Legacies of the Icelandic naming tradition

Beeld: Icelandic landscape near Neskaupstaður. Photo by Martin Falbisoner.

30 mei 2018, 10:55

Auteur: Mary-Jo Wegener

This week on International Wednesday: Iceland. Ranked first out of 144 countries by the World Economic Forum for being the most gender equal, the Icelandic naming tradition looks to be at odds with this. An Icelandic child is at birth by default classified as its father’s son or daughter through its surname. The surname is formed by the fathers first name and the addition of –son or –dóttir, meaning son or daughter respectively. Relic to a patriarchal mindset, there currently is the debate about changing this practice. How can cultural traditions be upheld while embracing modern values?

Traditions are mostly often practices from ancient times, that are no longer applicable today. Iceland is a country of a few people. During the time of the settlement of the island in the second half of the 9th century, their population is believed to have been between 40,000 and 60,000 people. Since there were so few people and such a small number of male first names, classifying children as their father’s child was practical and efficient. But with the rise of women’s rights, the question arises whether this tradition should be upheld.

Eva Dröfn Hassell Guðmundsdóttir. Photo by Mary-Jo Wegener.

Eva Dröfn Hassell Guðmundsdóttir is from Iceland. You can tell by her name that she is Guðmundur’s daughter. “Less and less young people can properly read Icelandic,” she says. “Most of the media we consume is English because the translations are not that good.” In order to preserve the language and its various regional dialects, authors such as her mother make an effort to write original stories for children and young adults. While Eva cherishes the Icelandic language and its customs, she thinks that the paternal tradition of surnames is outdated.

She believes that in the light of the modern families: having two mothers, two fathers, patchwork families or an absent father, this tradition is impractical and upholds an outdated paternalistic mind-set undermining the partner’s importance. It is possible to apply at the Icelandic Naming Committee Mannanafnanefnd to change your surname to ‘your mother’s daughter’ or ‘both of your parent’s daughter’, but you are born as your father’s by default. According to Eva, being born to a surname such as this by default is antiquated. A new solution is needed, but “double-surnames are also impractical because they are just too long.”


First names reflect our parent’s values, social status, tastes, and culture. They can have clear religious connotations like ‘Mohamed’ or ‘Jesus’ or imply expectations such as ‘Grace’ or ‘Destiny’. Celebrities call their children North, River Rocket, and Sage Moonblood, displaying their extra-ordinary fame with their out of the ordinary name choice. Surnames on the other hand are passed down by tradition and not by our parents’ tastes or the context of our time.

Icelandic naming specialist and member of the Personal Names Committee, Jóhannes Bjarni Sigtryggsson tells the Reykjavík Grapevine that his committee operates under the Personal Names Act. They aim to “conserve the Icelandic naming tradition and vocabulary and especially the patronymic system.” He questions the permission to change the naming systems for future generations because “it risks being lost forever.” Katharina Hauptman talks in Wall Street International about how the Icelandic language is regarded as “a basic element of the national identity”, and how “the main focus of the linguistic purism is to maintain the structure of the language” in a time of globalism and booming English media.

But traditions should be open to change. Change is an organic process that starts with becoming aware of implied meanings. For example, the Icelandic word for wedding used to be Brúðkaup (bride buying), but was changed to gifting.


Not only Icelanders are concerned with naming practices. Icelandic wives do not adopt her husband’s last name as a part of marriage, but that is a custom in other Western countries. Women still predominantly choose their husband’s surname, rather than the most appealing one. The belief that two partners in a marriage are equal is mostly promoted in society, while it is still a common practice to ask the father for permission to marry his daughter. Meghan Markle walking down parts of the aisle alone, rather than beside her father made international headlines and was seen as a bold feministic move.

Why do these customs matter? Surnames show group identity, they do not only represent the entity of a family, but also suggest the continuance of a legacy. Traditionally men were expected to uphold this very legacy, but we find ourselves in a time where women are expected to do the same. This should be represented in the choice of surnames not only in Iceland, but also for other naming traditions. Rather than being only our father’s legacy, we need to become our own. It is time that surnames adjust to this reality.

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