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Norwegian naming practices
by John Føllesdal



pat•ro•ny•mic [noun, late Latin patronymicum from patr- (father) + onyma (name)]:
a name derived from that of the father or a paternal ancestor usually by the addition of an affix. (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary © 1994 Merriam Webster, Inc.)


My great grandfather, Daniel Rasmus Jonson, was born on the Føllesdal farm in Nordfjord, Norway, on March 31, 1869. According to the patronymic naming system which was being used in Norway at the time, he was called Jonson because his father's name was Jon. Under the patronymic naming system, sons of Jon were called "Jonson" -- Jon's son, while daughters of Jon were called "Jonsdatter" -- Jon's daughter. These patronymic names, however, were not part of the child's baptized name, indeed the baptized name consisted only of a first name, such as Daniel, and sometimes a middle name, such as Rasmus. Thus, in the church records for my great grandfather it says in the column called Barnet's fulle navn (The child's full name): "Daniel Rasmus". The patronymic name was added in day to day interactions because there could be several persons named Daniel Rasmus in a community. Referring to someone as Daniel Rasmus Jonson helped to clarify that it was Daniel Rasmus, the son of Jon, that you were talking about, and not Daniel Rasmus, the son of Ole.

Unfortunately, the first name followed by the patronymic name was not always sufficient to identify a person: there could be several persons in a community with the name Daniel Rasmus Jonson. To avoid any confusion, rural Norwegians would therefore add the name of the farm where the person was living -- not as a name, in the modern sense of the word, but as an address or identifier. My great grandfather was therefore known as Daniel Rasmus Jonson Føllesdal.

In a small, rural community, this naming practice made a great deal of sense. My great grandfather was known by everybody in his community -- "There goes Daniel Rasmus, the son of Jon, who lives on the Føllesdal farm." As an aside, I should mention that the patronymic naming system was not unique to Norway, or to Scandinavian countries for that matter. The system was also used in such countries as Holland.

For those of us who are searching for Norwegian ancestors, the fact that a patronymic naming system was used in Norway up until about 1900 poses certain problems that I want to address in this article. The first point to keep in mind is that while our ancestors may have added a farm name to their name, the farm name was not used as a surname, but rather as an address. As an example, we can look at Daniel Rasmus Jonson's father, Jon Jonson, my great great grandfather. He was born and raised on the Hanebrekke farm in Nordfjord, and he was therefore called Jon Jonson Hanebrekke. As an adult, however, he moved to the Føllesdal farm and was thereafter known as Jon Jonson Føllesdal.

In November, 1996, an interesting article was posted by Glenn Murray to the Norwegian genealogy newsgroup no.slekt. It was one of about 50 postings in a thread on various aspects of the patronymic naming system, some of which I have translated for this article. Glenn's posting clearly shows how our ancestors considered the farm name to be an address, and not a surname:

Harald Ormbostad wrote another post in this thread. He mentioned that:

Thus, we can conclude that farm names were not used as surnames, but rather as an address: "There goes Daniel Rasmus Jonson Føllesdal -- Daniel Rasmus, the son of Jon, who lives up the hill at the Føllesdal farm."

The second point we need to consider is whether patronyms, such as Jonson, Danielsdatter, Evensen, etc., were surnames. The answer to this question is no. The patronym only said something about that person, i.e., that the person was the son of Jon. It was not a hereditary surname. In fact, it was not until 1900 or so that the patronyms "froze" and began to be used as a surname, i.e., a name that would be passed down from generation to generation. From a legal point of view, the use of a fixed family name was not made compulsory by law in Norway until 1923.

This is not to say that surnames (as we know them) were not used in Norway prior to 1900. There were many Norwegian families who used surnames prior to the turn of the century. Most of these families were members of the educated upper class (the clergy, the military, and high ranking civil servants). In addition, people who lived in cities, such as Bergen or Trondheim, used hereditary surnames. These surnames were often very old, and were, in many instances, of foreign origin, be it British, Dutch, or German. (From the 1400's onward, Norway experienced an influx of immigration from abroad, and these individuals had surnames in the modern meaning of the word). In Nordfjord, where my paternal ancestors lived, we find Frants Blichfeldt (1766 - 1839), a priest in Eid parish from 1809 to 1821. He was the son of tax assessor Henrik Frantson Blichfeldt and his wife Karen Katrine Fleischer. In nearby Innvik parish, Johan Sigfried Cammermeyer (1757 - 1844) served as a priest from 1806 to 1843. His parents were Johan Sebastian Cammermeyer, a priest in Bergen, and his wife Anne Kristine Gude. Blichfeldt and Cammermeyer were surnames in the modern sense of the word in that these names were passed down from generation to generation.

In a nutshell, we can say that prior to about 1900, rural Norwegians did not have surnames, unless they were members of the educated upper class (priests, high ranking civil servants, etc). City dwellers, including members of the educated upper class, did have surnames. The rural Norwegian farmers had a first name, and sometimes a middle name, which they were baptized with. They added a patronym and a farm name to that first name in their everyday interactions with other people. The fact that neither the patronym nor the farm name was treated as a surname was nicely illustrated by Tor Erling Unander in a message he posted in the no.slekt thread on the patronymic naming system:

If we look at Europe as a whole, we find that the patronymic naming tradition gradually gave way during the 1800's to a new system in which everyone used a fixed family name. In Schleswig, for example, the patronymic naming system was forbidden by law in 1771, but continued in the rest of Denmark until at least 1856, when the government announced that every family had to use a fixed family name. The old tradition, however, still continued in Denmark for several years after that. In the Netherlands, the patronymic naming system was abandoned during the Napoleonic period in 1811 when everyone had to register with the government and select a family name.

In Iceland, however, the patronymic naming system is still being used today. This allows us to make a very important insight into the patronymic naming system: as Garðar Jóhann points out on his web page, "..... Family names as such are not commonly used in Iceland, and the question 'Do you know Eiríksson?' is really meaningless, as the definition is missing." Likewise, another Icelander, Björn Þór Jónsson, points out on his web page that "Americans have no idea how to handle this. We've had calls to Mr. Ásgeirsdóttir and Mrs. Jónsson. One insurance company even sent the same letter to the Jónsson family, the Ásgeirsdóttir family and the Björnsson family. We just find this quite enjoyable!" Björn Þór Jónsson also points out on his web page that "Icelanders address each other by their first names on all occasions, even when great respect is demanded. The telephone book is ordered by first names....

As far as Norway is concerned, the change to a fixed family surname began in the early 1800's and was widespread by about 1900. As I mentioned above, the use of a fixed family name was made compulsory by law in Norway in 1923. As a result of this change, many began using their patronymic name, i.e, Jonson or Evenson, as their fixed family name; others chose their farm name as their fixed family name. My grandfather, Trygve Danielson Føllesdal, for example, who was born at the turn of the century (July 13, 1898), kept the farm name Føllesdal as his surname throughout his life, even though he moved away from the Føllesdal farm as a young adult.

Given this background, we, as genealogists, are faced with a difficult question: "What name do I enter in my database for my ancestor's 'First name' and what name do I enter for his or her 'Surname'?" This question becomes especially difficult if your ancestor moved around to various farms. In addition, your database of Norwegian ancestors may wind up containing three, four or maybe five persons named Ola Anderson. The only way to tell them apart will be the farm name or their dates of birth. Since genealogy software programs can search for any given individual in your database by name, you may want to list both the patronymic name and the farm name as alternate surnames in order to distinguish your Ole Anderson Myrold from your Ole Anderson Ødegaard. While the use of these names as "surnames" is not historically accurate, it is a method that will allow you to find the correct Ola Anderson in your database when you need to. (If you use this approach you will need to note the time periods that your ancestor used a particular farm name, since the ancestor may have used different farm names in the course of his or her life).

In original sources, however, the common use of the "First name" "Patronymic name" "Farm name" is not a guarantee that an ancestor can be correctly identified. One Norwegian genealogist who was faced with such a problem was Trond Mjøs. In the thread on the patronymic naming system, he wrote:

Another problem is that the spelling of a person's first name, patronymic name, and farm name can often vary from one source to the next. You may, for example, find your great great grandmother's name spelled as "Anne" in her baptism record, spelled as "Anna" when she was married and as "Ane" in another source, such as a letter or a family bible. Likewise, "Ola" might be spelled as "Ole", and "Paul" might be spelled "Povel". Such spelling variations also occur in the patronymic names: "Danielson" might be spelled "Danielsøn" or "Danielsen" depending on the source. Yet another problem involves the letter "Å". This letter started to replace the double letters "AA" in the late 1800's. You may therefore find your ancestor named "Haakon" also referred to as "Håkon". As Ivar Staale Ertesvaag pointed out in another post in the thread on the patronymic system:

Farm names were also spelled differently from one source to the next. I have seen the farm name "Myrold" spelled "Myrvold", and "Roset" spelled "Rosæt." Given the fact that names are spelled inconsistently in both original as well as secondary sources, what are we to do? I believe that the most historically accurate approach is to write down each variation and note the source and date of the document. If our ancestors were not consistent with the spelling, then it would not be historically accurate for us to ignore that reality and arbitrarily choose one version of the name as the correct name.

In the "naming mess" that our Norwegian ancestors have left us, there are, however, two bright points that we should keep in mind: First of all, the patronymic system immediately identifies the first name of your ancestor's father. If you find an ancestor named Povel Jonson Rosetter, whose name is spelled Poul Jonson Rosæter in another document, you do know one thing for certain: his father's name was Jon! You are now one step closer to moving back another generation! The second bright point has to do with how the first name was selected. The first name was not chosen at random, but followed a strict rule: the oldest son was named after his paternal grandfather, and the second son after his maternal grandfather. Likewise, the oldest daughter was named after her paternal grandmother, and the second daughter after her maternal grandmother. When the names of the paternal and maternal grandparents had been used up, the great grandparents names were used, but in no particular order. There were, however, a few exceptions to these rules: 1) the name of a deceased spouse was used first, i.e., when a widow or widower remarried and had a child, that child would be named after the deceased spouse; 2) if the parent of a child died prior to the child being baptized, that parent's name would be used (if necessary the name would be feminized - from Wilhelm to Wilhelmina, for example); and 3) if a child died, the next child would be named after the deceased child. This rule (and the exceptions) can be very useful when doing genealogy research, because it gives important clues as to what names to look for in the previous two generations.

Hopefully this little article has cleared up some questions you may have had about Norwegian naming practices. While it is perhaps unfortunate that our ancestors did not follow the same naming rules that we follow, it does help to have some background information about the naming systems they used, since we will see those systems in use as our research unfolds.



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