Iceland Personal Names

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

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

Iceland is the only Nordic country that continues to use patronymics. Nominative lists are organized by given name, residence, and sometimes occupation. People in Iceland with a fixed surname constitute a small minority of the population. Most of these are from when Icelanders were living abroad, usually Denmark, which had rule over Iceland from 1380 until 1943.

In order to prevent the introduction on non-Icelandic words into the language, there are specific laws and rules regarding names. The Mannanafnanefnd (Icelandic Naming Committee) maintains a list Mannanafnaskrá (Register of names of persons) of standard given names. Any new names must be approved by the committee

Things To Know[edit | edit source]

  • The first law in Iceland regarding names was passed in 1913, and amended in 1925
  • Iceland uses patronymic surnames which are derived from the genitive form of the father's given name and a suffix to identify the child's gender, -son (son) or -dóttir (daughter)
  • Surnames were frequently abbreviated in records
    • The suffix -dóttir is frequently abbreviated as d., dr., dtr.
    • The suffix -son is frequently abbreviated as s or ss

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 Reforms[edit | edit source]

Icelandic is a North Germanic language which has not undergone substantial change since the 11th century when the oldest preserved textual material were written. Unlike Finnish, which did not achieve official language status until 1883, Icelandic was always the language of record despite being under Danish rule until 1918.

The cuurent Icelandic alphabet is based on Rasmus Kristian Rask's Vejledning til det Islandske eller gamle Nordiske Sprog (Introduction to the Icelandic or Old Norse Language), published in 1811. This was based heavily on a 12th century document known as the First Grammatical Treatise. This document established an Icelandic alphabet based on the Latin script, included the runic letter Þ, the letter Ǫ, and indicated vowel length using diacritics.

The first spelling rules were proposed in 1859 by Halldór Kristian Friðriksson in his book, Íslenzkar rjettritunarreglar. In 1918 the Stjórnarráðið () approved modified spelling rules which were again modified in 1929 by the Ministry of Education. This change mandated the use of je in place of é in certain cases.[1] In 1973 je was replaced with é and the letter Z was removed from the alphabet. The Íslenzk málnefnd (Icelandic Language Committee) was established in 1964 and is responsible for language policy, spelling, and writing rules.

Laws on Personal Names[edit | edit source]

In the early 1900s some people adopted surnames which were used following their patronymic surname. Most of these persons were associated with the Danish ruling class which already had family names, or they had gone to school in Copenhagen and adopted a fixed surname while a student there. This practice was legalized in 1913 but short-lived. In 1925 the adoption of a new family surname was prohibited by law as they were not an authentic part of Icelandic culture. Persons who had adopted family names during this time were allowed to retain them.

In 2013 a fifteen-year-old girl, known officially as Stúlka (girl) received permission from the court to use the name given to her at birth, Blær (light breeze). Previously, permission to use this name was not granted by the Icelandic Naming Committee as the word blær in Icelandic is masculine, and not feminine.[2] In 2019 a law was passed allowing persons that register their gender as neutral to use -bur, a poetic word for child or son, to be repurposed as a patro/matronymic suffix instead of -son or -dóttir.[3]

Under current law names are recognized as either first names (also referred to as proper names when there is more than one) or middle names. In addition to their surname, a person can have:

  • One first name (Sigríður Jónsdóttir)
  • One first name and one middle name (Sigríður Arnfjörð Jónsdóttir)
  • Two proper names (Sigríður Þorbjörg Jónsdóttir)
  • Two proper names and one middle name (Sigríður Þorbjörg Arnfjörð Jónsdóttir)
  • Three proper names (Sigríður Þorbjörg María Jónsdóttir)

A person may not have more than one middle name or more than three first/proper names, and no more than three names in combination. Adoption of new (unapproved) family names is also prohibited.

Given Names[edit | edit source]

The number of unique given names in Iceland is originally was rather small and remained so until the last half of the 20th century. At present, the Icelandic Naming Committee has an approved list of over 2,000 approved male names, over 2,200 female names, and 180 middle names.

Culturally, people are referred to by their first name, or, if in a group where more than one person has the same first name they would be referred to by their first name and the genitive root of their surname. For example, if there were a group of people where two had the first name Berit, where one had the patronymic Guðbrandursdóttir and the other Tórsdóttir, they would be called Berit Guðbrandurs and the other Berit Tórs.

Naming Patterns[edit | edit source]

A specific naming pattern was very common in Finland and in other parts of Europe until about 1900. 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 son was named after the father's father
  • The second son was named after the mother's father
  • The third son was named after the father
  • The fourth son was named after the fathers eldest brother
  • The first daughter was named after the mother's mother
  • The second daughter was named after the father's mother
  • The third daughter was named after the mother
  • The fourth daughter was named after the mothers eldest sister

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. Also, if a man's wife passed away, and he remarried, the first daughter may be named after the deceased wife.

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 done 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 Jón (Jónsson), Hans of Sandgård farm, or Vesle (young) Hans.

Patronymics[edit | edit source]

Illustration of the derivation of Icelandic patronymic surnames

The predominant type of surname in Iceland is patronymic. Such names are based on the father's given name. This surname changed with each generation. For example, Jón Pállsson was the son of a man named Páll. If Jón had a son named Arne, the son would be known as Arne Jónsson (Arne son of Jón) and his brothers would be surnamed Jónsson, while his sisters would be known as Jónsdóttir (daughter of Jon). 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. In these case it indicates the child was illegitimate, while contemporary use is a matter of personal preference.

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 dóttir. Likewise, male patronymics are frequently shortened to s. In a parish where most of the population has a surname ending with dóttir or son, 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]

From the 1700s up to 1900 the most common female names in Iceland were Gudrun, Sigridur, Margret, Kristin, Helga, Ingibjorg, and Anna. These seven names represent over one-third of the recorded female baptisms. Five male names constituted the top third: Jon, Gudmundur, Sigurdur, Magnus, and Olafur.

Over a period of 150 years in the parish of Oddi, Rangárvallasýsla, over 30% of the girls baptized were given the names Gudrun (15.7%), Margret (5%), Sigridur (4.2%), Kristin (3.6%), and Gudbiorg (2.5%). Slightly over 30% of the boys had the names Jon (16.8%), Gudmundur (8.5%), and Sigurdur (5%).

Farm Names[edit | edit source]

From the beginning of settlement places in Iceland were given specific names. Some of these names were derived from the name of the first settler, and others were descriptive of the location. Since 1953 all farms are required to have their names registered with the government. As the population increased, more places were created through the division of property, with the new property often retaining part of the original property's name. For example, if a farm named Lýsudalur was divided, the part located on a hillside may be called Lýsuhóll. A later division may have created a place called Lýsustaðir.

People were frequently identified in the records by their given name and residence; their given name and patronymic surname; by their given name, patronymic surname, and residence; or by their given name and a nickname. For example:

  • Björn Mörk
  • Björn Kaðalsson
  • Björn Kaðalsson Mörk
  • Björn Hvit

All are the same person.

When farm names are given in a record, they provide residence information and are not part of the person’s surname. As such, they should be added as part of the locality information and NOT a part of the person's name. An illustration would be a person named Mary Smith. Her name alone is not that unique, but if you were to refer to her as Mary Smith of Battle Lake, Minnesota, she is identified with much higher precision.

As many of the original settlers of Iceland were from Norway, it is appropriate to look there for additional insight. According to Yngve Nedrebø, Director of the Regional Archive in Bergen, "[farm names do] not necessarily identify a family or a relationship; it signified a place of residence. If farmer Ole Olsen Li moved from Li to another farm, such as Dal, he would then be known as Ole Olsen Dal. A farm laborer could be named in the same way, even though he was not related to the farmer."[4]

Another problem with including farm names as part of someone’s surname is making the decision of which farm name to use. It is not uncommon for a person to live more than one place over the course of their lifetime. Would you use:

  • The farm on which they were born
  • The farm where they were living at the time of their confirmation
  • Where they lived when the census was taken
  • The farm they lived on when they were married
  • The farm where their children were born
  • The farm where they died

Icelandic-American Name Changes[edit | edit source]

Icelanders who emigrated usually abandoned the traditional Icelandic naming system in favor of the naming conventions of their new country. Usually they adopted the patronymic of their male immigrant ancestor as a surname. Married women adopted their husband's name.

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

Wikipedia. Icelandic name.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Guðrun Kvaran, "Hvenær var bókstafurinn 'é' tekinn upp í íslensku í stað 'je' og af hverju er 'je' enn notað í ýmsum orðum?" (When was the letter 'é' introduced in Icelandic instead of 'je' and why is 'je' still used in various words?), Vísindavefurinn, 12 November 2011. 24 March 2021.
  2. BBC News, Icelandic girl Blaer wins right to use given name Accessed 31 January 2013
  3. [1] Accessed 24 March 2021.
  4. Nedrebø, Yngve, How to trace your ancestors in Norway. Oslo, Norway : Royal Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1989. FHL Book 948.1 D27o 1989. Also available online at Digital Archives, How to trace your ancestors in Norway.