A primer on Icelandic names

Though I don’t have a huge Icelandic connection in my writing to date, there is a minor one, and I wanted to do another post on Scandinavian names. In all likelihood, I won’t be doing posts on Danish or Swedish names, in spite of my writing connections to those cultures, since there’s far too great of an overlap between Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish names. At least there were some differences in my posts on Slovakian and Czech names. Since Iceland is geographically isolated from the other main three Scandinavian countries, they’ve maintained a bigger store of unique names, with more names of older origin.

My fictional School of Atlantic City has a very extensive language program, thanks to the wide-ranging interests of principal Mr. Robinson. One of those languages is Icelandic, which is the primary foreign language chosen by Cinnimin and Levon’s seventh-born child Serop. Serop is quite good at Icelandic, and continues studying it at college. Later on, Serop’s third-born daughter Dora also studies the language, and debates between Icelandic and Hungarian as one of her two bachelor’s degrees at the City University of London. She ultimately chooses Hungarian, since she doesn’t want to do her study abroad year in a country without a real Jewish community.

I also have a handful of minor characters of Icelandic descent scattered about, including the Hudson Falls kindergarten teacher in Little Ragdoll, Ms. Sigurdsson.

Icelandic alphabet:

Icelandic uses the Roman alphabet, with a few non-native letters. Most of the letters are pronounced the same way as in English, including the letters with accent marks. However, there are some differences. The Icelandic B is pronounced like a P; Á is pronounced like the “ow” in “cow”; D is pronounced like a T; J is of course pronounced like a Y; R is rolled; U is like the I in pin with the lips rounded; X is like a guttural CH; Z is pronounced like a soft S; Ð ð is pronounced like TH and never falls out at the start of a word or name; Þ is also a TH sound; Ö is like the E  in “mend” while rounding the lips; and Æ is like “eye.”

The pronunciation of G is perhaps the trickiest, since it changes depending upon which letters it’s between. Between vowels and at the end of a word, it’s a soft guttural CH, like the German ich. Between accented vowels, it’s silent. Between a vowel and a J, it’s said like a Y. After a vowel and before S or T, it’s like the CH in loch.

There are also special letter combinations—HV (like the KF in “thankful”), LL (usually TL), NN (like TN after a diphthong or accented vowel), FND (MT), FNT (like the MPT in “unkempt”), AU (ÖJ), and EI/EY (like the A in “case”). KK, PP, and TT are aspirated.

Icelandic surnames and acceptable names:

With the exception of names of foreign origin, there aren’t any family names in Iceland. One takes one’s surname from the name of one’s father, or, occasionally, one’s mother. Thus, Óskar’s son will have the surname Óskarsson, and his daughter will have the surname Óskarsdóttir. A surname may be derived from the parent’s middle name if that’s the name s/he chooses to go by. Though this is less common now, it used to be the custom for people with the same first and last name in the same circle to go by the paternal grandfather’s name to distinguish themselves.

Because of this naming system, Icelanders use their first names for formal address, and phonebooks are alphabetized by forenames. Generally, when Icelanders have immigrated, they’ve adopted their existing surnames as their family names, and ceased the practice of using patronymical or matronymical surnames for their children.

Like many other countries, Iceland also has a list of acceptable names, and a naming committee to approve or disapprove of potential new names. I really wish the English-speaking world would do this, to cut down on ridiculous names like My’Unique Destiny, Secret, Treasure, Precious, Princess, and Nevaeh-it’s-Heaven-spelt-backwards-TEEHEEHEE!

Common Icelandic names:

Female:

Anna
Arnbjörg (Eagle help)
Ásdís (God and goddess)
Áslaug
Ástríður (Ásta)
Aðalbjörg (Noble help)
Bergljót (Protection and light)
Björg (Help)
Björk (Birch tree)
Borghildur (Battle fortification)
Brynhildur (Battle protection)
Brynja (Armor)
Dagmar (Day maid)
Dagný (New day)
Edda (Great-grandmother)
Eir (Mercy)
Elfa, Elva, Ylfa (Elf)
Elísabet
Embla
Emilía
Erna (Brisk)
Eva
Eydís (Island goddess or Goddess of good fortune)
Fríða (Beautiful; Belovèd)
Friðrika
Guðlaug (Betrothed woman)
Guðrún (God’s secret lore)
Halldóra (Thor’s rock)
Hanna
Heiðrún (Bright secret)
Helga
Hildur (Battle)
Hjördís (Sword goddess)
Hulda (Secrecy)
Inga
Jóhanna
Jóna
Kristín, Kristjana
Lára
Lilja
Margrét
María (Mæja)
Nanna (Brave)
Njála
Pála (Paula)
Ragnheiður (Ragna) (Bright advice)
Ragnhildur (Ragna) (Battle advice)
Saga (Seeing one)
Sara
Selma
Sigrún (Secret victory)
Svanhildur (Svana)
Þordís (Thor’s goddess)
Unnur (To billow or To love)
Úrsúla, Yrsa
Valdís (Goddess of the dead)
Vigdís (War goddess)
Yrja (Drizzling rain)

Male:

Alexander
Anton
Ari (Eagle)
Árni
Arnþor, Arnór (Thor’s eagle)
Aron
Ásbjörn (Bear of God)
Ásgeir (God’s spear)
Ásmundur (Protection of God)
Aðalsteinn (Noble stone)
Baldur (Prince)
Benedikt
Benjamín
Birgir (Help)
Bjarní, Björn (Bear)
Bjartur (Bright)
Brynjar (Armor warrior)
Dagur (Day)
Daníel
Egill (Terror; Awe)
Eiríkur (Erik)
Elvar (Elf warrior)
Emil
Erlendur (Foreigner)
Erlingur (Descendant of the jarl [chieftain])
Eysteinn (Stone of good fortune or Island stone)
Eyvindur (Island victor or Victor of good fortune)
Fannar (Snow drift)
Freyr (Lord)
Friðrik
Geir (Spear)
Georg
Hákon (High son)
Hallbjörn (Rock bear)
Halldór (Thor’s rock)
Haraldur (Harold)
Hinrik (Henry)
Hjörtur (Deer)
Hrafn (Raven)
Indriði (To ride alone)
Jóhann, Jóhannes, Jón
Jónas
Jónatan
Kristján
Lárus (Lawrence)
Lúðvík (Louis)
Njáll
Ólafur (Ancestor’s descendant)
Óskar
Páll (Paul)
Pétur
Sigurður (Victory guardian)
Sindri (Trivial or Sparkling)
Snorri (Onslaught; Attack)
Stefán
Sverrir (Wild; Swinging; Spinning)
Þór (Thor) (Thunder)
Tómas
Tryggvi (Trustworthy)
Viktor
Vilhjálmur (William)
Yngvar
Zakaría, Zakarías

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3 comments on “A primer on Icelandic names

  1. I knew someone named Dagmar once. She was German. It was interesting reading these names. It’s important to do research on minor characters to get those details right.

    Like

  2. jazzfeathers says:

    Really enjoyed this post.
    The nearst connection I have with Island is the Viking sagas… and let me tell you, I LOVE those names. It always sounds like there is an entire story inside them.

    But so, I’m not sure I understand. Do they still use patronimic and matronimic?

    Like

    • Carrie-Anne says:

      They still use patronymic and matronymic names in Iceland itself. Outside of Iceland, people of Icelandic descent have generally discontinued it, like if they’ve immigrated to the U.S., Canada, or England.

      Liked by 1 person

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