Surname Extinction

by Olivia Zhu

Every year, there comes a flood of articles regarding trends in baby names accompanied with charts and historical analyses. I’ve been tickled to see my own first name see rather significant increases popularity over the past decade or so—congratulations to my parents for being trendsetters! Picture1

Yet, equally interesting—if not perhaps even more interesting—is the modeling of surname trends over time, and it was that problem that captivated my collaborator Nicole Flanary (Nicole is the 152nd most popular female baby name, by the way) and me. Surnames tell the stories of lineages, immigration, ethnic enclaves, feminism, assimilation, family planning, and more, whereas given names more typically reflect cultural fads. A study of surnames also offers up the idea of “surname extinction,” the fatalistically named phenomenon that British mathematicians Francis Galton and Henry William Watson modeled. In 1847, they explored the topic to determine whether aristocratic families might go extinct depending on the number of children they had—a process well-modeled since British high society at the time was fairly closed, homogenous, and patrilineal.

Galton and Watson might have found a few other societies interesting as well. Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese populations are renowned for the lack of surname diversity—was there an extinction-style event at some point that eliminated names from the language altogether? Vietnam is a particularly interesting case, as 40% of the population share the same last name: Nguyen. Contrastingly, surname diversity and even inventiveness in other countries is also worth studying, especially since new last names may be easily and often added to the name pool.

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