Icelandic name

A simple family tree showing the Icelandic patronymic naming system

Icelandic names are names used by people from Iceland. Icelandic surnames are different from most other naming systems in the modern Western world by being patronymic or occasionally matronymic: they indicate the father (or mother) of the child and not the historic family lineage. Iceland shares a common cultural heritage with the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Norway, and Sweden. Unlike other Nordics, Icelanders have continued to use their traditional name system, which was formerly used by all Nordic countries except partly Finland.[a] The Icelandic system is thus not based on family names (although some people do have family names and might use both systems). Generally, with few exceptions, a person's last name indicates the first name of their father (patronymic) or in some cases mother (matronymic) in the genitive, followed by -son ("son") or -d贸ttir ("daughter").

Some family names do exist in Iceland, most commonly adaptations from last name patronyms Icelanders took up when living abroad, usually Denmark. Notable Icelanders who have an inherited family name include former prime minister Geir Haarde, football star Ei冒ur Sm谩ri Gu冒johnsen, entrepreneur Magn煤s Scheving, film director Baltasar Korm谩kur Samper, and actress Anita Briem. Before 1925, it was legal to adopt new family names; one Icelander to do so was the Nobel Prize-winning author Halld贸r Laxness, while another author, Einar Hj枚rleifsson and his brothers all chose the family name "Kvaran". Since 1925, one cannot adopt a family name unless one explicitly has a legal right to do so through inheritance.[3][4]

First names not previously used in Iceland must be approved by the Icelandic Naming Committee before being used.[5] The criterion for acceptance of names is whether they can be easily incorporated into the Icelandic language. With some exceptions, they must contain only letters found in the Icelandic alphabet (including and ), and it must be possible to decline the name according to the language's grammatical case system, which in practice means that a genitive form can be constructed in accordance with Icelandic rules.

Gender-inappropriate names have typically not been allowed; however, in January 2013, a 15-year-old girl named Bl忙r (a masculine noun in Icelandic) was allowed to keep this name in a court decision that overruled an initial rejection by the naming committee.[6] Her mother Bj枚rk Ei冒sd贸ttir did not realize at the time that Bl忙r was considered masculine; she had read a novel by Halld贸r Laxness, The Fish Can Sing (1957), that had an admirable female character named Bl忙r, meaning "light breeze", and had decided that if she had a daughter, she would name her Bl忙r.[7]

In 2019, changes were announced to the laws governing names. Given names will no longer be restricted by gender. Moreover, Icelanders who are officially registered with non-binary gender will be permitted to use the patro/matronymic suffix -bur ("child of") instead of -son or -d贸ttir.[8]

Typical Icelandic naming

A gravestone with a patronymic and avonymic: "P谩ll, son of J贸n, son of Matt铆as"

A man named J贸n Einarsson has a son named 脫lafur. 脫lafur's last name will not be Einarsson like his father's; it will become J贸nsson, indicating that 脫lafur is the son of J贸n (J贸ns + son). The same practice is used for daughters. J贸n Einarsson's daughter Sigr铆冒ur's last name would not be Einarsson but J贸nsd贸ttir. Again, the name means "J贸n's daughter" (J贸ns + d贸ttir).

In some cases, an individual's surname is derived from a parent's middle name instead of the first name. For example, if J贸n is the son of Hj谩lmar Arnar Vilhj谩lmsson he may either be named J贸n Hj谩lmarsson (J贸n, son of Hj谩lmar) or J贸n Arnarsson (J贸n, son of Arnar). The reason for this may be that the parent prefers to be called by the middle name instead of the first name; this is fairly common. It may also be that the parent's middle name seems to fit the child's first name better.

In cases where two people in the same social circle bear the same first name and the same father's name, they have traditionally been distinguished by their paternal grandfather's name (avonymic), e.g. J贸n 脼贸rsson Bjarnasonar (J贸n, son of 脼贸r, son of Bjarni) and J贸n 脼贸rsson Hallssonar (J贸n, son of 脼贸r, son of Hallur). This practice has become less common (the use of middle names having replaced it), but features conspicuously in the Icelandic sagas.

Matronymic naming as a choice

The vast majority of Icelandic last names carry the name of the father, but occasionally the mother's name is used: e.g. if the child or mother wishes to end social ties with the father. Some women use it as a social statement while others simply choose it as a matter of style.

In all of these cases, the convention is the same: 脫lafur, the son of Brynd铆s, will have the full name of 脫lafur Brynd铆sarson ("the son of Brynd铆s"). Some well-known Icelanders with matronymic names are the football player Hei冒ar Helguson ("Helga's son"), the novelist Gu冒r煤n Eva M铆nervud贸ttir ("Minerva's daughter"), and the medieval poet Eil铆fr Go冒r煤narson ("Go冒r煤n's son").

In the Icelandic film Bjarnfre冒arson the title character's name is the subject of some mockery for his having a woman's name 鈥 as Bjarnfre冒ur's son 鈥 not his father's. In the film this is connected to the mother's radical feminism and shame over his paternity, which form part of the film's plot.[9] Some people have both a matronymic and a patronymic: for example, Dagur Berg镁贸ruson Eggertsson ("the son of Berg镁贸ra and Eggert"), the mayor of Reykjav铆k since 2014. Another example is the girl Bl忙r mentioned above: her full name is Bl忙r Bjarkard贸ttir R煤narsd贸ttir ("the daughter of Bj枚rk and R煤nar").

Gender-neutral patronymics and matronymics

A gender autonomy act approved by the Icelandic Parliament in 2019, allows individuals who register their gender as neutral to use bur, a poetic word for "son" to be repurposed as a neuter noun, as a suffix instead of son or d贸ttir.[10][11][12]


Unlike the other Nordic countries, Iceland never formalized a system of family names.[13] A growing number of Icelanders 鈥 primarily those who had studied abroad 鈥 began to adopt family names in the second half of the 19th century. In 1855, there were 108 family names but by 1910 there were 297.[13] In 1913, the Althing legalized the adoption of family names. The Icelanders who had family names tended to be upper-class and serve as government officials.[13]

In 1925, Althing banned the adoption of new family names.[13] Some of the common arguments against the usage of family names were: they were not authentically "Icelandic"; the usage of -son in family names made it unclear if the name was actually a family name or patronymic; and there were fears that low-class people would adopt the family names of well-known upper-class families.[13] Some of the common arguments for the usage of family names were: they made it easier to trace lineages; they made it easier to distinguish individuals (a problem in mid-19th century Iceland was that there were so many people named J贸n 鈥 in fact, one in six Icelandic males were named J贸n at the time); and that Iceland ought to follow the lead of its Nordic neighbours.[13]

Cultural ramifications

In Iceland, listings such as the telephone directory are alphabetised by first name rather than surname. To reduce ambiguity, the telephone directory goes further by also listing professions. In Russia, where name-patronyms of similar style were historically used (such as Ivan Petrovich which means Ivan, the son of Peter), the much larger population necessitated the introduction of surnames, and relegated the patronymic to record-keeping middle-name and conversational honorific.

Icelanders formally address others by their first names. By way of example, the former prime minister J贸hanna Sigur冒ard贸ttir would not be introduced as 'Ms Sigur冒ard贸ttir' but either by her first name or her full name, and usually addressed by her first name only. While the name of Icelandic singer Bj枚rk is generally perceived as her stage name,[citation needed] it is actually simply her first name (her full name is Bj枚rk Gu冒mundsd贸ttir). Bj枚rk is how any Icelander would address her, whether formally or casually.

In the case of two people in the same group having the same given name, perhaps one named J贸n Stef谩nsson and the other J贸n 脼orl谩ksson, one could address J贸n Stef谩nsson as "J贸n Stef谩ns" and J贸n 脼orl谩ksson as "J贸n 脼orl谩ks". When someone holds a conversation with these two people at the same time, the appendage "son" would not need to be used; in that case, the genitive form of the father's name could be used like a nickname, although it is just as common in such cases to refer to people by their middle names (having a middle name being nowadays the general rule for people with a common name like 'J贸n').

As a result of the vast majority of people using patronymics, a family will normally have a variety of last names: the children of (married or unmarried) parents J贸n Einarsson and Brynd铆s Atlad贸ttir could be named 脫lafur J贸nsson and Katr铆n J贸nsd贸ttir. With matronymics, the children in this example would be 脫lafur Brynd铆sarson and Katr铆n Brynd铆sard贸ttir. Patronymics thus have the formula (genitive case of father's name, usually adding -s, or if the name ends in -i, it will change to -a) + son/d贸ttir/bur, whereas matronymics are (genitive case of mother's name, often -ar, or if the name ends in -a, it will change to -u) + son/d贸ttir/bur.

Outside of Iceland

The Icelandic naming system occasionally causes problems for families travelling abroad, especially with young children, since non-Icelandic immigration staff (apart from those of other Nordic countries) are usually unfamiliar with the practice and therefore expect children to have the same last names as that of their parents.

Icelandic footballers who work abroad similarly will be referred to by their patronymics, even though such use of the term is considered "improper" from a native Icelandic standpoint. Aron Gunnarsson, for example, wore the name "Gunnarsson" on the back of his uniform in the Premier League before his move to Al-Arabi, and was referred to as such by the British media and commentators.

Expatriate Icelanders or people of Icelandic descent who live in foreign countries, such as the significant Icelandic community in the Canadian province of Manitoba, usually abandon the traditional Icelandic naming system. In most cases, they adapt to the naming conventions of their country of residence鈥攎ost commonly by retaining the patronymic of their first ancestor to immigrate to the new country as a permanent family surname, much as other Nordic immigrants did before surnames became fully established in their own countries.[14] Alternatively, a permanent family surname may sometimes be chosen to represent the family's geographic rather than patronymic roots; for example, Canadian musician Lindy Vopnfj枚r冒's grandfather immigrated to Canada from the Icelandic village of Vopnafj枚r冒ur.[15]

See also