Understanding Icelandic Names

Magazine Understanding Icelandic Names

Iceland is very unique in terms of how it names its sons and daughters.  A holdover from the country’s ancient roots, in Iceland they still use Patronyms.  This as opposed to surnames, which is usually a family name that gets passed down through the male.

Iceland's patronymic system is quite different as are a couple other customs that we’ll cover.  For example, when a couple has a child, the tradition is to add “son” or “daughter” to the end of the Father’s name. Under this system, if your Icelandic Father’s name is Magnus, and you are the son of Magnus, your last name would be Magnusson - this tells people that you are the son of Magnus. If you are the daughter of Magnus, your last name would be Magnussdottir (dottir translates to daughter).

The patronymic system means that Icelanders are really a first-name kind of country. In fact, people are listed by their first names in Icelandic telephone books.  Another thing that is different in Iceland is that when a couple marries, the woman doesn’t change her last name.  If Helga Magnussdottir marries Haraldur Stefansson, she is still Helga Magnussdottir.  Makes sense since her last name tells people she is the daughter of Magnus; it wouldn’t make sense if she became Helga Stefansson. Again, Stefansson is not a family name.

One thing has changed a bit in Iceland in regards to their patronymic system. In recent decades, and as a result of the women’s liberation movement, some Icelandic women have adopted matronymics, where they use the Mother’s name instead of Dad’s.  So you might meet an Icelander like Helga Helgasdottir!  

Also, Icelanders have really stuck to their Norse roots when it comes to names.  In fact, there is an official Icelandic Naming Committee which was established in 1991 with a mission to make sure that any new names are, “suitable for integration into the country’s language and culture.” Source: Wikipedia.

The real reason behind this is that Icelanders fiercely guard their language. Their language, which is mostly unchanged from ancient Norse, is their culture and identity!

So, there you go, a little background into Icelandic names. If you plan on visiting Iceland, don’t be afraid to try and pronounce Icelandic names, you might butcher it but that’s ok...Icelanders are used to it!  From Icelandair Hotels, Iceland’s premiere family of hotels with 9 locations including two Reykjavik hotels: Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Natura and Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina.

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