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, it means ‘helper’ or ‘defender’, derived from the Greek verb alexein. Alexios gained prominence thanks to the eponymous Byzantine emperors of the 10th to 12th century. From the 14th century, the name became popular in orthodox Russia in the form of Алексей.

As no method perfectly transcribes Cyrillic into Latin names, several variations of my first name exist in German and English. My birth certificate spells my name Alexej, which is the German standard. In English, Alexei or Alexey are widespread; on occasion, Aleksei or Aleksey.

These spellings already give a clue about pronunciation. English speakers start with the common name Alex and add the verb SAY: Alex-SAY, with a stress on the second syllable.

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

To move on to my second name: Behnisch

Behnisch is a German family name of Silesian, in some cases 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 ‘spoken well of’ in a literal translation.

Benedictus spread following the Christianisation of Silesia in the 14th century, mainly in admiration of Saint Benedict of Nursia (480-547) and the influential 12th-century Benedictine Order.

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

English speakers can pronounce Behnisch as bay-NISH: ‘bay’ like the geographical term, and ‘nish’ similar to fish. The stress falls on the second syllable. BAY is not entirely correct, but close enough. ‘Beh’ is a B followed by a prolonged ‘eeeh’, as in ‘heh’ or ‘meh’.

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

Or in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA): ɐlʲɪkˈsʲej ˈbeːnɪʃ

To simplify, many people 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.