https://www.duolingo.com/Usagiboy7

Naming a child in Iceland--protecting a language from extinction

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In an effort to keep their language from becoming extinct, the Icelandic government has created various policies to protect it. One of those policies is an Act passed in 1996, that regulates how people can and cannot name their children. In consequence there are about 1,800 approved names for girls and 1,800 approved names for boys. (I don't know what names there are for anyone else though. But, the list is slowly growing) The government also bars people from using non-Icelandic alphabet characters in their children's names (So, no C's or Z's).

As a side note, last names are not patronymic or occasionally matronymic. They will most often just be composed of "son of" or "daughter of" attached to a parent's first name.

A man named Jón Einarsson has a son named Ólafur. Ólafur's last name will not be Einarsson like his father's; it will become Jónsson, literally indicating that Ólafur is the son of Jón (Jóns + son). The same practice is used for daughters. Jón Einarsson's daughter Sigríður's last name would not be Einarsson but Jónsdóttir. Again, the name literally means "Jón's daughter" (Jóns + dóttir).

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: Ólafur, the son of Bryndís, will have the full name of Ólafur Bryndísarson ("the son of Bryndís"). One well-known Icelander with a matronymic name is football player Heiðar Helguson ("Helga's son"), another is novelist Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir ("Minerva's daughter"). One medieval example is the poet Eilífr Goðrúnarson ("Goðrún's son"). Source

Due to all of this, use of first names, even in formal situations is most common.

Click this (rather entertaining) video to learn more.
(Note: The whole video is captioned automatically. No voicing provided.)

1 year ago

41 Comments


https://www.duolingo.com/Mr_Eyl
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Great post about a subject that's always fascinated me.

I love the Icelandic naming system, but I'm not such a big fan of the naming committee. I don't think it's a government's place to tell you what you can and can't name your child for any reason (offensive and nonsensical names being the exceptions), never mind linguistic purity.

The Icelandic government is actually in the process of disbanding the naming committee, so people will soon have a lot more freedom in their choices of name, and there won't be any silly situations along the lines of 'you can't call your daughter that. It's a boy's name'.

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/PJMCD
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Something like that could be useful in places (@people who call their children "Facebook" and "Hashtag")

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Usagiboy7
Mod
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there won't be any silly situations along the lines of 'you can't call your daughter that. It's a boy's name'.

So happy about that!

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/PotatoSanta
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Thank you for this Usagi. Icelandic sounds like poetry to me. I agree with Mr_Eyl, someone should tell them adding Icelandic to Duolingo might be a better way to preserve the language.

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Usagiboy7
Mod
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Icelandic is struggling in the digital age. There are many machines that are programmed for a multitude of languages, but not programmed with Icelandic. It is contributing to the lack of enthusiasm many Icelandic youth feel towards retaining the language. Many are using English and other languages more often in their day to day lives.

The more languages that go extinct, the more things like problem solving and ability to invent new technology and such our species loses. (And, of course, poetry and other beautiful things that can only be well articulated by the languages going extinct.) :(

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/PotatoSanta
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We should do our best to preserve things like poetry, language, stories and anything to do with culture for people to enjoy later. Things will change, languages will come go and in a hundred years the world will be full of new people with different ways of thinking. We can only make guesses about life in places like ancient Rome but we are able to leave a lot more behind than they were.

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/IsakNygren1
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Usagi: I know you mean well, but avoid ((())) in meaning the triple ones. It has become a symbol among Anti-semites, especially Nazis.

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Usagiboy7
Mod
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I was not aware. I have used it to produce emphasis for years. I will remember not to use it here, because langauge matters and cultural re-traumatization is a real thing. Thank you!

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/IsakNygren1
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They have only used it for a short while, so it's possible that you have used it longer than they have done. There is more info here: http://amp.knowyourmeme.com/memes/triple-parentheses-echo

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Usagiboy7
Mod
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Thank you for the link. I see it is talking about echoing names. I hope that echoing feelings will be be reclaimed. Because, a deep, booming statement of EMPATHY, but without the wall of text-sound all caps can bring. Echos feel a bit gentler on me and sincere in a way that radiates, rather than shouts.

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/IsakNygren1
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I agree.

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/slogger
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Thanks for the link!

> there are about 1,800 approved names for girls and 1,800 approved names for boys. I don't know what names there are for anyone else though.

Besides boys and girls, what else might there be?

> As a side note, last names are not patronymic or occasionally matronymic.

You mean they are, right? rather than they are not?

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/PJMCD
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Thanks, this was really interesting!

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/IsakNygren1
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Sweden had this system until around 100 years ago. But the system changed in different speed in different parts of the country. In some areas it was already changed around 150 years ago.

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/staplesnout
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The idea of regulation is not bad. Some countries (I shall not call the names) should adopt it.

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Dr_Patriot

Fun fact: there is one name that is de facto unisex in Iceland: Blær. Anyone can take that name regardless of their sex at birth.

Though I'm not the most hip with my Icelander friends but if someone doesn't want to use the probably-sort-of well known and perhaps controversial name Blær they could (And I'm speaking only in the most practical sense) get the same effect that would come with picking an actual unisex name by picking for their child the rarest/least well known male or female name depending on their child's sex. If a name is so rare that you've never heard it used it's in effect a unisex name.

Now that I'm looking at the more rare given names from my birth year I'm seeing that if someone introduced themself as 'Nikhil' or 'Odalys' I wouldn't have any preconceived notion of whether they had a boy or girl's name even though those are both of pretty clear sexed origin.

What would be the true problem for those who are not men or women is the patronym/matronym where they must either be Magnússon or Magnúsdóttir. I'm hip enough, though, that I've found out Icelanders typically introduce themselves with "First name, middle name" and often don't even include their patronym. After first introductions, most people probably couldn't care what their father's name was so they probably won't ask for the patronym.

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Usagiboy7
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I know almost nothing about Iceland. So, I am excited to be reading all of these comments. I have a great admiration for creative problem solving. Thanks for sharing this!

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Maughanster_
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Very interesting, Usagi! Thanks for posting this.

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/mizinamo
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I think that using the term "last name" in reference to Icelanders is confusing, because to most continental Europeans, that means "family name" when in fact, most Icelanders don't have a family name!

The second name is more of a description -- "Son of Ólafur" etc.

It would be like saying that "the Red" was Erik the Red's "last name", or that "VIII" was Henry VIII's "last name".

So having the article use that term perpetuates the confusion.

I don't think anyone is surprised that none of Elizabeth II's children inherited her "last name", "II" -- because that's not a last name in the way it's usually understood. Nor is Einarsson.

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/bergenhopps
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This naming system isn't exactly accommodating for those who identify as nonbinary or agender.

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/annika_a
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To be fair, newborn babies don't even identify as individual human beings yet. :-p

I guess the question is whether the same rules apply to adults who want to change their names.

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Usagiboy7
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No, but, from the moment they are born, people are teaching babies how to identify as individual human beings. And, if it doesn't match, it starts putting pressure on them the moment those children (or later adults) start realizing it. People should not grow up having to fear rejection from the people they depend on for physical and emotional survival and well-being.

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/annika_a
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Sure, I'm very aware of the genderized treatment and expectations of even tiny (and unborn...) babies. But I wasn't joking when I said they don't know they're individuals yet. So they really don't have any clue yet about all of this. And most jurisdictions require a child to be named pretty quickly after birth, so what is the solution? I do think Dr_Patriot is making some cool points in this thread.

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Usagiboy7
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Consider someone in Iceland using a C in their child's name. How does the government react? By rejecting the name and blocking the parent's right to put the name on identity documents. If a parent in the United States a boy Rebecca, the court will probably allow it. But, will society? I bet some people would call it child abuse. (BTW I pick examples to do with gender because it is the subject I have a great amount of familiarity with, both personally and academically. So, it is readily at hand for me.)

So, is the gendered naming situation in the US for cisgender people, naming rituals and taboos among gender non-conforming folks, and Iceland's naming policies all that different? One is a government, and the other is society. Both are enforcing naming norms. So, same idea: Naming is sacred (for whatever reason, saving a language, protecting cultura gender norms. In both situations, the integrity of naming systems are to be breached only under threat of consequences.

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/ruferales

Nothing is forever and things are dying right when they are supposed to. When you don't let something go, new and possibly better things won't be able to come.

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Azebrafish

Considering that the "successes" of colonialism, outcomes of war and world views could have been slightly different, the whole world (and it's dominant vs endangered languages) could have also been very different. Had the ancient Chinese ventured out west instead of following their Confucianist teachings, I may not have existed and absolutely everyone would be speaking Chinese out here. Nothing in the world of languages is "dying when it's supposed to". As if it's supposed to die to make room for dominant languages? Languages die whatever random moment the final speaker of a language dies, in spite of dominant languages, among other possible reasons (genocide, isolation, lack of offspring of the last speakers, lack of will to learn a non dominant language).

When you state that it's okay for "things" to die and that new "things" and "possibly better things" are on their way, in context to the original post you're implying that the cultural history and the people that carry on endangered languages are inferior to those of dominant languages. That is where you are wrong. Recognizing and preserving languages is important for maintaining a connection to culture and keeping dominant languages from entirely threatening ones that are still sustainable (like the success in speakers of gaelic for example). Even the more dominant languages sometimes need protection since bilingual areas can become monolingual quickly without government regulation (I'm looking at you French areas of Canada). And why should't underdeveloped countries or marginalized groups have an opportunity at an education and government protection?

Check out this map where you can search the endangered languages from your area: http://www.unesco.org/languages-atlas/

Also check out UNESCO's About Us section:

http://en.unesco.org/about-us/introducing-unesco

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/PJMCD
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Your point?

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/psionpete
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I am not convinced that these draconian measures are justified in order to save their language from extinction. It sounds like the Icelandic government are being extremely controlling in a families free choice of name and spelling, something that the Nazi government in Germany would be proud of. I am surprised that Denmark has allowed such legislation as it must be in contravention to the ideals of the European Court of Human Rights.

A government should only control what they are entitled to control such as road signs, official documents and the languages taught in state schools and not get involved with personal freedoms. AFAIK, The last time such a thing was attempted was by General Franco's attempt to ban any of the regional languages of Spain being used in public, which I believe had the opposite affect to the one he expected.

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Mr_Eyl
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"something that the Nazi government in Germany would be proud of."

They never actually did this. I didn't expect Godwin's law on Duo. :)

" I am surprised that Denmark has allowed such legislation as it must be in contravention to the ideals of the European Court of Human Rights."

Denmark's list is a little longer (33,000 names) and allows foreign given names and surnames which aren't on the list. It's mostly in place to avoid offensive names. There are regulations for naming one's kids in place in Sweden, Mexico, Malaysia, Germany, Japan, France, the US and more.

There are even plenty of restrictions in the country you and I inhabit.

It's certainly not in contravention of any human rights laws- the universal declaration doesn't include anything about it, and the optional protocols are just that.

"A government should only control what they are entitled to control"

I don't think there's any such thing as a 'governmental right'. They control what the law entitles them to control.

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/garpike
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We will not accept an application for a name that:
promotes criminal activities;

So Mr. and Mrs. Bank could not call their son Robert Alexander? Outrageous!

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/b05aplmun.ca
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Er, what regulations do we have in the States for naming our kids?

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Mr_Eyl
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They're on a state-by-state level, as you'd expect.

California, Louisiana, Michigan and Massachusetts and Colorado ban diacritics, Nebraska and many other states disallow derogatory or offensive names, Arizona limits the total number of characters allowed in a name, and Idaho and Georgia don't allow symbols or punctuation in a name.

Pick a state, take a look at its legislature and find out for yourself. Some have no restrictions, some have one or two, and many feature all of the ones I mentioned above.

1 year ago
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