The birth of a child is the biggest event in a Kazakh family. Therefore, Kazakhs take choosing the names of their newborn children very seriously. Traditionally, it was the privilege of a grandfather or another respectable person, so that the child would grow up to be as good as this person. Sometimes, Kazakhs would even ask a guest to give a name to their child.
Kazakh culture and national traditions
Kazakhs also have numerous other ways to name children. They may be inspired by the seasons, weather, local sites, health and body features, various omens or famous events. They believed that the evil eye could not harm girls and therefore could choose for them the most beautiful, tender, and easy to pronounce names. They would often use the names of expensive fabrics, such as Zhibek (silk), delicate plants, such as Raushan (rose), Kysgaldak (tupil), Enlik (edelweiss); precious metals and stones, such as Altyn (gold), Kumis (silver), Gaukhar (emerald) and Marzhan (pearl). Girls named after stars were meant to become beautiful beyond words: Kunsuslu (beautiful as the sun), Aisulu and Aiman (beautiful like the moon), and Sholpan (morning star).
When parents had a girl, which they wished for, they would call her Asel (honey), Meiz (sultana) or Kulpynai (strawberry). If a family had only daughters, they would be given names that indicated the family's expectation of having boys, like Ulbolsyn (let it be a son), Ulzhalgas (next will be a son), Ulzhan (soul of a boy), Ulbobek (baby boy), Burul (the other way round)and even Kyzdygoi (stop giving birth to girls). Sometimes, girls would be called Ultuar (give birth to boys) to make sure she would give birth to boys in future.
Attitude to boys' names was different. Men were meant to deal with the main difficulties of life. First of all, parents wished them to be the defenders of their family and clan during war time and to resemble famous noble people or poets in the times of peace. In the past, mortality among people was very high and it was reflected in boys' names. In families where newborns often died, they would be given plain names to protect them from the evil eye: Ultarak (loner), Eleusiz (unremarkable), or Elemes (unnoticeable). For this same reason, a name could sometimes include a contemptuous part "kul" (slave): Itkul (dog's slave), or Karakul (black slave).
Sometimes, children's names indicated that they were sold to strangers as in Satylgan (sold) or bought as in Satybaldy (bought) or Tulegen (paid for). If a long-awaited child was born, he was called Tlegen (desired) or Sagyndyk (missed). If a family was not big, they would call their child Tezekbai (as much as there is manure in the steppe) or Bitbai (rich in flees).
Sometimes, Kazakhs would give the names of Kuandyk (glad) and Suiundik (admired) to two of their sons. It usually happened in families where parents had to wait a long time before a son was born and the arrival of the next baby "prolonged their happiness".
In some families, newborn babies died one after another, and parents were getting old and still did not have any children. A child born to such a family was carried under the skirts of several old women. This ritual was meant to ensure that they would live a long life. These children would be called Ushkempir, Jortkempir or Beskempir which is translated as "three old women", "four old women" and "five old women". For instance, when the famous akyn (poet) Kenen Aserbayev, at the age of 50 had a daughter, he followed this ritual and called her Tortkempir. Later, when his daughter grew up and went to school, other children were teasing her and she changed her name to Tortken.
There was a family once where a boy was called Tursyn (let it stop) after several newborns died one after another. The next three children after him died again. When a new boy was born, he was called Balta (axe). The parents hoped that this name would help to cut off their misery. Similar are the names of Ulmes (he will not die), Osken (he will grow up), Zhanuzak (long-living soul), and Junuzak (long day).
Sometimes a name was linked to the attributes of nomadic life, such as Koshkinbai (nomad's camp), Kystaubai (winger camp), Zhailiaubai (summer camp) and Bulakbai (spring).
Names of locations were also important. For instance, the famous akyn Zhambyl Zhabayev is named after the mount of Zhambyl where he was born. Same are the names of Sozikbai, Kelesbek, Edilbai and Talas. Various names are likened to a time of the day or weather conditions: Tanatar (day is breaking), Karzhau (it is snowing), Zhanbyrbai (rain), Tumanbai (fog) and Boranbi (snowstorm).
The names of Ayukhan (bear-khan), Arystan (lion), Zholbarys (tiger), Burikhan (wolf-khan), Kabanbai and Kulanbai came from the old times when animals were regarded as totems.
Some children are born with moles and birthmarks. Others develop birth defects. In such cases, their real names are forgotten for a period of time and these children are given nicknames: Kaldykui (flower with a mole), or Anar (garnet). Boys with bubonoceles would be nicknamed as Koshkarbai (ram) or Tekebai (goat). If children had an unnatural growth or something suspicious on their bodies, they would be called Artykom (unnecessary). If a newborn boy already had some teeth, he would called Kaskyrbai (wolf).
The events of life were important for Kazakhs. For instance, once a boy was born after his father had gone to fight in a war. He was named Sogys (war). Later, when a new child was born into the same family after the father had returned he was given the name of Zhenis (victory). Curiously, the third son was called Tynys (break). Similar names are Toishybek (father will be celebrating), Tokbolat (plenty of food) and Toiyndyk (had enough to eat).
More names are linked to the expansion of Islam in the steppe. For instance, children born during the month of Ramadan (orazy) would be called Orazbek or Orazkul. Children born at Easter were called Aitbai or Atikul and a Friday child was commonly called Zhumabai or Zhumakul.
Other Arabic names are also popular. Names of Iranian origin are also related to this category. Interestingly, the names of Tanirbergen, Kudibergen and Allabergen all mean "given by god" but are of different origin (Turkic, Iranian and Arabic). This reflects the tolerance of the Kazakh people. Often, wishing a prosperous life upon their children, parents would give them names like Otarbai (rich in sheep) and Zhylkyaidar (owning horses). If they wanted a boy to be strong they would give him a name of relevant animals or birds, such as Burkit (eagle), Kyran (falcon), and Kaskyrbai (fearless as a wolf).
It was common to call children by the age of their fathers or grandfathers: Elubai (fifty), Seksenbes (eighty five), and Zhuzbai (lived for a hundred years), thus wishing the children to live a long life. For boys to grow up strong and tough, they had to be called Temir (made of iron) or Shoiynbai (made of steel).
If special deeds of arms were expected of boys, they would named after weapons such as Kylyshbek (sturdy sabre) or Naizabai (many arrows). There are many examples of people changing their names in Kazakhstan. There were different reasons for that linked to events in people's lives. Often people would go down in history under their nicknames rather than given names.
Some famous people are remembered under the names different from their original names. Abilmansur was the real name of the famous Abylai Khan, a descendant of Genghis Khan. He changed his name after enemies brutally killed his father and he had to hide in the steppe under the scornful nickname of Sabalak (shaggy dog). Later, when he became a Khan, he had a spiritual teacher. His name was Zhalanayak Azder (barefooted saint) who deserved his name for his piety and righteousness. His real name was Kalmuhamed. His descendants still call themselves "zhalanayak kozha".
Another bright example is Shokan Valikhanov, an outstanding scientist, enlightener, and artist. During his short life, he wrote a number of valuable books on history, folklore, geography and ethnography of Central Asia. He is a great grandson of Abylai Khan. At birth, he was given the name of Muhammed-Khanafia. Shokan was an endearing name his mother used to call him.
The real name of the great Kazakh poet Abai Kunanbaiuly was Ibrahim. It was his grandmother Zere who called him, her favourite grandchild, Abai (careful). One of the most outstanding Kazakh akyns (poets) of the 19th century was Musa Baizhanuly. He had two nicknames, Myrza kedei (generous poor man) and Zhaiau Musa (Musa walking on foot). The second name stayed with him forever. He was a courageous man and openly said what he thought about the rich. That's why they did not like him. To hurt his pride, they called Musa the generous poor man. One of his songs is about it: I, the son of Baizhan, am the generous poor man.
There is an interesting story related to his second name, Zhaiau Musa. Musa loved to travel from one aul (village) to another and sing his songs. He could play the dombra, concertina and violin. Sultan Mustafa Shormanuly did not like his popularity with the people and took his only horse from him. Only the saddle and harness were left. But this did not stop the singer and he carried on walking long distances between auls. That's why people called him Zhaiau Musa. His song Ak Sisa (white cotton) was written at that time and it is still popular today. This is what Musa had to day about his offender:
Mustafa, the son of Shorman, took my horse away,
That's try I got the name of Musa walking on foot.
Another legendary son of the Kazakh people is Baluan Sholak. He was extraordinary strong, played the dombra, wrote poems and composed songs. Baluan Sholak used to travel together with his friends who had different skills. Some could sing very well, others could dance. Dzhigits (skilful horsemen) performed tricks on their horses. Singing was not the only thing Baiuan Sholak could do himself. At the end of each performance, he used to demonstrate his strength. He would take off his colourful costume and lie down. His assistants would puta large boulder on his chest and then it would be broken with a sledge-hammers. At birth, he was called Nurmagambet, and got his new name, Sholak, after an accident when his right hand was burnt and he lost some fingers. One of his songs is about it:
I am Baluan Sholak, the son of Baimyrza.
I became Sholak after my right hand was burnt.
He deserved the first part of his name, Baluan (wrestler, strong man) for his extraordinary strength.
Magzhan Zhumbayev, a talented poets of the last century was really called Mukhametzhan. Mukhametzhan Valikhanov, a younger brother of Shokan Valikhanov, went down in history under the name of Maky.
Academician Kanysh Satpayev is a well-known Kazakh scientist. His name has been perpetuated in outer Space. N.S. Chernykh, a scientist from the Crimea, discovered a planet and gave it Satpayev's name. However, not many people know that Kanysh was the name given to Gabdulgani, the son of Imantai, by his mother Alima.
Shaken Aimanov has a special place in the history of the Kazakh theatre and cinema. He was a very talented person: he played the dombra, could sing well, acted in theatre and directed movies. He won the title of the "best Othello" in an international theatre festival in England. His movies Aldar Kose, The End of the Gang Leader, Angel in a Skull-Cap, Our Nice Doctor and others constitute the golden treasure of the Kazakh cinema. A Kazakh film studio is named after him. However, his real name given to him at birth is Shakhkarim.
The most popular song writer of the 20th century is Shamshi Kaldayakov, whose real name is Shamsia.
The tradition to name newborn children after famous people has been preserved. Many men in Kazakhstan are called Abylai, Abai Shokan, Shaken, Dimash, and Kanysh. However, a lot of interesting and unusual names are forgotten and can only be traced in surnames. Short, simple and clear names are becoming popular, like Arman, Kanat, Bulat, Saule and so on. I would like to believe that this is only temporary, and the rare and distinctive names would become popular again.