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

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.)

July 25, 2017



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'.


Something like that could be useful in places (@people who call their children "Facebook" and "Hashtag")


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!


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.


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.) :(


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.


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


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!


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


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.


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?


Thanks, this was really interesting!


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.


The idea of regulation is not bad. Some countries (I shall not call the names) should adopt it.


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.


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!


Very interesting, Usagi! Thanks for posting this.


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.

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