From Iceland — Ask An Expert: Why Don’t Icelandic People Have Family Names?

Ask An Expert: Why Don’t Icelandic People Have Family Names?

Published March 7, 2022

Ask An Expert: Why Don’t Icelandic People Have Family Names?
Photo by
Sigurður Stefán Jónsson

You wouldn’t mistake an Icelandic person for someone else. Their surnames give them away immediately, or rather the lack of them. Icelanders have a long tradition of using patronymic or matronymic names, but can you really say that there are no family names here? We spoke to Aðalsteinn Hákonarson from the Department of Name Studies at the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies to find out.

Easter is drawing closer and now we have Icelandic Easter Eggs back in stock!

“The government of Iceland, before and after independence, has never come to the conclusion that the people of Iceland should have family names, and therefore, Icelanders have never been required to take up family names. Hence, an old custom of patronyms, and, to a lesser extent, matronyms has survived in Iceland,” explains Aðalsteinn. In 1925, a law forbidding the adoption of new family names was passed. “Before family names were banned, many people adopted family names and many of these are still used today. Even after 1925, people adopted family names because the ban was not enforced properly until 1991. Foreigners who move to Iceland bring family names with them. Around 80% of people in Iceland have patronyms or matronyms.” 

The Icelandic law on personal names states that one can use a patronym or a matronym as a surname; some even decide to use both. “A spouse can use their partner’s family name when married, but they cannot replace their own patronym/matronym/family name with it. However, it is permitted to use your spouse’s family name as a middle name in addition to your own patronym/matronym/family name.” 

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