Swedish Surnames: What’s in a Name

November 8, 2018  - by 
Swedish surnames and their meaning in family history

Have you ever poked around your family tree and run across a line of people with Swedish names such as Lars Andersson, Karen Svensdotter, Britta Johansdotter, and Per Lindström? Were you confused when the family surname changed a lot? Why didn’t Nils Hansson and his father Hans Eriksson share a surname? Something must be wrong! Right?

In fact, what is going on here is a classic case of patronymics (except in the case of Mr. Lindström). A patronymic name is one that is created when a prefix or suffix is attached to the father’s name. For example, the patronymic name Hansson can be broken into two parts: Hans and son. This patronymic means that someone with the surname Hansson was the son of Hans. Understanding this basic concept–and some related pointers outlined below–will go a long way in sorting out and solving your Swedish genealogy problems.

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Beginnings of Modern Surnames and Patronymics

Throughout history, cultures have used different naming practices to distinguish one person from another. In Europe, the practice of attaching a surname to a given name began to be standard toward the end of the Middle Ages. Many surnames were descriptive in one form or another. They were often derived from an occupation (for example, Baker, Smith, or Miller), a nearby location (such as Hill, Wood, or Hamilton), or a characteristic (for example, Brown, Strong, or Young).

Another method of creating a last name was using the father’s first name and attaching a prefix or suffix that denoted the relationship. William the son of John became William Johnson. This is the patronymic system described above, which became the norm in Sweden and other Nordic countries.

a group of Swedish family members on a boat.

Swedish Patronymics

So now we understand that Swedish names such as Andersson, Hansson, and Olofsson came from the father’s name plus “son,” but what about Johansdotter, Svensdotter, and Andersdotter? That’s easy—“dotter” simply indicated that the person was the daughter of Johan, Sven, Anders, or whatever the case may be. Because of this pattern, male and female siblings would have had similar but different surnames. That is, if Per Andersson had a son and a daughter, their last names would have been Persson and Persdotter, respectively.

A list of the top 5 swedish last names.
In English-speaking countries, a family may have adopted a patronymic surname (such as Johnson) that stuck throughout the generations, but in Sweden (and other Nordic countries) the patronymic name most often changed with every generation. For example, Hans Persson was the son of Per Andersson and Per was the son of Anders Johansson.

Another important naming convention in Sweden was that a woman did not adopt her husband’s surname upon marriage but kept her own patronymic birth name. So, if Karen Persdotter married Hans Andersson, she did not become Karen Andersson, but remained Karen Persdotter throughout her life.

When children were born out of wedlock in Sweden, the naming convention was less clear. They may eventually have adopted a patronymic name based on their biological father’s given name, but the child could also have adopted the mother’s patronymic name. For instance, if Lars was born out of wedlock to Stina Andersdotter, then Lars could have been known as Lars Andersson. In rare instances, the child may have used a matronymic name (that is, Lars’s surname could have been Stinasson).

Nonpatronymic Surnames

As mentioned above, surnames were not always patronymic. They could have described the individual in another way, such as by an occupation, a personal characteristic, or a location. In Sweden, members of the clergy or nobility would sometimes adopt nonpatronymic surnames. By the beginning of the 17th century, this practice had become so common that clergy and nobility generally stopped using patronymic names.

Soldiers were another group who adopted nonpatronymic names, at least during their military service. This practice was key to differentiating between men who bore the same name. Some examples of these nonpatronymic names are Rask, Dahl, Åberg, and Lindström. A soldier may have kept the nonpatronymic surname throughout his life or may have dropped it when he left the military. In some instances, children may have used the father’s soldier surname but in most cases, they used the patronymic system.

End of the Patronymic System

As society changed in the mid- to late 19th century with increased industrialization, migration into cities, and emigration, the conventions surrounding Swedish surname usage also changed.

Women began using the -son suffix rather than the -dotter suffix. Sometimes a woman may have taken her husband’s patronymic surname upon marriage. A person or family may have chosen to freeze the father’s patronymic surname and carry it forward through multiple generations. Siblings may have chosen different surnames.

Common Swedish surnames and women's namnig conventions

As Swedes migrated to foreign countries, they frequently modified their surnames to be more closely aligned with the language of the new culture. That surnames could change so much serves as a reminder that when researching, it is vital to rely upon multiple details—relationships, residences, occupations, vital dates, and so on—to uniquely identify an ancestor.

Spelling of Names

One last note! It is important to remember that although we often think that spelling is set in stone, it was not always so in the past. Clerks often spelled Swedish names phonetically or how they thought the names should be spelled. Similarly, some given names (and therefore patronymic surnames) were interchangeable. For example, the name Peter could have been spelled Petter, Peder, Petrus, Pelle, Per, Pehr, Pär, Päder, or Pähr. In other words, Hans Petersson may have been the same man as Hans Pehrsson, Hans Pederson, Hans Pärsson, and so on.

Don’t let spelling variations be a roadblock! To find common variations of your ancestor’s name, try visiting the Sweden Names page in the FamilySearch wiki or looking up Swedish names on sites such as NordicNames.de.

You can use this knowledge of Swedish surnames to better understand your Swedish family lines. Knowing the ins and outs of Swedish naming practices, you can also be much more successful in discovering your ancestors in Sweden’s extensive genealogy records!

Legacy Tree Genealogists is a genealogy research firm with expertise in researching Swedish ancestors and ancestors from many other backgrounds. Founded in 2004, the company provides full-service genealogical research for clients worldwide, helping them discover their roots and personal history through records, narratives, and DNA.

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  1. I really enjoyed learning so much about the culture and foods it makes family research and history more meaningful!

  2. One item that remains a mystery to me is how did soldiers obtain surnames when entering the service. I have tried to research this using books about Swedish genealogy published for general use in English language (usually written by American researchers) and I even asked a third cousin who I located who lives in Sweden: but I found no definitive answer. Perhaps there is some source in literature or governmental/military history written in Swedish that might have an answer, but I have been unable to locate/access such information, not knowing how to scan through Swedish titles and topics. One reason this question persists is that I have a direct ancestor who took/was assigned the surname of Holmquist when entering the Swedish Army in the mid-1800s. Three of his other brothers subsequently joined the Army in succeeding years and each ended up with completely different surnames: Fors (sometimes spelled Forse), Löfdahl and Nelander. Perhaps the same logic applied to why they each had different names as applied in relieving them of the much repeated patronymic Jönsson. However , how did they come to have these specific names? Did they pick the surname themselves or was it assigned to them by some authority figure (e.g., a unit commander), and if so, how was that determination made?

  3. My father born out of wedlock to a mother named Petersdotter is said to have known his father as Palm and changed it tp Palmér by adding an acute é + r on coming to England. Was this done in Sweden?. He came from Växjo. Thanking you, Oscar Palmér.

  4. My maiden name was Meline. My grandfather Olaf Meline, immigrated from Sweden as a young man. In Sweden, he was known as Olaf Jonson but used the name of Meline in the USA. There was some hearsay that he had a choice to change it at time of immigration. Just wondering if there is any more you might add to that and to the meaning of the name itself. It seems fairly unusual to me.

  5. I have two grandmothers in my 8th generation who were given their father’s first name with “sen” added. I thought that suffix meant son of. Any clues about these two women’s names?

  6. I found the article very interesting and wanted to print it to refer back to it, but all I get is the picture. Can this be fixed please.

    1. Did you click “File” and then “print”? That’s the best way I know how to print something that’s online.

  7. Great info! I just found that my gg grandfather at some point changed his name from Jonsson to Lindstrom and it has stayed ever since. It looks like he changed it around when he immigrated to Minnesota. I was wondering if this was commonplace to change last names.