Peoples and Cultures
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
Do Ethiopian wives take the husband's name?
There are several different ethnic groups in Ethiopia, so practices might vary. The Amhara are a dominant people of Ethiopia, and related to them are the Tigray (related also to the Tigrinya in Eritrea). In general Ethiopian peoples do not use family names. Names in many cultures of the world indicate relationships, and change dynamically with the events of life.
Each person is known by their own name and the primary name of their father. This is the way it was in earlier times among the Germanic peoples, and it is still the pattern among Icelanders. Virtually everyone in Iceland has a name ending in son or daughter. Like Gunnarsson (Gunnar's son) or Ericsson (Eric's son), Arnulfsdottir (Arnulf's daughter), etc. You see a lot of these in English and the Scandinavian languages, but they have become family lineage names, what we call surnames.
In the Amhara, Tigray or most other tribes in Ethiopia, and indeed in much of Africa. A girl child will have a primary name plus her father's primary name for family identity. When a woman marries, the general traditional pattern has been to continue to use her father's name. Many East African peoples will replace the father's name with her husband's primary name. The naming system is beginning to become more like the western surname system in the cities.
I have found some good resources on the Internet on this topic.
Here is a simple statement of the traditional practice in Ethiopia:
Note on Ethiopian names: Ethiopians are customarily referred to by first name alone, or first and second name together, the second name being the father's first name.
Here is a short simple statement of the common practice of married women's naming, continuing the use of the father's name. This article gives the titles for men, and married or unmarried women:
Ethiopians are universally addressed by their first name and the father's name takes the place of a surname. A woman does not change her name to that of her husband after marriage; her title simply changes from Woizerit (Miss) to Woizero (Mrs). Men's names are preceeded by Ato (Mr).
Here is a section of an article on that topic, indicating the traditional practice. This would apply to the Tigrayan (Tigrean) or Tigrinya peoples perhaps more than the Amhara:
This section has been written by a community member of Tigray Community Association and reviewed by Tsehay Demowez (Harborview Medical Center, Seattle, WA.)
Naming in the Tigray province and Ethiopia, in general, is different from naming in the US. The use of a first name and a family name is unknown in Tigray and the rest of Ethiopia. Everyone in Tigray has his/her own name and also uses his/her father's name, which comes after the personal name. Occasionally, the paternal grandfather's name can be added if needed. There was a lot of confusion when newly arrived Tigrean or other Ethiopians immigrants in the US were asked for their first name and family name. When asked for a last name, many immigrants asked, "You mean my father's or my grandfather's name?" Now when they have settled in the US, most Tigreans and other Ethiopians use their fathers' name as their last name, although some use their grandfathers' name as their last name.
Traditionally, women in the US have changed their family name when they marry. If a woman remarried several times she might have to change her family name accordingly. But women in Tigray and in the rest of Ethiopia do not change their names when they get married.
Here is another good article on cultural naming patterns among Ethiopian peoples.
Tigre, Tigray, Tigrinya – Ethnicites, Languages and Politics
First written as an email response 2 November 2006
Prepared as an article and posted 6 November 2006
Last edited 12 December 2009
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.