What’s in a name? Icelandic naming conventions

This is probably old knowledge for some of you, but I think it’s worth mentioning, especially because it can lead to some confusion for people who are Icelandic or have spent some time in Iceland. Essentially, my last name is recognizably Icelandic, but it also shows that I’m not from Iceland. I’ll explain.

So, my name is Kathleen Gudmundsson. My father’s name is Bruce Gudmundsson. His father’s name was Ívar Guðmundsson. So far, so good, right?

My great-grandfather – my grandfather’s father – was named Guðmundur Jónsson. So his sons had the name Guðmundsson, and his daughters had the name Guðmundsdóttir. If you’ve guessed that the suffix “son” means, well, “son” in English and the suffix “dóttir” means “daughter”, you’ve got it. These patronymics remain with Icelanders for life; it is not practice for women who marry men to take their husbands’ names as it is in some other parts of the world.

My grandfather ended up having children outside of Iceland, though, so he adopted the name “Gudmundsson” (without the ð, which makes a soft “th” sound) as a family name. His wife, his daughters-in-law, and his grandchildren ended up with the last name “Gudmundsson”, too, following naming conventions in Denmark and the United States (where my father and uncles were born and grew up, respectively). While some Icelanders or people who have spent time in Iceland might be confused that I have the last name “Gudmundsson” without being, well, anyone’s son, most realize that these name changes and fluctuations are part of the story of migration – names being changed and simplified to fit the receiving culture.

Had I been born and raised in Iceland, my patronymic would be Brúsadóttir (the daughter of Brúsi). My brother would have the last name Brúsason (the son of Brúsi). My first name would be a different story. The Mannanafnaskrá (Icelandic Naming Committee) is responsible for deciding whether a given name is acceptable for a child born in Iceland. Because nouns are declined in Icelandic according to their place in a sentence, it makes sense that there needs to be a clear way to change the spelling of the name to fit in a sentence in the Icelandic language. So, would “Kathleen” be acceptable? Probably not; my parents would have needed to use the Icelandic variant of “Katrín” or choose another name altogether in order to fit with convention. Otherwise, I’d run the risk of having my ID cards read stúlka” (“girl”).

If you’d like to see whether your own first name would pass muster with the Mannanafnaskrá, you can check the website. The English version doesn’t have the list easily accessible, but the Icelandic page is easy enough to figure out. Clicking on each letter will take you to the lists of names that start with that letter. Italicized/underlined names have been officially rejected by the committee, while names with a date next to them were brought before the committee – the date represents the day the name was approved. Under drengir, you’ll see names accepted for boys; under stúlkur are names accepted for girls; millinöfn are acceptable middle names.

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Since 1991, Icelanders have the option of using matronymics in addition to or instead of patronymics. For example, the child of a woman named Anna and a man named Ívar could use the matronymic “Annasson” or “Annasdóttir”. The child could even be named with a combination of both matronymic and patronymic, such as “Elín Annasdóttir Ívarsdóttir”. I’m not sure how widespread this practice is, however.

The patronymics Guðmundsson and Guðmundsdóttir are fairly common in Iceland. For instance, there’s the writer Einar Már Guðmundsson and the footballer Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson. Even if you don’t know much about Icelandic culture, you’ve probably heard of at least one famous Guðmundsdóttir. Does that mean I’m related to all of these Guðmundssons and Guðmundsdóttirs, though? Not necessarily, at least not closely… though that’s best covered in another post.

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