Icelandic name phenomena

Icelandic nicknames

It is well-known that Icelandic surnames are special and unique in the world. The so-called patronyms are still in use here. Patronyms are “surnames” generated by the first name of your father adding an ending whether you are female (-dóttir for daughter) or male (-son), basically saying whose daughter or son you are. My name for example (if I would be Icelandic) would be Marie Údosdóttir, because my dad is called Udo. But I learned the other day that there are also other Icelandic name phenomena.

Icelandic nicknames (gælunöfn)

While I was chatting with my colleagues at the jólahlaðborð (Christmas buffet) the other day, which is a traditional way for companies celebrating the holiday season with loads of traditional Icelandic food, I found out that there are several ways of a first name to transform into a nickname. Of course, nicknames are generic and therefore you can not typically say “This first name ALWAYS transforms into this nickname”. It’s simply in the nature of nicknames and they come in as many variations as people and characters, I guess. Apparently I am by far not the only one who ever wondered about Icelandic nicknames – turns out there has been even a doctoral dissertation written on Icelandic nicknames (University of California by Kendra Willson).

It seems they are most often sound similar to the formal name or its ground structure is still shining through. “What is also apparent in the formation of nicknames is that they are usually of a certain form, it is as if there was a certain ‘template’ that nicknames should fit into”, says Aðalsteinn Hákonarson from the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies. He goes on saying that they are usually dissyllabic even though the actual name may only have one syllable. For Example: Jón turns into Nonni or Björn into Bjössi.

Since Icelandic doesn’t really have any form of diminutive for personal names, like for example German (for example Lenchen) or Polish, nicknames or pet names are not based on any of that. “However there are some nicknames formed with the element –si, -sa which one can maybe consider a kind of diminutive suffix, e.g. Jónsi for Jón or Grímsi for Steingrímur”, says Aðalsteinn.

“A particularly interesting phenomenon is that nicknames seem often to be derived from the speech of small children”, Aðalsteinn Hákonarson

Icelandic names can be very long and truly difficult to pronounce – not only for foreigners, but presumbly also for kids. I think of names like Þjóðbjörn, Sigþrúður or Hólmfríður.  “A particularly interesting phenomenon is that nicknames seem often to be derived from speech of small children”, reasons Aðalsteinn.

Some of the most popular names have the need to come up with other nickname forms and had to abandon the standard nickname-template. That’s why names like the female name Sigríður, which is usually turning into Sigga can also be Sýrri or the frequent male name Guðmundur can also turn into “Mummi” instead the usual “Gummi”.

Some nickname examples

  • Maggi (usually for Magnús)
  • Sigga (most often for Sigríður)
  • Kiddi (amongst others for Kristinn)
  • Halli (for example for Halldór)
  • Begga (usually for Bergþóra)
  • Villi (for example for Víglundur)
  • Binni (for names like Brynjúlfur and similar)
  • Gummi (often for Guðmundur)
  • Nonni (for Jón)
  • Grímsi (for names with -grímur in it like Steingrímur)

But nicknames aren’t the only name phenonemon I learned more of recently and it is connected with surnames.

Icelandic surnames (ættarnöfn)

Icelandic family names

As I just mentioned patronyms are still in use in Iceland and are for most part of the population the applying surname system. What I didn’t know until recently was that there exist also Icelandic family last names. They usually appear to be Scandinavian, at least to my ears, which is why I haven’t figured out yet that they are meant to be Icelandic. There are some few in existence and how they came into being is rather amusing. Icelandic family names came into fashion rather late, probably in the 19th century. “The first surnames were adopted by Icelanders who were studying in Europe”, explains Kendra Willson, linguist specialised in Scandinavian Languages currently at the University of Turku.

Back in those days everything foreign was en vogue, especially everything Danish due to the Danish occupation and influence. Therefore some rich families simply decided to give themselves Europeans sounding family names. “In the 19th century it became fashionable for the upwardly mobile to adopt surnames, often ‘Danishized’ versions of Icelandic place or personal names”, states Wilson. That is why some of them are retrieved from original place names, for example their home farm or place of activity. “Briem” for example originates from Brjánslækur, the place where the ferry from Stykkishólmur arrives in the wonderful Westfjords. “Hjaltalín” traces back from the farm Hjaltadalur in Skagafjörður, as well as “Blöndal” which comes from a family from Blöndudalshólar. However, adopting new family names was forbidden by law for Icelanders in 1925 and now the patronymic system is the only way to receive a “surname”.

Here a short list of Icelandic surnames:

  • Blöndal
  • Waage
  • Briem
  • Norðdahl
  • Hjaltalín
  • Hjaltested
  • Vídalín

Naming traditions & habits

I learned in some families it is tradition to name the children after their grandparents or great-grandparents. This is also habit in other parts of the world, but with the patronymic system this can lead into endless name loops, which I find especially curious.

icelandic name loopsHere an example of an Icelandic name loop: Your grandfathers’ name would be Magnús Hinriksson and your dads’ name would be Hinrik Magnússon (since he is the son of Magnús). Now you are born and due to the tradition of inheriting your grandfathers name, you’d be Magnús Hinriksson (since you are the son of Hinrik). ∞ See where this is going? ∞

In order to avoid too confusing infinite name loops that go into eternity there is also a very strong tradition of giving children two names. Which I kind of suffer from, since I have two names, but my second name has never been in use the 26 years of my life before besides being noted on my passport (nowhere else, not even in official documents). After I went to Iceland all of a sudden I constantly hear my FULL name, which is super irritating for me, because I do not identify with my second name AT ALL.

Six months to name your baby

In other families the grandparents naming tradition is not so strict or not used at all. There is a 6-month time frame after a baby is born to register its name in Iceland. I am aware that this is possible also in other countries. But I have never heard of any parents taking so long to keep a blank space for their babies name in Germany. However, a lot of Icelanidc families use this time to get to know their newborn, figure out the character and features of their baby and see which name it suits best or if the chosen name is really suitable for the little one. One of my friends wanted to name her first born daughter after her grandma, but when the girl was born it turned out the chosen name didn’t fit her at all, so she found a new one, more suitable name.

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