What kind of a Finn name is “Sibelius”?

What kind of a Finn name is “Sibelius”?

I finally started to read a book on Sibelius. So at last I learned the answer to today’s title question: What kind of a Finn name is Sibelius?

None!

His great-grandfather, Johan Martinpoikka (son of Martin) settled on a farm named Sibbe. As was the custom in that place and those times, the family took on the name of the farm. But they almost immediately Latinized it, which may have a fashion at that time, too (most Finns before and after added an ala or an inen and let it go at that, for their last names). Sibelius sounds more ancient Latin than any modern tongue. The Sibelius family was Swede-speaking, though living in Finland. The composer was christened Johan Julius Christian, but was called Janne by relatives and friends, and adopted the French form of the name, Jean, after his uncle Johan who used the moniker when travelling. So Sibelius was born a Swedish-speaking Finn with a Latin last name; though he grew up to learn Finnish and fully immerse himself in Finnish myth, he would adopt as his public Christian name a French form of that oh-so-common name, John.

Well, I certainly have no cause to object. Sibelius was certainly no ordinary John. He was the greatest composer to emerge from north of Europe. His symphonies, especially, rank him with Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and . . . arguably, no one else. Even Brahms and Schubert play second to Sibelius’s muse.

Finland’s traditional naming practices seem weird to us today. My great-grandfather, Abraham, was a Hautakoski (which means grave rapids, or cemetery brook). He married a woman named Anna and moved onto the family farm in Kaustinen. So, naturally, he became a Wirkkala! (Pronounce that, or, if you are in Finland, or me, spell that, with a V: Virkkala.) And it appears from Sibelius’ great-grandfather’s original name, Martinpoikka, that a Scandinavian-style naming system also played a part in the chaos of Finnish names. (My last name would be Ernipoikka, in that system.)

None of this strikes me as nearly as interesting as the Latvian system of naming. I have a friend who, when you address him, you call him simply Oscar. But when you talk about him behind his back, you call him Oscars. With an added s! Latvia has a grammar of names.

In America, of course, this is all very alien. As Butch the boxer said, This is America, honey. Our names don’t mean shit.

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Kenneth Robinson

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11 2014

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