Alexej Behnisch

About my name

When I say my name, I am always already expecting further questions. How do you spell it? How do you pronounce it? What does it mean? Where does it come from?

To start with my first name: Alexej

Alexej is a hybrid name, combining four elements: Alexej is a [1] Latinised German spelling of a [2] Cyrillic Russian name based on a [3] Byzantine tradition of [4] ancient Greek origin.

The original Greek name goes back to Αλέξιος or Alexios. Translated, this means ‘helper’ or ‘defender’ derived from the Greek verb alexein. Alexios (or sometimes Alexius) rose to prominence through the eponymous Byzantine emperors of the 10th to 12th century. From the 14th century onwards the name then became popular in orthodox Russia in the form of Алексей.

As no perfect method exists to transcribe Cyrillic into Latin names, there are several variations of my first name in German and English. My birth certificate spells my name Alexej, which is the most common German spelling. In English, Alexei or Alexey are more widespread spellings; sometimes also Aleksei or Aleksey.

These spellings already provide some clues regarding pronunciation. For English speakers, the easiest way is to start with the common name Alex and add the verb SAY (as in to speak or talk): Alex-SAY, with a stress on the second syllable.

Slavic speakers usually pronounce X with a stronger K sound than English or German speakers. This makes Alex sound more like Aleks, and Alexej therefore like Alek-SAY. However, these are nuances.

To move on to my second name: Behnisch

Behnisch is a German family name of Silesian, sometimes also Sorbian or Czech, origin. First records place the name in the 14th century in what today has become the border region of South-West Poland, the Northern part of the Czech Republic and Eastern Germany.

An ethnically and culturally diverse region of Slavic origin and Germanic migration, Silesia became part of the Habsburg empire in 1526 and then Prussia in 1740. At the time of German unification in 1871, Silesia had a German majority but with strong Polish and Jewish minorities. After 1945, most of Silesia went to Poland; only a small German minority remained thereafter.

Behnisch originates from the Latin name Benedictus, which means ‘blessed’ in the prevailing religious context or simply ‘spoken well of’ in a literal translation.

Benedictus went on to become a popular name following the Christianisation of Silesia from the 14th century onwards, mainly due to the admiration of Saint Benedict of Nursia (480-547) and the influential 12th-century Benedictine Order.

In later centuries, the name Benedictus was transformed into localised languages and dialects with various spellings: Behnisch, Benisch or Benesch as common German spellings, Beneš or Beniš in regions of Czech influence.

For English speakers, the simplest way to pronounce Behnisch is bay-NISH: ‘bay’ like the geographical term, and ‘nish’ similar to fish beginning with an N. The stress lies on the second syllable. BAY is not entirely correct, but close enough. Basically, ‘Beh’ is just a B followed by a prolonged ‘eee’, as in ‘heh’ or ‘meh’.

In short: Alexej Behnisch or Alex-SAY bay-NISH

Of course, to simplify, some people just call me Alex. If I had moved to the United States in the 1880s, when name-changing was en vogue, American officials might have converted my name to Alex Benish. Less unique, but simpler to remember. With a little help, however, Alexej Behnisch is also pronounceable.