What was that name again?


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Your great-grandfather came to Manitoba as a pioneer from Ukraine in the 1890s. His last name was Yashchyshyn (or, as it said on his emigration papers, Jaszczyszyn). Your surname is Yashyn, your uncle's is Shyn, and your other uncle's is Yash. You're all one family. How did that happen?

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/06/2012 (3699 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Your great-grandfather came to Manitoba as a pioneer from Ukraine in the 1890s. His last name was Yashchyshyn (or, as it said on his emigration papers, Jaszczyszyn). Your surname is Yashyn, your uncle’s is Shyn, and your other uncle’s is Yash. You’re all one family. How did that happen?

The Ukrainians who began arriving in Manitoba 120 years ago had many hardships and hurdles to overcome. Adapting to and integrating into the predominantly English milieu was difficult, to say the least. Their language and even surnames were not welcome (the pressure on names lasted well into the mid-20th century). While most kept and treasured both, some tried to assimilate by changing or modifying their last names. For this reason, while many Ukrainian names are immediately recognizable, there are very many “secret” Manitobans of Ukrainian descent out there, and even they may not know the story of their early ancestors in this province.

Over the generations, any or all of these happened to the original Ukrainian surnames: translation, mis-translation, transliteration, mis-transliteration, and mispronunciation. Names were abbreviated, misunderstood, invented and re-invented. Documents in German or Polish or Rumanian (from Bukovyna) did not represent the exact Ukrainian sounds, with each of the three languages spelling them according to their own phonemes.

THE CANADIAN PRESS Archives Immigrants from Ukraine who arrived a century ago found that along with learning how to live in a new land, they would have to learn to live with a new name.

Take into account two very different alphabets are involved, the phonetic Ukrainian (Cyrillic) and the non-phonetic English, and all Hades breaks loose.

Some single Ukrainian letters take two and four English letters in transliteration, and depending upon who did the transliteration, completely different names result, including their sound.

For example, Shchur (phonetically from Ukrainian) appears as Schur, Szczur, Schture, or Sure.

Khomiak (KH like the Scottish loCH) is now Chomiak, with the hard “ch” sound, instead of the soft “X” (Ukrainian letter) sound.

The Ukrainian sound “ya” is one letter (looks like a backward R). In English, it could be written as Yaniw, or Jashchyk, or Iasyn. The same with the letters that sound as “yu” and “ye” – the first letter can be Y or J or I. The sound “sh” appears as SH, SZ, or S, and “ZH” is ZH or Z.

The Winnipeg Free Press software cannot transfer Cyrillic characters from this text and onto printed pages — so the following example is a surname which has common letters to both alphabets. Ibahko (Ukr. letters) is phonetically Eevanko in English (little Ivan).

The surname has appeared in English as: Ivanko, Iwanko, Evanko, Ewanko, Evancho, Ewancho and Vanko.

With documents not in Ukrainian (Western Ukraine at the time was under foreign rule), the names on passports and ship cards were in those languages, or also in Ukrainian — strange to the various immigration agents.

Often, both in the ports in Europe and the Maritimes, the agent recorded what he thought he heard or read, and the person and family were stuck with a warped name.

Sometimes, when asked who he was, the teenage immigrant replied, “syrota.” That was recorded as the surname Syrota, when the reply had been “orphan.”

Other times, the reply was “ukrainets” — (I’m) Ukrainian, or “kozak” (freedom fighter of the 16-18th century, i.e., also a Ukrainian).

Occupational names such as Koval/Kowal (smith) and Melnyk/Melnick (miller) fill the White Pages, as do Boyko and Boychuk (someone from the Boyko region of western Ukraine).

There are many cases where large families have variants of the same Ukrainian surname, and in the original language, it is the only version, while in English it is not.

Marykutsa (original) is now Marykuca, Markusa, and Marekuca. The Grywinski /Hryvynsky family has a number of variations: Grewinski, Grywenski, Grivinski, into Gray and Graven.

The prominent Smerchanski family had one brother with that surname, while the other brother shortened the name to Shanski. The usual transliterated Ukrainian ending is sky, but with Polish-issued documents, many Ukrainian names, in English, do end in ski.

Havryliuk can be Hawryluk, Gorlick, Horlikh, Gourluck, Garlock.

Bilyi (white) can be Billy and Bailey.

Mayor Steven Juba’s name in Ukrainian was Dziuba.

Some surnames in English have had an effect on the original name, with mispronunciation changing the name — Sianchuk (with the “ia” — “ya” — one vowel — becoming See-yanchuk, and now that is how it is pronounced in Ukrainian.

Sometimes the names just got spelled in an English manner — Cottick, Kotyk (kitten), and Connick, Konyk (pony). Makosiy (sower of poppy seeds) became Mackisey, and Mykytyn, McKitten. Some Irish influence appeared, as Opanas became O’Panas.

Changing from one ethnic name to another is also possible, with Pokotylo becoming Pocatello. Names were also shortened, from the front or back. Kalenchuk became Kalen, and Tatunchak became Chack. There have been instances of children or grandchildren legally changing their surnames back to the original Ukrainian name, no matter how long it is.

“This is my family heritage. I am not ‘Smithson,’ but Kovalchuk.”

Marvin Marykuca commented, “As you know, name changes were a kind of defence, employed by many new Canadians of ‘ethnic’ backgrounds, against being washed out of consideration in competition for jobs.”

I met a book vendor from Alberta at a conference in Washington, D.C., a decade ago. His name tag read something like “Volodymyr Mackenzie.” I asked about this, and he explained his grandfather worked for the railroad in Alberta, but with his long Ukrainian name, could not get a promotion. When the foreman “Mackenzie” died, the grandfather changed his name to that of the deceased, and was promoted. “Survival,” Volodymyr said with a shrug.

The late John Hawryluk, one of the first Ukrainians to be appointed as a school principal in Winnipeg, told me in the 1930s, when he was interviewed by the superintendent, he was told he would have better success with an “easier” name. Hawryluk got up, thanked the interviewer, and was near the door before the superintendent called him back.

Newer surname versions are arriving with the current wave of immigrants from Ukraine. Officials there seem to think the French transliteration is best, so instead of Kravchuk and Baraniuk, people have surnames like Kravtchouk and Baranjouk. Transliteration from French really makes a difference — Zhuk becomes Jouk. Good luck finding that in the phone book.

No longer an invisible minority, Ukrainians are very much an integral part of Manitoba. They are proud of their surnames and what their ancestors and they have contributed to the province and the country.


Two University of Manitoba theses cover this specific topic: Robert B. Klymasz. Canadianization of Slavic Surnames. University of Manitoba MA thesis, 1960. Luba Fedorkiw. Ukrainian Surnames in Canada. University of Manitoba MA thesis, 1977.

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