laugardagur, janúar 01, 2005

surnames & patronymics

I ended up staying at Magnús and Sigga's house until 5 in the morning, debating Magnús about the merit of surnames. Some background: hardly anyone in Iceland has a surname - they just have a first and usually second (middle) name. Then in place of a surname, they have a patronymic name. This is their father's first name plus the suffix -son or -dóttir. So Gunnar Óskarsson means "Gunnar, son of Óskar" and Bryndís Þorgeirsdóttir means "Bryndís, daughter of Thorgeir". This is the way names used to be in the Nordic countries, back in Viking times, but only Iceland and the Faroes have kept the tradition alive.

One upshot from this is that the Iceland telephone directory is all by first name, and everyone really is on a "first-name basis" with everyone else. Also, it makes no sense when foreign media speak about Icelanders as "Mr. Ásgrimsson" or "Ms. Pétursdóttir", since these patronymics are just pointers to their dad's name.

So I found myself upholding the idea that my surname is part of who I am, something I was given at birth and have to cherish and pass on down the line, while Magnús attacked it on the grounds that it's meaningless, since only a tiny fraction of my ancestors have this name. We went back and forth and I couldn't convince him that surnames have any merit at all. He thinks I should change my name to Jared Georgsson.


Blogger Deirdre Schwiesow said...

What do children of single mothers do, if they don't know their father? Is there a "matronymic"?

Blogger JB said...

Yes, there are matronymics, but those are a pretty recent development.

A lot of kids born during the WWII occupation by British and then American forces were given the name "Hermannsson", literally: soldier's son.

Blogger Deirdre Schwiesow said...

Oh, how interesting - thanks!

Anonymous Jonas said...

No, matronymics have been practised for at least a millenium:


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