Denmark Personal Names

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Online Records[edit | edit source]

Introduction[edit | edit source]

Considerable confusion exists among many people with Danish ancestry regarding how names are used in Denmark and how they should be recorded. This document attempts to give background into the historical practices, legislation, and recommended best practices for recording Danish personal and place names.

Things To Know[edit | edit source]

  • Just after the middle of the 19th century people began adopting fixed surnames
  • The first law in Denmark regarding names was enacted in 1828
  • Most of the population used patronymic surnames, -sen, -datter
  • Surnames were frequently abbreviated in records
    • The suffix -datter could be shortened to d., dr., dtr., etc.
  • The first spelling reform in Denmark was in 1872, with additional changes in 1872, 1889, and 1948
  • The letter Å (lowercase å) was added to the alphabet in 1948 replacing Aa

Best Practices For Recording Names[edit | edit source]

  • Surnames which are abbreviated in the records should be recorded fully spelled out
  • Farm names indicate residence, and should be recorded as part of the event locality - not as a surname

Legislative Changes[edit | edit source]

Language and Spelling Reforms[edit | edit source]

Denmark has had three significant spelling reforms: 1872, 1889, and 1948. Some additional changes were made in 1892. In 1872 the use of double vowels in some words, such as huus and steen was discontinued. It was also recommended that the letters ø and ö be used to represent the sounds of ø and œ. This was discontinued in 1892. These two forms were sometimes used interchangeably based on the font used in the printed text. These two letters appeared together in some dictionaries until 1918. In 1889 a executive order was issued to compile a dictionary for use in public and private schools containing the latest rules for orthography. The first edition of Viggo Saaby's Dansk Retskrivningsordbog was published in 1891.

In 1948 the letter Å was borrowed from Norwegian replacing Aa. At this time it was placed first in the alphabet, and in 1955 it was moved to being the last letter. Aa is still used in place names, such as Aabenraa[1], and personal names. At this time the practice of using initial capital letters for all nouns was discontinued and limited to proper nouns only. The spelling of modal verbs using nd and ld (such as kunde, vilde) was changed to drop the d and replace it with a double consonant nn, ll (kunne, ville).

Laws on Personal Names[edit | edit source]

Following decrees recommending permanent fixed surnames for the nobility in 1526 and 1771 the first law attempting to establish fixed surnames for the entire population was 30 May 1828. This law failed mostly because the authorities who were called on to enact it did not understand the intent of the law. Another law dated 4 March 1857 clarified the existing law establishing patronymics as fixed surnames. This was still ignored by many people, and led to children being baptized with double patronymics. For example, "Poul Pedersens søn døbt, navnet Peder Poulsen Pedersen."[2]

It was the tradition in all Nordic countries for married women to keep their surname after marriage. This changed gradually during the last half of the 19th century. During the 20th century women were given their husband's surname at marriage. From the beginning of 21st century it has become more common for women to keep their own family name after marriage. New laws in 1981 and 2005 allow children to have either father’s or mother’s surname, or even a patronymic or matronymic surname following the pattern in use prior to 1828.

Name Change (Navneændring)[edit | edit source]

Beginning in 1892 a person's permanent name was considered to be the name that had been recorded in the parish register, even if the person was not using it. Confusion and protest over this rule led the government to try to solve this problem with passage of a law liberalizing name changes on 22 April 1904. Prior to this time, a person was only allowed to change their name by royal authorization. This new law provided for persons to legally change their name for 4 kroner. As part of the approval, they were required to prove the surname had been widely used in the family for several generations. They could also select a different surname if they had permission from everyone else in the country who had the same surname, or they could select a new surname from an official list of approved surnames.

For persons who have changed their names always consult the birth record in the parish register. Depending on the time period and the recording habits of the person making the entry, the person's surname may be given in the record. If the name had been changed there would be a comment added to the record regarding the name change, date, and possibly the type of approval (either royal authorization or legal decree). If the type of approval is not identified in the parish register, there are a few general rules to help you make a reasonable guess. If the name is a given name, a woman's maiden name, or another name that is already being used, the change had to receive royal authorization until 1961. However, if it is a new or an invented name, the name change would have been approved by other supporting documentation which would have been provided to the authority which approved the request. You should start with the court which had authority where the applicant lived.

If multiple family members requested to have their name change, the matter would be dealt with in the legal jurisdiction where the main applicant lived. If a man changed his name while he was still enrolled in the lægdsruller (military levying rolls), they will usually be updated and will provide precise information in the records. It is rare that an application for name change provides a justification for the choice of family name unless there are restrictions on an already used name.

Copenhagen had its own administrative system, which is different than the rest of the country. Applications in Copenhagen were submitted to the Overpræsidium for decision. These records are in the possession of the National Archives as part of Statsamtet Overpræsidiet, Navneforandringssager (Kaldenavn), 1904 - 1961. Elsewhere in the country applications were made to the magistrate, bailiff, or police department, and records would be found among their papers.

Given Names[edit | edit source]

The number of unique given names in Denmark is somewhat larger than in Norway, and with fewer regional variations. In some parts of the country people have only one name as their given name, in other parts multiple names are the norm. In the 1900s hyphenated names became more common.

Culturally, a person has only one given name (or forename), but it may consist of multiple names, such as Vibekke Charlotte Sofie. In this case most English speakers would consider this to be three given names, but in Denmark it would be viewed as the person’s single given name.

Naming Patterns[edit | edit source]

A specific naming pattern was very common in Denmark and in other parts of Europe until about 1850. Although not always followed strictly, the following pattern may be helpful in researching family groups and determining the parents of the mother and father:

  • The first male child was usually named for the father's father.
  • The second boy was named for the mother's father.
  • The first female child was named for the mother's mother.
  • The second girl was named for the father's mother.
  • Additional children were often named for the parents' grandparents.
  • If a spouse died, and the surviving spouse remarried, the first child by the same sex was named after the deceased spouse.

If the wife's parents were deceased, or the couple were living on the wife's parents farm, her parents may have priority in the naming.

Most genealogical records are written in Danish, except for the Schleswig counties of Aabenraa, Haderslev, Sønderborg and Tønder where the records were commonly kept in German. In some parishes records may have been written in Latin. Names are often very different when translated into different languages. For example:

Danish German Latin
Elisabet Elisabethe Elisabetha
Jens Johann Joannes
Albert Albrecht Adalbertus
Smed Schmidt Smedius

Children in the Family With the Same Name[edit | edit source]

Sometimes two or more children within a family were given the same name. In some cases it was because an older child died and the next child of the same gender was given the name. However, two or more children by the same given name could also have lived to adulthood. Do not presume that the first child with that same given name died unless the actual death record is found.

Surnames[edit | edit source]

It is clear from the oldest known records that names have been used to identify individuals throughout history. Surnames, as they are understood by many English-speaking cultures today, first began to be used before the end of the first millennium, C.E. Surnames were first introduced in Europe by the Normans, who were French-speaking descendants of Viking settlers. This may indicate that people living in Scandinavia were among the earliest adopters of some type of surname.

As the population increased, it became necessary to distinguish between individuals with the same name. The problem was usually solved by adding descriptive information such as who a person’s father was, residence, occupation, or characteristic. Now, Hans could be known as Hans the son of John (Johnsen), Hans of Nordgaard farm, Hans the tailor (skredder), or Vesle (young) Hans.

Surnames can be identified as having originated from one of three ways:

  • Patronymic - based on the father’s given name, such as Jensen (son of Jens)
  • Geographical - based on the name of farm or house where they lived, such as Mundal
  • Occupational - based on the person's trade, such as Smed (Smith)

Patronymics[edit | edit source]

Illustration of the derivation of patronymic surnames

The predominant type of surname in Denmark is patronymic. Such names are based on the father's given name. This surname changed with each generation. For example, Niels Andersen was the son of a man named Anders. If Niels had a son named Iver, the son would be known as Iver Nielsen (Iver son of Niels) and his brothers would be surnamed Nielsen, while his sisters would be known as Nielsdatter (daughter of Niels). In some of the earliest church records a person may be recorded with a matronymic surname, based on the person's mother's given name. Cases like this are very unusual, and always indicate the person was illegitimate.

After about 1850, it became the custom in the cities to take permanent surnames. By 1880 most of Denmark began doing so. By 1903, when the law regarding easing restrictions on changing names was passed, most people had already adopted the practice of using a permanent family name to be passed to successive generations.

Abbreviations[edit | edit source]

When recording surnames, it is important to remember that patronymics were frequently abbreviated in the records. The abbreviations dr., dtr., d., are all substitutes for datter. Likewise, male patronymics are frequently shortened to s. In a parish where most of the population has a surname ending with datter or sen, recording the name in full would be needlessly redundant.

Abbreviations in the records are not limited to surnames. Some given names are frequently abbreviated as well. Perhaps the most commonly encountered abbreviation is in names containing the word Christ, where it is written as X, it being a modern siglum of the Greek Χρ, representing the first two letters in the Greek spelling of Christ.

Name Frequency[edit | edit source]

The customs described above constrained the number of unique names in a family, leading to fewer and fewer names in a parish, and, mixed with patronymics over many generations, resulted in many people in a given village having the same names. For example, in the 1860 census for the parish of Birkerød there were 83 men with the given name Jørgen, 11 of which were named Jørgen Jensen. The following table shows the distribution of surnames for 49 men with the given name Jørgen in the parish.

Name Count
Jørgen Jensen 11
Jørgen Hansen 10
Jørgen Larsen 8
Jørgen Nielsen 8
Jørgen Olsen 8
Jørgen Jørgensen 4

Another consequence of these restrictive naming practices was that there were couples all through Denmark with the same names as many other couples. It is a good practice when finding couples with the same names as your ancestors or their descendants, to double-check birth dates and places, as well as parents' names before assuming that they are the same people.

Place Names[edit | edit source]

It is believed the oldest place names in Denmark are more than 1,500-2,000 years old. The practice of identifying a person in connection with their named residence is easily that old. The earliest records we have from Denmark generally identify people by their given name and residence. As these records are for the assessment of taxes, generally only landowners are identified. From other extant records, it is clear most of the population used a patronymic surname.

Frequently people are identified in the records by their given name and residence; by their given name and patronymic surname; or by their given name, patronymic surname, and residence. For example:

  • Ivar Andersen
  • Ivar Krog
  • Ivar Andersen Krog

All three are the same person.

People would also attach place names to uniquely identify themselves. They may have had some association with these places, but often that information is missing from any records which may be available.

Danish-American Name Changes[edit | edit source]

It is not unusual for members of the same family to use different surnames after their emigration. For example, consider this family:

Søren Christian Carlsen of Lendum parish, in Hjørring County married Christine Marie Pedersen of Hørmestad parish, in Hjørring County. They had the following children, who were all recorded at baptism with the surname Sørensen:

  1. Rasmine, b. 1884
  2. Martine, b. 1886
  3. Christian, b. 1888
  4. Egine, b. 1891
  5. Juliane, b. 1892
  6. Marie, b. 1895
  7. Jensine, b. 1897
  8. Oline Dagmar, b. 1899

In 1902 the family immigrated to the United States and had another child, Henry, b. 1904.

In the United States all the children used an Americanized version of their patronymic surname, Sørensen (Sorensen). Søren also Americanized his given name, and adopted the surname Sorensen to match his children as did his wife.

Additional Resources[edit | edit source]

For a list of historical Scandinavian names see Scandinavian Given Names.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. FamilySearch Standardizes Aa as Å in the FamilySearch Catalog and FamilySearch Places.
  2. Navnelov,