The peculiarities of Icelandic naming

The language as a basic element of the national identity.

24 FEBRUARY 2013,
Iceland Chiledren's wall poster
Iceland Chiledren's wall poster

Iceland has a few peculiarities when it comes to names. First of all, Icelanders don't have family names. Secondly, one cannot take up the spouse's last name upon marriage. Thirdly, when naming a child, one has to stick to a limited list of names. How come this little island has these seemingly curious rules?

Unlike most other Western countries Icelanders do not use family names but use a patronymic or matronymic reference. One's name reflects the immediate father or mother and does not refer to the person's historic family lineage. Although Iceland shares a common cultural heritage with the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Denmark and Sweden, it is only Iceland who continues to use their traditional naming system formerly common in all of Scandinavia.

The last name of a male Icelanders therefore usually ends in the suffix -son (“son”) and that of female Icelanders in -dóttir (“daughter”). For example, Iceland's current president is Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, his first name is Ólafur Ragnar and his father's first name was Grímur. Ólafur's daughters are thus Guðrún Tinna Ólafsdóttir and Svanhildur Dalla Ólafsdóttir. Current Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir is Jóhanna, daughter of Sigurður. The patronymic reference is the traditional and most common form used in Iceland, but nowadays in times of gender equality one has the freedom of choosing the matronym instead. Popular football player Heiðar Helguson, for instance, goes by his mother's name: Helguson, son of Helga.

Another option Icelandic law provides is to use both parents' name as last name. For instance, musician Örvar Þóreyjarson Smárason (Örvar, son of Þórey, son of Smári) and former mayor of Reykjavík Dagur Bergþóruson Eggertsson (Dagur, son of Bergþóra, son of Eggert) chose this combination of matronym and patronym. As always, there are some exceptions to the rule. Some family names do exist in Iceland, mostly inherited from parents of foreign origin, immigrants so to speak, while some are adopted. Notable Icelanders who have an inherited family name include former prime minister Geir Haarde, film director Baltasar Kormákur Samper and actress Anita Briem.

Before 1925, it was legal to adopt new family names; one Icelander making use of that possibility was Nobel Prize-winning author Halldór Laxness, born as Halldór Guðjónsson. Since 1925, one can only do so if one explicitly has a legal right to do so through inheritance. Also when it comes to first names, Iceland has a few characteristics. It is common to not name a newborn right away but wait for a certain period of time to get to know the child. Usually this period lasts for about three months, in some cases even longer. Until the naming the child simply goes by stúlka (“girl”) or _strákur _(“boy”). When choosing a name, the parents have to stick to a list of legal first and middle names. Currently there are about 1,712 male names and 1,853 female given names on the list.

If the parents tend towards a moniker not previously used in Iceland and therefore not on the list of possible names, they have to send a request to the Icelandic Naming Committee (Mannanafnanefnd) before being allowed to name their child. The criterion for acceptance of names is whether or not they can be incorporated into the Icelandic language. First, they must contain only letters of the Icelandic alphabet, secondly they must be able to be declined in accordance with the Icelandic grammar. The law states that the desired moniker “may not conflict with the linguistic structure of Icelandic.”

For instance, the name “Pedro” was rejected recently because no Icelandic name ends with an “O”. However, “Pedró”, spelled differently with an Icelandic “ó”, was approved, as it can be declined correctly. The names “Carolina”, “Christa” and “Balthazar” are not legal as well, they must be spelled “Karólína”, “Krista” and “Baltasar” because the alphabet of the Icelandic language doesn't contain “C” or “Z”. Another condition for the approval of a new name is that the moniker shouldn't embarrass the child, even if the name is in accordance to the grammar. Names such as “Satanía”, Ljótur (“Ugly”) and “Lofthæna” (“Air Hen”), for example, were rejected in the past because they might become a social handicap for their bearers.

The cultural ramifications of this matronymic and patronymic naming tradition is that Icelandic women don't take their husbands' names upon marriage as that simply doesn't make any sense. A woman cannot just become somebody else's son. To avoid mix-ups with people of the same name, Icelanders usually use their middle names as well. When Icelandic couples are traveling abroad with their offspring or if they want to register the names of their babies abroad they often run into difficulties because most Western bureaucracies demand that the child is given the surname of the father if the parents are married and of the mother if they are not. Foreign civil servants are usually unfamiliar with the peculiar Icelandic naming practice.

And since there are technically no last names, Icelanders refer to each other simply by first name. All directories such as the telephone directory are alphabetized by first name. To reduce ambiguity, the telephone directory goes further by also listing professions. For example, Icelanders call prime minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir simply Jóhanna, singer Björk is just Björk. Even the president will be addressed as Ólafur, whether formally or casually.

The purpose of this seemingly strict naming policy is to protect Iceland's cultural heritage. The Icelandic language is strongly affected by the phenomenon of Icelandic language purism. The language is regarded as a basic element of the national identity. The main focus of the linguistic purism is to maintain the structure of the language, as it is a heavily declined lingua in comparison to other West-European Indo-European languages.

Just recently, the case of 15-year-old girl Blær Bjarkardóttir made international headlines as she fought the authorities for the right to use her name. In an earlier court ruling, the name “Blær” was disapproved. “Blær” (“light breeze”) is a male word and was therefore not permitted as a girl's name. After taking her case to the capital's District Court, Blær was finally granted the right to legally use the name given to her by her mother, despite the opposition of authorities. Previously, Blær had always just been referred to as “stúlka” (“girl”) on any legal document.