What difference does a letter make?

January 27th, 2016 Sections: Bishkek, Language, Life In Kyrgyzstan, Names
Everyone seems to be on Facebook

Everyone seems to be on Facebook

Andy is a great user of Social Media …

When he first got a Facebook page, he went looking for ‘friends’ to follow … but, unfortunately most of his ‘local’ friends aren’t on Facebook – they tend to be on Odnoklasniki (Classmates) or Vkontakti – (In touch) – the Russian language clones.  So, he registered with them as well … and with Youtube, Twitter, (but he doesn’t really find twitter all that useful), Instagram, Whatsapp … and goodness knows what else.  He often has two of three platforms open at the same time and flips back and forth between them … chatting away, swapping photos, links to clips, and so on.

Andy, however didn’t give up  Facebook … and, to be honest, I think that he prefers it because lots of ‘foreign’ friends – even those here in Kyrgyzstan are on it … and he can use it to keep in touch with them.

Maxim, on the other hand, prefers Instagram … but that’s because he’s into photography.

He went looking for friends using the friends search facility and those people recommended as “people you may know” feature which suggests ‘friends’ of ‘friends’.  At one point, he started  looking for other Claytors.  He found, for example, my brother and nephews … but then came across a  bunch of Claytors in the United States and I had to explain to him that, although we may be related – distantly … very distantly – they were really strangers who just happened to share a surname with me.

In fact, there aren’t that many Claytors around.

It seems that the Malvern branch of the family, from which I hail, originally came to Worcestershire from Nottinghamshire.  There’s a family legend, (although I am not sure I believe it), which tells that we are descended originally from a family called Clayton, who were local squires and landowners, but that there was a scandal involving a gypsy girl and a curse placed on the “seventh son of the seventh son”, (they seem to have gone in for big families in those days).  In an attempt to overcome the curse, one of my ancestors changed his name by replacing the final letter, an “n”, with an an “r” – an attempt to create an “alpha effect” with an “omega change”, as Arthur C. Clarke put it in one of his short stories:

A relatively unknown and insignificant scientist leading a humdrum and ordinary life during the Cold War is persuaded by a couple of strangers to change his name  … not in any major way, just by a single letter … and, they promise, his life will take a turn for the better.

Why should he? he ponders, … but then again, Why not? What does he have to lose?  He takes the necessary administrative steps to effect the change – submitting an application to the authorities and then placing an advert in the pres to inform all and sundry.

The advert is picked up by the intelligence services of the other side. What’s This?, they ask. Why would he do this?  So they start to pay more attention to him and his research … and their attention is in turn picked up by the intelligence services of his own country … who then also decide to investigate further.

One thing leads to another, and like the Hawthorne Effect, (which, incidentally, recent research suggests didn’t really exist – it’s all a psychological myth), all of the attention brings about changes to his circumstances. He gets promoted and his research is fast tracked … in the end, a potential global conflict is averted.

In the final denouement it is revealed that the two strangers were really observers from a superior intelligence … who, bored with their “watching brief” over the affairs of humanity, decide to undertake a wager. One said that they could effect an “alpha” level change in history with an “omega” change of detail … the other had disagreed.  The wager was on.

As it happens, the former won the wager … but now they had a problem.  Their interference in the affairs of mankind would not go unnoticed and so they had to find a way to reverse what they had done.

Squires and Gypsies, Curses and large families … and whatever … it may not as good as Arthur C. Clarke’s version – but it does make a good plot for a story.  In reality, however, I suspect that the true story is much more mundane.

In the past the rules of spelling were far from rigidly enforced.  Many people wrote phonetically – exactly as they spoke … and looking at the census returns at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteen centuries, we can find my Grandfather and his family – but the names are spelt differently each time … presumably the result of the census enumerator asking the question on the form and transcribing the answer that he was given.

It’s still true even today.  Over the years I have gotten used to being called all sorts of variations on my name.  Even back in the UK I used to get letters addressed to Mr. Claybor, Claypole, Clayter … and so on … but, often, people would simply use the version they were familiar with … Clayton.

It happens here as well … people have to concentrate when they try and pronounce it … even if they are reading from a Cyrillic transcription – Клейтор.   Which is, I suppose, understandable … after all, a foreign name.

All this, I suppose, should have prepared me for what happened recently.


A couple of months ago a lawyer was looking over our company documents, title deeds and so on … and he spotted the fact that the address of the hotel on some of the documents was given as Abdumomunova 229, and on others as Abdymomunova 229.  Which was it?, he asked.

Now, these were official documents – filled in by officials.  It wasn’t a case that I had made a mistake transcribing them … like is the main street through the city center Chui, Prospect, or Prospect Chu – it all seems to depend on the context, on which is the noun (Prospect or Chu) and which is the adjective (Chui or Prospect) … but, then again, maybe the officials had simply made a mistake.

As it happens, the lawyer also found some other apparent inconsistencies … so we said that we would investigate and let him know.  We duly trotted off to the State Registry, showed them the documents and asked … what should it be?

The street sign erected by the authorities on the side of the hotel says Abdumomunova … so, I thought, presumably, it should be Abdumomunova … and it should be fairly easy to resolve because it was named after a famous playwright, Toktobolot Abdumomunov who died in 1989 … and the Kyrgyz National Theater is named after him … and that’s definitely with a ‘u’ …

It turns out that all the other apparent inconsistencies had a logical explanation which we were able to pass along to the lawyer … but even the employees at the State Registry were stumped when it came to the the correct spelling of the street name.

They agreed that there seemed to be two different spellings – an older one, with a ‘u‘, but the one currently in use had a ‘y‘.  However, they couldn’t find a document authorizing the change … if there was one.  “Go and see the Mairie,” (City Hall), they said.  “They will have made the name change and ought to have the appropriate order.”

But, when we spoke to them … they were as bemused as everyone else, and said that they had no idea where to look.

As it happens,  the lawyer was satisfied with the other explanations that we were able to give him … and it proved to be an academic, interesting point, but not critical … at least … not yet.

As an aside: The Cyrillic letter ‘y’ is pronounce ‘oo’ (and is often transcribed as a ‘u’ in the Latin alphabet), and there are two Cyrillic letters which are transcribed into English as a ‘y’ – either ы (which is the one used in the case of Abdymomunova) or ‘й‘ (which, when encountered in handwriting, may sometimes look like a û … but this is not the letter used in the case of Abdymomunova).


That may well have been the end of the story – at least for now – except for an incident that occurred last week …

I was out with a couple of employees, buying materials for the renovation we are carrying out at the hotel, and the sales assistant asked for the address.  One of my colleagues duly informed him: Abdumomunova 229.

Now, I know that I am a bit of a pedant … and I was  obviously feeling a little mischievous that day, because I interrupted with: “Ummm … sorry, no it’s not …”.


“Apparently”, I said, “it’s actually Abdymomunova 229.

“Ooooo … Kakaya raznitsa?“, was the sharp reply, dripping with sarcasm … (What difference does it make?)

You know … I could agree that, maybe, he had a point, and the lawyer seemed to agree … BUT … my name is Claytor, not Clayton … and, at least to me, there is a difference.



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