中国人也不明白我唱的是什么. (Chinese don’t understand either). It’s why we have subtitles.” (Of course, Western opera can be equally abstruse).

    In addition to thinking the dominance of Nuyen was interesting, I offered this to Victor to ensure I had the story correct – and the blog definitely provided this. Hence, while Ruan/Yuen/Nguyen had its origins in NW China, it doesn’t appear to have a Turkic origin. I’m curious to know if my brother-in-law has heard of the many Ruans that live in Zhejiang (even though they may not have a genetic link to him).

  19. Gunnar H said,

    January 25, 2017 @ 2:21 pm

    Thanks to Roger Lustig for the corrective on Jewish surnames. I had heard the same (perhaps even on this blog?) but don't know the topic well enough that I felt I could make any kind of assertion. I do remember it being stated that the one region where some Jews may have been assigned insulting surnames or had to pay for nicer ones was Galicia (modern-day Poland-Ukraine).

    Also on Scandinavian surnames, it's a bit of a simplification to say that people "only" used patronymics until the 18th and 19th centuries. Some of the aristocracy had family names going back to the middle ages (and royal families such as the Ynglings go back to prehistory and mythology). In Denmark (and therefore also Norway?) family names became mandatory for the aristocracy in 1526, and by the late 16th century pretty much all the Swedish nobility had family names. The university-educated clergy began to adopt family names (often Latin names) in the 17th century, along with the bourgeoisie – for example, in Denmark the Nansen family was established in Copenhagen since the start of the century, in Norway the Ancher/Ancker/Anker family (later ennobled based on fictitious genealogy) worked as traders in Christiania from the middle of the century, and in Sweden the father of Linnaeus took that name at university some time around 1699.

    Patronymics were the rule outside of cities, but were often supplemented by use of place names as a surname: most modern Norwegian surnames are taken from place names, not patronymics. While Denmark and Norway required fixed family names from 1828/1856 and 1923, respectively, Sweden kept the patronymic tradition going longer; it persisted in some localities until finally being abolished in 1966.

    Incidentally, demonstrating the point originally made that "in modern times, people move everywhere," I happened to come across the fact that the 51st most common surname in Norway today is… Nguyen!

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