Naming in the Norse culture


Meaning of a name, for Germanic people, is really important.
Norsemen, as long as we can know with written sources, utilised a an “additive” system of naming which represented the quality of the named person. The “standard full name” was composed by two names: the first name, like our, and the patronymic/matronymic (see below). In addiction it could be added several names: not only second names and nicknames, but also “priest / priestess of ...” where suspension points are the god / goddess to whom one was/is priest / priestess; “bride / housband of ...”, and so on. Furthermore, member of ættir (the clans) added the ætt’s name to their, as a kind of ancient Norse surname.

First name

Let’s start clarifying the meaning of the first name. First name, as yet said, is very important, because for Germanic people the meaning is and was important, unlike most of Americans (both North Americans and South American) and Latin Europeans of today. Even its written form is very important. So I have to say that a correct form of a Norse name uses the letter [ǫ] instead of the [ö], the long vowels is signed with grave accent [´] when needed and so on. Clarified this, it is simpy to find the first name: all you have to do is to have a list of names with their meanings and choose which of them represents better yourself.

Second (mid) name

When population grew, it began the need of using secondary (middle) names in order to distinguish people. A second name is identical of meaning to the first, or rather, it doensn’t follow any declination and it is simply another name. Nowadays every Icelander has a second name.

Patronymic or matronymic

As yet said, the “surname” is done with a patronymic or – rarely – by a matronymic. What does a patronymic is? It is a system used since naming of individuals began in all the world, both in Europe (Slavic, Romans, Celts, and so on) both in Asia and the Americas. It is given by “first name” plus “son / daughter of ...” and the first name the father for a patronymic or of the mother for a matronymic. In every language the name of the father (or mother) is conjugate at the genitive declension. For istance, an English patronymic is “Wilkinson”, which means “son of Wilkin”. In Old Norse, the concept used is the same, but genitive declension(s) is/are a bit more complex than in Modern English. For istance: “son of Bjǫrn” is translated with “sonr Bjarnar”, with “sonr” being “son” and “Bjarnar” being the genitive form of “Bjǫrn” (Bjǫrn’s). Note that genitive word (Bjarnar) is after the dative word (sonr), because in Old Norse (and Icelandic as well), genitive word comes always after the dative word to which it is referred. When used to be a patronymic, this would be “Bjarnarson”, regardless of grammar spacings and order. Since declensions could be subdivided into 5 “common declensions” for genitive case, and that “son” is different by “daughter” (as in English), I will deepen the argument.
For males, “son of” is given with the suffix “-son”, while for females, “daughter of” is given with the suffix “-dóttir”, both of them are cognate with English words “son” and “daughter”.
Possible declensions for genitive case in Old Norse are 5, but there are a number of irregularities.

1st declination: for names which end in “I”, declension is mostly with “A”. For istance: “Loki” is “Loka” at the genitive case. This means that “son of Loki” is not “Lokisson” but “Lokason” instead; while “daughter of Loki” is “Lokadóttir”.

2nd declination: for names which end in “A”, declension is mostly with “U”. For istance: “Sturla” is “Sturlu” at the genitive case. This means that “son of Sturla” is not “Sturlasson” but “Sturluson” instead; while “daughter of Sturla” is “Sturludóttir”.

3rd declination: for names which end in any other letters (exeptions for 4th and 5th declensions), declension is mostly “S”. The final “R” and final double “N” are dropped in favour to “S”. For istances: “of Óðinn” is “Óðins” and not “Óðinns”, because the second, final “N” is dropped; but “of Hrafn” is “Hrafns” and not “Hrafs”, because the final “N” is only one; while “of Fenrir” is “Fenris”, because the “R” is dropped even if only one; as well as “of Vargr” is “Vargs”.

4th declination: almost all the female names, regardless of which is their last letter, follow the declension with suffix “AR” or “JAR” if they end in a “non-droppable vowel” (ǫ, ø, æ, œ, y and all the long vowels). For intances, “of Úlfhildr” is “Úlfhildar” and not “Úlfhilds” as it would be if Úlfhildr would be a male name (it’s a female name instead); while “of Álfný” and “of Bullǫ” are “Álfnýjar” and “Bullǫjar” because “Ý” and “Ǫ” are undroppable vowels. Furthermore, many femal names are irregular, so they follow the first 2 declensions (because of they are irregular).

5th declination: technically it is an irregularity, but is the most widespread, so it is often classified as a 5th declination. Many male names, both ending in vowel or consonant, are conjugated with “AR”, as they would be female names; this is so because some names (and nouns) in Old Norse have no distinction between singular and plural form, and the genitive plural form for male names and nouns is mostly “AR”. For istance, “of Halfdanskr” is “Haldfanskar”, not “Halfdansks”.

How do you do to know how to properly declinate your father’s or mother’s name? The only solutions are to speak fluently Icelandic or Old Norse; or to find a list of declensions of Modern Icelandic names and use it for Old Norse names, because Icelandic declensions fully match with the Old Norse ones (even if the names are slightly different in Icelandic); or, at last, to be lucky and to find the desidered name yet declined in a Old Norse parallel text. Anyway, to follow the rule of the 5 declinations is always better than to conjugate all the names with the “S”!

Final notes

Traditional Norse names survived until 1800s in Sweden, Denmark and Norway. In 1804, Bernadotte, a French, became King of Sweden, and imposed the classical European “name – surname” system. In the 1800 all the children took their surname from their father instead of the mother if the couple wants, so after a generation al the “-dotter” (evolution of “dóttir”) faded out. Furthermore, this created a big imprecision, present still today: Erik Johansson was really son of Johan in the 1804, but in the 1820 his son Sven took the surname of his father instead of the patronymic, so he would be Sven Johansson, not Sven Eriksson, even if his father was named Erik and not Joahn. Even worst for daughters: still in the 1820, Edda daughter of Erik was called Edda Johansson, so “son of Johan” (her grandad, not even her dad!) and not “daughter of Johan”, supposing she is a boy, son of his grandad! In the 1807 Bernadotte annexe Norway to Kingdom of Sweden, carrying this fucking system over the Scandinavian Alps. Needless to say, the Danes bitches, even if not mandatory, adopted the European surname system in the 1809.

The only Norse nation to save from Bernadotte’s moods was Iceland, because it was under the Kingdom of Denmark, but with a special status. In Iceland, patronymics and matronymics are used still today; Icelanders can do so because they are about only 300,000; while Scandinavian are 4,000,000 (Norwegian) and over 9,000,000 (Swedes), making it impossible to come back to patronymics and matronymic, for the confusion it will create. Anyway a widespread custom among traditionalist families are to give mid-name with the patronymic or matronymic to their children, so we have Varg Larssøn Vikernes, with Varg being the first name, Larssøn the patronymic as second name (son of Lars) and Vikernes the surname, shared with his father and his children.

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