I just had an idea for a story based on Islamic Spain and Barbary pirates. But after doing some research I found some kind of chaos and randomness in last names. The people's last names are either:

  • the father's name (Ibrahim ibn Mustafa)
  • a surname based on accomplishments or failure for sultans (Ahmed Almanzor - Ahmed the Victorious or Boabdil az-Zughbî - Boabdil the Unfortunate)
  • finally and that's the most confusing part, people with actual family names (Ibrahim Vargas)

So unlike medieval England or France, where nobles have family names and low-borns don't. In Islamic Spain, a Chamberlain is named after his father's name even if he is noble, and the Vizir (another noble) have a family name. Chaos!

I need noble families with names and legacy, so I can't use the father's name for everyone. And I don't want to copy the European standard system (not so original now with the success of Game of Thrones).

The question: Is there any organized way to have the actual Andalus system make sense by having people buying a family name or being granted one after some accomplishments for example?


closed as off-topic by Renan, elemtilas, Cyn, JBH, L.Dutch Apr 22 at 2:58

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    $\begingroup$ (a) This might not be worldbuilding. It kinda is, but it sounds more like, "how do I rationalize the murky mess that's real history?" (b) It's your story, I don't see why you can't do what you want. The vast, vast, vast majority of your readers would never recognize the difference. (c) If you're asking, "can I do something that has no historical precedent to rationalize an historical mess?" the answer is always "yes." (d) This question would make more sense if it were asked as a reality-check question. I.E., you propose your complete solution and we'll tell you if it makes sense. $\endgroup$ – JBH Apr 21 at 22:57
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    $\begingroup$ Useful to you: heraldry.sca.org/names/andalusia.html#Mens ? $\endgroup$ – Willk Apr 22 at 1:11
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    $\begingroup$ This is a very good question, but not really a Worldbuilding one. In lots of places, people use more than one name. Patronymic, descriptive/accomplishments, or a traditional surname passed down generation to generation. I'm reading a modern Russian novel right now where the characters keep switching around what they call other characters (the second in the list I gave is often the equivalent of "Professor so-and-so"). They use all 3 types, sometimes in the same 5 minutes! Naming questions are on topic on Writing.SE, if they're about naming your characters, and not history per say. $\endgroup$ – Cyn Apr 22 at 1:39
  • $\begingroup$ I understand why most of you think it's off topic. But answers about naming are not what I'm looking for but ideas for a realistic system to organize all this. Like who can be responsible for birth registration process, and what conditions a person must satisfy before asking for a family name... I think this is more worldbuilding than writing or history. $\endgroup$ – Aiman Vargas Apr 22 at 11:49
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    $\begingroup$ The ancient Greek and Hellenistic civilization carried on quite successfully for about a thousand years without any kind of "last name" or "family name". Archimedes and Aristarchus and Aristotle are simply Archimedes and Aristarchus and Aristotle -- this civilization simply did not have a concept of "family name". The Roman civilization carried on quite successfully for some 8 centuries with a dual system of three name components for men and one name component for women, none of which was a "family name" as we understand it -- and the sole name component used by women was not a "given name"... $\endgroup$ – AlexP Apr 22 at 14:19

As with 98% of problems we find in the world, this one is solved with education. More specifically, literacy training and a well established births registry.

One of the interesting things about writing is that once you transcribe a verbal language onto paper / clay / the internet (the other tablet), what you write tends to stay static even though the verbal language continues to evolve. This is why we write knight instead of nite - the way we pronounced the word in previous times was very different to how we do it now. But, I digress. The real question is how does an early writing system and everyone being able to read and write help stabilise last names?

A fixed and ubiquitous writing system coupled with an established and well maintained births registry tends to stabilise names very quickly. What that means (if you look at England as an example of this) is that many of the things that would normally be considered as a rebranding or re-expression of a name becomes a title rather than a core element of the name. So, you end up with titles like 'General', Bishop', 'Defender of the Faith', 'Order of the British Empire' etc. That way, the name that was recorded at birth remains identifiable to the person in question, but their deeds are still recognised by means of titles rather than by name change.

In England in particular, when surnames started to be assigned during the middle ages, they came from several different sources;

Vocation - Potter, Archer, Smith, Fletcher
Location - West, Meadows, etc.
Lineage - Davidson, MacDonald, O'Malley
Attributes - Long, Black, Coward, etc.

The list goes on.

The point being, that when names started to get recorded, even names like Davidson became handed down, even though they no longer reflected the lineage several generations on. So, establish your writing system, train everyone in it, and then establish a thorough birth registration process. You'll end up with fixed surnames from birth and a push to earn titles rather than new names.


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