From Iceland — Getting Personal With Names

Getting Personal With Names

Published July 27, 2010

Getting Personal With Names

While the fictional names Felicity Shagwell, Robin Swallows, Cindy Fook “Mi” and Sally Fook “Yu” could very well be legal names in the UK or US, they wouldn’t stand a fighting chance of being accepted in Iceland. The Icelandic Naming Committee (Mannanafnanefnd) wouldn’t have it.
Within six months after a baby in Iceland is born, parents must submit their newborn’s name to the National Registry (Þjóðskrá). If their name of choice is not already in use and previously registered by someone else, they must fill out an application and pay 3.000 ISK to have the proposed name evaluated by the Icelandic Naming Committee.
Over the course of a year, the committee receives about 100 applications. Last year, committee head Ágústa Þorbergsdóttir told me they received 105 applications and rejected 46 (for context, there are about 5.000 births per year in Iceland, according to Statistics Iceland).
Some of the committee’s most recent rejections include Konrad, Hector, Cara, Kelly, Bót, Ralph, Villy and Werner. For those applicants, it’s back to the drawing board with a copy of law number 45/1996, the Personal Names Act.  
Preserving the Icelandic language
“There is a common misconception that we, the committee, choose names or that our decisions are based on personal taste,” Ágústa Þorbergsdóttir said. “On the contrary, the task of the Naming Committee is to evaluate applications according to provisions of the law.”
According to the law, “forenames shall be capable of having Icelandic genitive endings or shall have become established by tradition in the Icelandic language,” and “names may not conflict with the linguistic structure of Icelandic.” For example, names must work with Iceland’s grammatical case structure: nominative, accusative, dative and genitive. The name Njáll, becomes Njáll, Njál, Njáli, and Njáls in the respective cases. So, if a proposed name cannot do that, forget about it.
The law also states, names “shall be written in accordance with the ordinary rules of Icelandic orthography unless another orthography is established by tradition.” Of the provisions, Águsta says names are most often rejected for this reason. So, because the letter “c” cannot be found in Iceland’s 32-letter alphabet, it’s no surprise that applications for Cara, Carla, Carolina, Cesil, Christa, Christel, Christiana, Christín and Conny have all been rejected.
However, alternate names are sometimes suggested to fit the criteria. For example, many of the above names have been accepted with a “K” instead of a “C”, and applications for the names Wanderley and Raymond were approved respectively as Valur and Reynisson.
Protecting kids from Ivana B. Pickedon type names
In addition to preserving Icelandic language, which has after all enabled Icelanders to read their old sagas to this day, the committee is charged to protect kids from those Ivana B. Pickedon type names. Specifically, the law states, “a forename may not be such as to cause its bearer embarrassment.”
Now, this part of the law is not as straightforward as preserving the language part. Although it is an old Icelandic name, one would think giving a child a name like Ljótur (“Ugly”) would be downright abusive, even if once upon a time it meant, “the light one.” However, this is an accepted name in Iceland and there is at least one man walking around with that name today.
So I naively thought I would gather Ljótur’s thoughts on the matter and hoped he might share his opinion on the Names Committee and the Personal Names Act. However, as soon as he caught on to the nature of my phone call, he quickly told me that he was very busy and that he was always very busy and that it would probably never be a good time to call, leaving me to wonder whether the committee might have failed to follow the law in Ljótur’s case.
Ágústa Þorbergsdóttir said the committee rarely rejects names based on this criterion, although she did offer that the committee once rejected a parent’s request to name their daughter Satanía, for the girl’s sake.
Despite the law’s intention to prevent the name bearer embarrassment, it’s not to say that dank-smoking hippy parents or astronomy enthusiasts can’t still have some fun with their kid’s names, calling them Venus, Neptúnus, and Úranus for instance.
What does this mean for foreigners?
These days, foreigners who gain citizenship in Iceland can keep their name as is, without having to add an Icelandic name to it. While their future children are required to have one Icelandic forename, they are also allowed to have one that does not meet Icelandic standards.
However, this was not always the case and prior to 1991 every citizen was required to have an Icelandic name. The law has been relaxed over time, but even until 1995, a foreigner granted citizenship was required to take an Icelandic name in addition to their given name.  What’s more, their children 15 years and younger were forced to forego their given name and adopt an Icelandic one.
But, do know that if you are a foreigner who was were forced to take an Icelandic name under the previous laws, you can dump it in accordance with the current law.
Lastly, a word about last names
In Iceland, everyone’s on a first name basis, as they say. People are listed in the phonebook by first name and you can respectfully address the president or your teachers by first name. This is quite logical considering Icelandic last names, which largely follow a patronymic system, simply state that you are your father’s son or daughter. Interestingly, in line with Iceland’s progressive views on gender, a growing number of people are using the also legal matronymic variation, in which you call yourself your mother’s son or daughter.
Meanwhile, the law makes it illegal to adopt a new family surname name instead of using the patronymic or matronymic system. In reaction to their growing popularity, family surnames were banned in 1925, but they were not effectively enforced until 1991. As a result, some families, including mine, managed to acquire them illegally so to speak. In my case, my dad tells me his mom thought it would be horrible for her kids to be Húnbogason and Húnbogadóttir, so she decided to adopt Andersen, which belonged to her Danish ancestors.
You will notice that there are still some family names in use though. That’s because, one, foreigners can keep their last name and two, the law states that anybody whose ancestors used a family surname prior to 1991 are permitted to go on using that name and passing it on to subsequent generations. So, it looks like I don’t have to worry about being forced to switch to Bogadóttir now that I have taken up residence in Iceland. But, if you’ve become say, the Jónsson family while living abroad, don’t think you’ll be keeping your last name (unless you are all the sons of Jón).

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