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The Name Blame Game: The Icelandic Patronymic Tradition Could Disappear Within Decades

The Name Blame Game: The Icelandic Patronymic Tradition Could Disappear Within Decades

Zoë Vala Sands
Words by

Published September 8, 2017

When a local mom was inspired to name her daughter Blær after a character from Nobel Prize winner Halldór Laxness’ book, the ominous-sounding Personal Names Committee rebuffed her with a simple, “Nei.” The case dragged on for years, much to the confusion and consternation of foreigners and Icelanders alike. Iceland is a free country, after all. How does a liberal society justify restricting citizens’ choice of a personal and fundamental aspect of human identity, a name?

The Personal Names Committee operates under the Personal Names Act, which aims to “conserve the Icelandic naming tradition and vocabulary and especially the patronymic system,” according to Jóhannes Bjarni Sigtryggsson, Icelandic language specialist and one of three members of the Personal Names Committee.

“It is clearly quite difficult for the Personal Names Committee to interpret such a law,” says Jóhannes, “so the Committee put up working rules in order to decide what names can be considered traditional.”

Judith has been allowed, but not Júdith.

Jóhannes recognizes that the naming committee’s decision-making process may at times appear laughably arbitrary. “Judith has been allowed, but not Júdith. This obviously comes across as odd and even frivolous to the outsider. Neither of these names follows Icelandic language structure. But as a sufficient number of Icelanders carry the name Judith, the name can be legalized.”

The working rules’ emphasis on the past means that even though seven Icelandic women bear the name Zoe today, the name is technically illegal since all Icelandic Zoe’s are under sixty years of age. Meanwhile, even though only two Icelandic women in history have ever existed bearing the distinctively non-Icelandic name Zophía, because they were born in the early 19th century, the name is deemed legitimate.

Discrimination of the name of Jesus?

As one might expect, the name laws routinely come under fire. Jón Gnarr, comedian and ex-mayor of Reykjavík, has long been outspoken against the laws. In an attempt to change his name, in 2012 Jón famously moved to the U.S., changed his name there and immigrated back to Iceland, where, as a foreigner, he hoped to be legally allowed to keep his “foreign” last name—only to be met with another, “Nei” from the Name Committee. Jón called the name laws disgraceful: “They’re not only silly but they also discriminate against people,” he said in a opinion at the news website Eyjan.

In response to this perplexing reality, Jón Gnarr wrote in social media, “In Iceland one can be named Jesus. The Personal Names Committee allows that. It doesn’t matter whether it be spelled with a ‘ú’ or a ‘u.’ One can also be named Muhamed or Muhammed. The Personal Names Committee rules only apply to a portion of Icelanders. What kind of laws are these if they discriminate between people like this? Why can Elin Hirst have the last name Hirst but I cannot be Gnarr? Is Hirst cooler? More Icelandic? Are all the animals equal but some more equal than others? Answer me, in the name of Jesus!”

Sacrificing (multi)culture

Iceland is at a crossroads, where the federal conservation of culture may be inhibiting the development of a progressive, multicultural society. It is evident that the current name laws fail to accommodate an increasingly gender fluid society.  “Much has changed since 1996” says Jóhannes. “The committee and most people agree that the laws should be revised.” He points out that the law still states that “a girl shall be given a female name and a boy a male’s name.” Hence the case of the woman being prohibited from being named Blær on the grounds that the word blær, which means “soft wind,” is a masculine word.

Why can Elin Hirst have the last name Hirst but I cannot be Gnarr? Is Hirst cooler? More Icelandic?”

In 2016, Minister of the Interior Ólöf Nordal proposed a bill that would eliminate the Personal Names Act altogether. However, since her untimely death earlier this year, there has been little discussion of the bill. Jóhannes warns that if the laws were to be eliminated entirely, “the Icelandic patronymic tradition could disappear within decades.” He emphasizes, “It’s a question of whether we have permission to decide the naming system for future generations. If such a system disappears, it risks being lost forever, as happened in Scandinavia.”

A mere walk down Reykjavík’s tourist-heavy Laugavegur shows the threat posed to the Icelandic language by English media and globalisation today. However, the thought of three dedicated academics debating vehemently as to whether a couple should be allowed to name their kid Ian, rather than Jan or Jón, rightly strikes a growing number of Icelanders as patently absurd.


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