Norway Personal Names

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

Considerable confusion exists among many people with Norwegian ancestry regarding how names are used in Norway and how they should be recorded. This document attempts to give background into the historical practices, legislation, and recommended best practices for recording Norwegian personal and place names.

Things To Know[edit | edit source]

  • During the end of the 19th century people began adopting fixed surnames
  • The first law in Norway regarding names was passed in 1923
  • Most of the population used patronymic surnames which are derived from the father's given name and a suffix to identify the child's gender, -sen, -datter
  • Surnames were frequently abbreviated in records
    • The suffix -datter was frequently abbreviated as d., dr., dtr., etc.
  • Spelling was not standardized in Norway until 1917

Best Practices For Recording Names[edit | edit source]

  • Surnames which are abbreviated in the records should be recorded fully spelled out
  • Farm names indicate residence, and should be recorded as part of the event locality - not as a surname

Legislative Changes[edit | edit source]

Language and Spelling Reforms[edit | edit source]

Reforms to the written form of Norwegian started in 1862. This legislation began the standardization of the language by substituting k for c, q, and ch; the use of double vowels to indicate length was discontinued; ph was replaced in words by f, and silent e's were dropped from words. Even with these reforms in place, people continued to write information in the manner they were accustomed to, so Olaf Christophersen may appear as Olav Kristofersson in a separate document.

In 1917 the first reforms were enacted which affected both of Norway's official languages, riksmål and landsmål. Since 1929 landsmål has been called Nynorsk. The change to the orthography introduced the letter Å from the Swedish writing system with the lowercase version å to replace Aa and aa. These were accompanied by changes to the names and spellings of 188 municipalities, followed the next year by changes to the names of several counties. In the 1920s several cities were renamed; Kristiania became Oslo, Fredrikshald became Halden, Sandviken was changed to Sandvika, and others.

1923 Law on Personal Names[edit | edit source]

The first regulation on personal names in Norway, Lov om personnavn, was enacted on 9 February 1923. Among other points, this stipulated the following regarding surnames:

  • Only surnames legally acquired by ancestry, marriage, or other means could be used
  • Surnames based on the father's given name with an suffix identifying gender (sønn, son, sen for males; datter or dotter for females)
  • The name of the farm or place of residence if the person, his parents, or grandparents were the owners
  • A child should receive the father's surname if the parents were married
  • If the parents were not married, the child would receive the mother's surname
  • Upon marriage a woman receives her husband's surname

Additional legislation has been passed since then. Most notable is the law of 29 May 1964, which allowed women to retain their surname. This act also allowed men to adopt their wife's surname at marriage. The most recent legislation was passed in 2002.

Given Names[edit | edit source]

The number of unique given names in Norway is generally rather small. However, regional variations abound. In some parts of the country people have only one name as their given name, in other parts multiple names are the norm. In the 1900s hyphenated names became more common.

Culturally, a person has only one given name (or forename), but it may consist of multiple names, such as Kathinka Ovidia Isabella. In this case most English speakers would consider this to be three given names, but in Norway it would be viewed as the person’s entire, single given name (forename).

Naming Patterns[edit | edit source]

A specific naming pattern was very common in Norway and in other parts of Europe until about 1900. Although not always followed strictly, the following pattern may be helpful in researching family groups and determining the parents of the mother and father:

  • The first male child was usually named for the father's father.
  • The second boy was named for the mother's father.
  • The first female child was named for the mother's mother.
  • The second girl was named for the father's mother.
  • Additional children were often named for the parents' grandparents.
  • If a spouse died, and the surviving spouse remarried, the first child by the same sex was named after the deceased spouse.

If the wife's parents were deceased, or the couple were living on the wife's parents farm, her parents may have priority in the naming.

Children in the Family With the Same Name[edit | edit source]

Sometimes two or more children within a family were given the same name. In some cases it was done because an older child died and the next child of the same gender was given the name. However, two or more children by the same given name could also have lived to adulthood. Do not presume that the first child with that same given name died unless the actual death record is found.

Regional Variation[edit | edit source]

Some caution must be exercised regarding the form of names found in the records. In many cases records were created by a person educated in Denmark or taught to write by a person educated in Denmark. As in many cases we have no record of what a person called themselves, we are forced to rely on the records which tell us what the recorder considered was the correct form of a person’s name.

Consider, for example, the following:

  • In 1853 a daughter is born in eastern Norway to Hans Hansen and his wife, Else Hansdatter. The child’s name at baptism is recorded as Imbjør.
  • When she is confirmed in a parish in another county on the west coast, her name is recorded as Ingebjør.
  • On the 1875 census, in yet another parish in the north, she is recorded as Ingeborg.
  • In an account of the family published in 1950 in the parish where she was born, her name is given as Ymbjørg.

Surnames[edit | edit source]

It is clear from the oldest known records that names have been used to identify individuals throughout history. Surnames, as they are understood by many English-speaking cultures today, first began to be used before the end of the first millennium, C.E. Surnames were first introduced in Europe by the Normans, who were French-speaking descendants of Viking settlers. This may indicate that people living in Scandinavia were among the earliest adopters of some type of surname.

As the population increased, it became necessary to distinguish between individuals with the same name. The problem was usually solved by adding descriptive information such as who a person’s father was, residence, occupation, or characteristic. Now, Hans could be known as Hans the son of John (Johnsen), Hans of Nordgaard farm, Hans the tailor (skredder), or Vesle (young) Hans.

Surnames can be identified as having originated from one of three ways:

  • Patronymic - based on the father’s given name, such as Jensen (son of Jens)
  • Geographical - based on the name of farm or house where they lived, such as Mundal
  • Occupational - based on the person's trade, such as Smed (Smith)

Patronymics[edit | edit source]

Illustration of the derivation of Norwegian patronymic surnames

The predominant type of surname in Norway is patronymic. Such names are based on the father's given name. This surname changed with each generation. For example, Jon Arnesen was the son of a man named Arne. If Jon had a son named Arne, the son would be known as Arne Jonsen (Arne son of Jon) and his brothers would be surnamed Jonsen, while his sisters would be known as Jonsdatter (daughter of Jon). In some of the earliest church records a person may be recorded with a matronymic surname, based on the person's mother's given name. Cases like this are very unusual, and always indicate the person was illegitimate.

After about 1850, it became the custom in the cities to take permanent surnames. By 1900 most of Norway began doing so. By 1923, when the first law regarding surnames was passed, most people had already adopted the practice of using a permanent family name to be passed to successive generations. When this happened, many Norwegians chose to use the name of their farm (residence) as their surname.

Abbreviations[edit | edit source]

When recording surnames, it is important to remember that patronymics were frequently abbreviated in the records. The abbreviations dr., dtr., d., are all substitutes for datter. Likewise, male patronymics are frequently shortened to s. In a parish where most of the population has a surname ending with datter or sen, recording the name in full would be needlessly redundant.

Name Frequency[edit | edit source]

A study of the 1865 census of Vågå, Norway identified 430 men (11% of the male population) with the given name of Hans. Of these 430, 22% were surnamed Olsen, 20% Hansen, 6% Johnsen, and 4% Knudsen. Because of the high numbers of people with the same given name and patronymic surname it was necessary to include a person’s residence (usually a farm, but it may also be a house) as part of their identification.

Farm Names[edit | edit source]

It is believed the oldest place names in Norway are more than 2,000 years old. The practice of identifying a person in connection with their named residence (for example, Stein på Børve farm from a record in 1563) is easily that old. The earliest records we have from Norway generally identify people by their given name and residence. As these records are for the assessment of taxes, generally only landowners are identified. From other extant records, it is clear most of the population used a patronymic surname.

Frequently people are identified in the records by their given name and residence; by their given name and patronymic surname; or by their given name, patronymic surname, and residence. For example:

  • John Folkedal
  • John Aamundsen
  • John Aamundsen Folkedal

All three are the same person.

When farm names are given in a record, they provide residence information and are not part of the person’s surname. As such, they should be added as part of the locality information and NOT a part of the person's name. An illustration would be a person named Mary Smith. Her name alone is not that unique, but if you were to refer to her as Mary Smith of Battle Lake, Minnesota, she is identified with much higher precision.

According to Yngve Nedrebø, Director of the Regional Archive in Bergen, "[farm names do] not necessarily identify a family or a relationship; it signified a place of residence. If farmer Ole Olsen Li moved from Li to another farm, such as Dal, he would then be known as Ole Olsen Dal. A farm laborer could be named in the same way, even though he was not related to the farmer."[1]

Another problem with including farm names as part of someone’s surname is making the decision of which farm name to use. It is not uncommon for a person to live more than one place over the course of their lifetime. Would you use:

  • The farm on which they were born
  • The farm where they were living at the time of their confirmation
  • Where they lived when the census was taken
  • The farm they lived on when they were married
  • The farm where their children were born
  • The farm where they died

Farm Names in Local Histories[edit | edit source]

Many local histories (bygdebøker) published in Norway appear to include farm names as part of a person's name. This use is frequently misunderstood by persons who are not familiar with the literature and incorrectly assume it is the person's surname.

For example, this entry for Ljono farm from Ulvik gards- og ættesoga. Under the entries for Gjele, a smaller part of Ljono farm, Jon Asbjørnsson Håheim is identified[2]. Here Håheim is used to indicate which farm more information about him can be found, and does not mean Håheim is part of his name.

Norwegian-American Name Changes[edit | edit source]

It is not unusual for members of the same family to use different surnames after their emigration. For example, consider this family:

Anders Halvorsen of Stordahl farm marries Kari Knutsdatter and has the following children:

  1. Halvor Andersen, b. 1830
  2. Anne Andersdatter, b. 1832
  3. Knut Andersen, b. 1834
  4. Mari Andersdatter, b. 1836
  5. Erik Andersen, b. 1838
  • Halvor Andersen lived at Bråten farm before emigrating to the United States in 1855. He goes by the name Halvor A. Bratten.
  • Anne Andersdatter emigrates with her brother in 1855. She uses the name Anderson when married in 1857 in Minnesota.
  • Knut Andersen emigrates in 1856. He uses the name Knut A. Stordahl.
  • Mari remained in Norway and was known as Mari Andersdatter.
  • Anders Halvorsen and his wife Kari Knutsdatter emigrated with the two youngest children in 1862. They and the two children carry on with the name Halvorson in the US.

Online Resources[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Nedrebø, Yngve, How to trace your ancestors in Norway. Oslo, Norway : Royal Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1989. FHL Book 948.1 D27o 1989. Also available online at Digital Archives, How to trace your ancestors in Norway.
  2. Ulvik gards- og ættesoga, volume 2, page 140.