Last Name First, First Name Last!

Finishing this post brought me so much satisfaction that I decided to have it proofread by a friend of mine immediately. He looked at me with a rather cold smile and said, “Yeah, it’s alright, but it’s quite similar to one of your older posts. In fact, it’s exactly the same!” And at that point I realised I had rewritten an article from 9 months ago. It’s 100% the same, have a look! (Excuse the joke, I’m just too busy to write a brand new article right now, so I thought I’d take an old one and give it a better name. Enjoy it, nevertheless!)

For most of you, putting your given name after your surname is without rhyme or reason. However, in several countries, including Hungary, this is what normally happens. I always find it hard to explain to a British audience that the consonant cluster between my given name and my surname (which is, of course, placed at the end in the UK), is due to the fact that my original name is “switched”. The problem occurs when they begin to call me by my surname, as “that comes first in Hungary”. At this point I have to let them know that the change is in the order only, not in the role of the two names.

Besides my home country (which is the only European state to use the Eastern name order), the surname is placed at the beginning of a personal name in China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam – according to Wikipedia. For a lot of people (including me), using two forms of a name in an international environment causes quite a few difficulties. Despite not being able to pronounce my own full name in the Western order, there are two main things that annoy me whenever I come across them.

One of them is lexical order. In the UK, I often see my name indexed on lists where surnames are written first, so that the names can be alphabetised effectively. In this case, the comma placed between the two names makes me feel that my name has been partially restored to its original form (as it is indexed the same way as English names), but a comma has been left in the middle as a result of Western influence. Strange view, I know. The other annoying thing, which the article’s title refers to, is the treatment of names written in the Eastern order by the media.

Hungarian names, regardless of who they belong to, are normally inverted and their diacritics are often ingored. For example, the famous Hungarian footballer Puskás Ferenc would see his name as “Ferenc Puskas” in a foreign newpaper. The same applies to the treatment of Japanese names as well: not many English-speakers are aware that Junichiro Koizumi is called “Koizumi Jun’ichirō” (小泉 純一郎) in his country. Let’s ignore the problem of Hungarian diacritics and have a look at how names from the Far East are rendered in Western media. Wikipedia states that “Western publications usually preserve the Chinese naming order, with the family name first, followed by the given name.” This opposes the way my name would be treated in British media, or how I use it in my everyday life in England.

Alright, the Chinese have fought for it and we just gave up – that’s what it seems like from one particular perspective. But the reality is that there are numerous other details to consider. Although this doesn’t really affect the Chinese, the Western media also maintains the rules of the Eastern convention for names of historical figures from certain Asian countries, including Korea, Japan and Vietnam. Have you ever heard of Zedong Mao? No, because his name is Máo Zédōng in both Mandarin Chinese (毛泽东) and English. So overall, I doubt “the West” has given much thought to how names written in the Eastern order shall be published. Further evidence for this is that Korean sportspeople’s names can be rendered in either way, depending on the sport. The names of footballers and athletes (such as Ahn Jung-hwan, or 안정환) are left in the Eastern order, whereas those of golfers and baseball players are switched (e.g. Chan-ho Park is originally Park Chan-ho, or 박찬호).

Unequal, unsystematic, but undoubtedly interesting. On the other hand, we must ensure that we are not being too hypocritical when we say that the Western media differentiates between names associated with particular nationalities. By this I mean that we should have a look at what’s on the other end of the rope.

In Hungarian media, names written in the Western order remain in their original form. For example, Barack Obama stays “Barack Obama” and Albert Einstein’s name is written and pronounced the German way. There are no circumstances under which names such as “Castro Fidel” or “Curie Marie” would be seen in the media. However, the names of some historical figures have been translated into Hungarian, creating new names such as “Kálvin János” for John (or Jean) Calvin. This practice was even more common before the twentieth century. The well-known French novelist Jules Verne, for example, was referred to as “Verne Gyula”, using the equivalent of his given name and the Hungarian pronunciation of his surname. Similarly, the Chinese, Korean, Japanese and other Eastern media transliterate or transcribe Western names, but do not switch them in any case.

I was also amazed to see that Hungarian names are left in the Eastern order when used in the above mentioned East Asian languages, thus ignoring any Western influence. Ferenc Puskas (who, as I have previously stated, would be “Puskás Ferenc” in Hungarian), is written as 푸슈카시 페렌츠 in Korean, 普斯卡什·费伦茨 in Mandarin and プシュカーシュ・フェレンツ in Japanese, placing the surname at the front in each of these languages. Of course, in case a journalist from any of these countries uses a Western source to mention a Hungarian name (and doesn’t know that Hungarians use the Eastern order too), the name could appear in the wrong order. Huh, that was confusing!


2 thoughts on “Last Name First, First Name Last!

  1. Very good article. Being a westerner living in Japan, I try to keep my name in the western order and not use my middle name. However, some forms have separate fields for last and given name. If my middle name also is used, then it can end up as last name first name middle name, and then Japanese people want to call me by my middle name. So then I have to tell them to call me Keith, as that’s what I prefer to hear instead of my family name. Sometimes, they don’t put a space between my first and middle name (usually written in Katakana) and so it looks silly.

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