Iceland asks: what’s in a name?

family life

Inhabitants of the isolated North Atlantic nation of Iceland have begun t to chafe against strict rules on what they can and can’t name their children.

An official government organisation – the Mannanafnanefnd (|Personal Names Committee) – has specified the names which Icelandic parents may give their children since 1991. Staffed by three academics, the regularly revised register of approved names is called the Mannanafnaskrá – the List of Personal Names. It is intended to help preserve the country’s cultural heritage and encourage linguistic cohesion. By 2012 the list featured 1,712 male names and 1,853 female names.

Children are allowed a maximum of three personal names and these must confirm with Icelandic grammar and tradition. The rules also specify that the names must not cause the children embarrassment.

New names are added to the list occasionally at the request of parents.  Last year, the Committee added the  boy’s names Eyar and Kiran, along with the girl’s names Angelína, Luna, Hofdis and Eilif.

Thanks to the island’s geographic isolation, modern Icelandic is still very close to the Old Norse language spoken by the country’s original 9th Century Viking settlers and the country has preserved a patronymic naming system now little used in other European countries. Every Icelander takes the name of their father (occasionally their mother) as their individual surname, with the addition of -son (son) or –dóttir (daughter). As a result telephone directories and similar publications list people according to the first names rather than their surnames.

But as the Committee has become embroiled in a series of controversies and court cases in recent years as Icelandic parents have struggled to win official recognition for more unorthodox children’s names.

The committee’s refusal to approve the name Blær for a girl sparked a legal case which dragged on for years. The Personal Names Committee insisted that the name, which means ‘gentle breeze’, was only for boys – despite the fact that her mother had taken the name from a female character in a novel by a famous Icelandic writer.

While the arguments continued, the woman’s daughter was referred to on official documents – including her passport – with the placeholder name Stúlka, which just means ‘girl’.

The Committee was eventually overruled by the Reykjavík district court and Blær’s name finally officially recognised.

In another case, the Mannanafnanefnd refused to authorise the English names Harriet and Duncan, for the children of an English father and Icelandic mother. Harriet’s passport referred to her with the same placeholder as Blær – Stúlka – while Duncan’s used the substitute name Drengur – ‘boy’. Then when the Cardew family, made arrangements to travel to France for a holiday, authorities refused to renew Harriet’s passport at all, on the basis of her illegal name, forcing them to rely to an emergency British passport.

When they returned the family filed a formal complaint. They won their case and not long afterwards the government began to discuss abolition of the naming committee.

Last year the then Minister of the Interior introduced a draft bill repealing the Lög um Mannanöfn – the Personal Names Act, the legislation applied by the Committee. But the Minister died unexpectedly and efforts to abolish the law, now widely regarded as archaic and restrictive, have been in limbo since then.

Jóhannes Bjarni Sigtryggsson is an Icelandic language scholar and one of the Committee’s three current members. He acknowledges the need for reform but fears that abolishing all laws on name-giving could lead to the rapid disappearance of Iceland’s patronymic naming system, a distinctive aspect of the island’s culture.

He told The Reykjavik Grapevine:

“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.”

Photo of Reykjavik by Bjørn Giesenbauer via Wikipedia under a Creative Commons licence

Cameron Paterson

Cameron Paterson is a journalist with an interest in legal matters. He has edited the Marilyn Stowe Blog since August 2012.

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