On 25th March, 2018, I read an article on El Pais about the problems that foreigners have in Spain because here we use two surnames. I thought that this was the kind of interesting cultural facts that bilingualism should deal with. I considered it quite appropriate to write about in our school’s bilingual section.
We all have heard about culture shock, that feeling of alienation that people may have when encountering a different environment and culture. Among other determining factors, this is connected with the different languages and customs.
There are many unexpected daily situations that can make it appear and one of the most curious ones is as simple as the use of two surnames in Spain.
We tend to assume that the way we Spaniards address each other is universal, but did you know that most countries use just one surname? Did you know that after getting married women can choose the surname that they want to use by choosing their husband’s one or their own one? Did you know that even siblings can have different surnames in many countries?
When foreigners come to Spain they may find Kafkaesque situations just because of their lack of a second surname. When they have to fill in a form, specially online, if they don’t provide all the information required and fill in all the boxes and gaps, they are not allowed to continue or they are shown an error message.
I admit that when reading about this issue I smiled due to the ways people solve this problem and websites, officials and other workers allow it to happen. Lets have a look at some examples.
Some people use their second name as their first surname. So someone whose name is Daniel John Welsch has John as his first surname, or Mary Elizabeth Cooperman, that has Elizabeth.
Others prefer using their only surname but when filling in forms they write No Tengo or Ninguno in the box for their second surname. However, the system does not assume that they have no second surname. Instead of that, it assumes that their second surname is Notengo or Ninguno, and that is what has happened to many foreigners in Spain who have ended up assuming that weird surname. There are real names such as Simone Fóccoli Notengo (Italian) or Chiho Notengo Murata (Japanese), names that even sound like one of those bad jokes about languages.
But how long have we Spaniards been using two surnames? It is known that until the 19th century there was just one surname and the father’s one was kept by the eldest child and the rest could choose among the other family surnames without a established criterion. It was not until 1871 that the addition of the mother’s surname as the second surname was established.
Today’s situation is that since 30th June, 2017 Spanish parents can choose the order of their children’s surnames by reaching an agreement. However, when people are 18 years old, they can freely register the surname order which they want to have in the civil registry.
To end with this topic, just let me propose thinking about your own surnames. Do you like them? Have you ever consider changing their order or making any other possible change such as hyphenating your two first surnames so as to keep your mother’s surname?
Now that we are much more concerned about gender equality it is time to think of those cultural and social aspects that are still based on men’s predominance as a norm inherited from the past. We must vehemently remark that men and women must relate in equal terms.