This article needs additional citations for verification. Please help improve this article by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed.Find sources: "Icelandic name" – news · newspapers · books · scholar · JSTOR (May 2023) (Learn how and when to remove this message)
A simple family tree showing the Icelandic patronymic naming system

Icelandic names are names used by people from Iceland. Icelandic surnames are different from most other naming systems in the modern Western world in that they are patronymic or occasionally matronymic: they indicate the father (or mother) of the child and not the historic family lineage. Iceland shares a common cultural heritage with the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Unlike these countries, Icelanders have continued to use their traditional name system, which was formerly used in most of Northern Europe.[a] The Icelandic system is thus not based on family names (although some people do have family names and might use both systems). Generally, with few exceptions, a person's last name indicates the first name of their father (patronymic) or in some cases mother (matronymic) in the genitive, followed by -son ("son") or -dóttir ("daughter").

Some family names do exist in Iceland, most commonly adaptations from last names Icelanders took up when living abroad, usually in Denmark. Notable Icelanders who have an inherited family name include former prime minister Geir Haarde, football star Eiður Smári Guðjohnsen, entrepreneur Magnús Scheving, film director Baltasar Kormákur Samper, and actress Anita Briem. Before 1925, it was lawful to adopt new family names; one Icelander to do so was the Nobel Prize-winning author Halldór Laxness, while another author, Einar Hjörleifsson and his brothers all chose the family name "Kvaran". Since 1925, one cannot adopt a family name unless one explicitly has a legal right to do so through inheritance.[4][5]

First names not previously used in Iceland must be approved by the Icelandic Naming Committee before being used.[6] The criterion for acceptance of names is whether they can be easily incorporated into the Icelandic language. With some exceptions, they must contain only letters found in the Icelandic alphabet (including þ and ð), and it must be possible to decline the name according to the language's grammatical case system, which in practice means that a genitive form can be constructed in accordance with Icelandic rules. Names considered to be gender-nonconforming have historically not been allowed; however, in January 2013, a 15-year-old girl named Blær (a masculine noun in Icelandic) was allowed to keep this name in a court decision that overruled an initial rejection by the naming committee.[7] Her mother Björk Eiðsdóttir did not realize at the time that Blær was considered masculine; she had read a novel by Halldór Laxness, The Fish Can Sing (1957), that had an admirable female character named Blær, meaning "light breeze", and had decided that if she had a daughter, she would name her Blær.[8]

In 2019, the laws governing names were changed. First names are no longer restricted by gender. Moreover, Icelanders who are officially registered as non-binary will be permitted to use the patro/matronymic suffix -bur ("child of") instead of -son or -dóttir.[9]

Typical Icelandic naming

A gravestone with a patronymic and avonymic: "Páll, son of Jón, son of Mattías"

A man named Jón Einarsson has a son named Ólafur. Ólafur's last name will not be Einarsson like his father's; it will become Jónsson, indicating that Ólafur is the son of Jón (Jóns + son). The same practice is used for daughters. Jón Einarsson's daughter Sigríður's last name would not be Einarsson but Jónsdóttir. Again, the name means "Jón's daughter" (Jóns + dóttir).

In some cases, an individual's surname is derived from a parent's second given name instead of the first. For example, if Jón is the son of Hjálmar Arnar Vilhjálmsson, he may either be named Jón Hjálmarsson (Jón, son of Hjálmar) or Jón Arnarsson (Jón, son of Arnar). The reason for this may be that the parent prefers to be called by the second given name instead of the first; this is fairly common. It may also be that the parent's second name seems to fit the child's first name better.

In cases where two people in the same social circle bear the same first name and the same father's name, they have traditionally been distinguished by their paternal grandfather's name (avonymic), e.g. Jón Þórsson Bjarnasonar (Jón, son of Þór, son of Bjarni) and Jón Þórsson Hallssonar (Jón, son of Þór, son of Hallur). This practice has become less common (the use of middle names having replaced it), but features conspicuously in the Icelandic sagas.

Matronymic naming as a choice

The vast majority of Icelandic last names carry the name of the father, but occasionally the mother's name is used: e.g. if the child or mother wishes to end social ties with the father. Some women use it as a social statement while others simply choose it as a matter of style.

In all of these cases, the convention is the same: Ólafur, the son of Bryndís, will have the full name of Ólafur Bryndísarson ("the son of Bryndís"). Some well-known Icelanders with matronymic names are the football player Heiðar Helguson ("Helga's son"), the novelist Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir ("Minerva's daughter"), and the medieval poet Eilífr Goðrúnarson ("Goðrún's son").

In the Icelandic film Bjarnfreðarson the title character's name is the subject of some mockery for his having a woman's name – as Bjarnfreður's son – not his father's. In the film this is connected to the mother's radical feminism and shame over his paternity, which form part of the film's plot.[10] Some people have both a matronymic and a patronymic: for example, Dagur Bergþóruson Eggertsson ("the son of Bergþóra and Eggert"), the mayor of Reykjavík since 2014. Another example is the girl Blær mentioned above: her full name is Blær Bjarkardóttir Rúnarsdóttir ("the daughter of Björk and Rúnar").

Icelandic singer-songwriter Björk had a daughter in 2002 with American contemporary artist and film maker Matthew Barney, being Björk's second/youngest child and only daughter. The pair named her Ísadóra Bjarkardóttir Barney, having two last names of different origin and completely different stature; Barney, being her father's last name (being a Western tradition of giving a child their father's last name, usually being a collective family name), and an Icelandic name meaning "Björk's daughter". Hypothetically, if Ísadóra's father was Icelandic and had an Icelandic name tying to him (like how in actuality Ísadóra's name is tied to her mother), her Icelandic last name would be the same, except replacing the "Bjark" or "Bjarkar" in Bjarkardóttir with his first name.

Gender-neutral patronymics and matronymics

A gender autonomy act approved by the Icelandic Parliament in 2019 allows individuals who register their gender as neutral (i.e., non-binary) to use bur, a poetic word for "son", to be repurposed as a neuter noun, as a suffix instead of son or dóttir.[11][12][13]


Unlike the other Nordic countries, Iceland never formalized a system of family names.[14] A growing number of Icelanders — primarily those who had studied abroad — began to adopt family names in the second half of the 19th century. In 1855, there were 108 family names but by 1910 there were 297.[14] In 1913, the Althing legalized the adoption of family names. The Icelanders who had family names tended to be upper-class and serve as government officials.[14]

In 1925, Althing banned the adoption of new family names.[14] Some of the common arguments against the usage of family names were: they were not authentically "Icelandic"; the usage of -son in family names made it unclear if the name was actually a family name or patronymic; and there were fears that low-class people would adopt the family names of well-known upper-class families.[14] Some of the common arguments for the usage of family names were: they made it easier to trace lineages; they made it easier to distinguish individuals (a problem in mid-19th century Iceland was that there were so many people named Jón — in fact, one in six Icelandic males were named Jón at the time); and that Iceland ought to follow the lead of its Nordic neighbours.[14]

In Russia, where name-patronyms of similar style were historically used (such as Ivan Petrovich which means Ivan, the son of Peter), the much larger population necessitated the introduction of surnames, and relegated the patronymic to record-keeping middle-name and conversational honorific.

Cultural ramifications

This section does not cite any sources. Please help improve this section by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed. (May 2023) (Learn how and when to remove this message)

In Iceland, listings such as the telephone directory are alphabetised by first name rather than surname. To reduce ambiguity, the telephone directory goes further by also listing professions.

Icelanders formally address others by their first names. By way of example, the former prime minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir would not be introduced as 'Ms Sigurðardóttir' but either by her first name or her full name, and usually addressed by her first name only. Icelandic singer Björk goes by her first name. (Her full name is Björk Guðmundsdóttir.) Björk is how any Icelander would address her, whether formally or casually.

In the case of two people in the same group having the same given name, perhaps one named Jón Stefánsson and the other Jón Þorláksson, one could address Jón Stefánsson as "Jón Stefáns" and Jón Þorláksson as "Jón Þorláks". When someone holds a conversation with these two people at the same time, the appendage "son" would not need to be used; in that case, the genitive form of the father's name could be used like a nickname, although it is just as common in such cases to refer to people by their middle names (having a middle name being nowadays the general rule for people with a common name like 'Jón').

As a result of the vast majority of people using patronymics, a family will normally have a variety of last names: the children of (married or unmarried) parents Jón Einarsson and Bryndís Atladóttir could be named Ólafur Jónsson and Katrín Jónsdóttir. With matronymics, the children in this example would be Ólafur Bryndísarson and Katrín Bryndísardóttir. Patronymics thus have the formula (genitive case of father's name, usually adding -s, or if the name ends in -i, it will change to -a) + son/dóttir/bur, whereas matronymics are (genitive case of mother's name, often -ar, or if the name ends in -a, it will change to -u) + son/dóttir/bur.

Outside of Iceland

The Icelandic naming system occasionally causes problems for families travelling abroad, especially with young children, since non-Icelandic immigration staff (apart from those of other Nordic countries) are usually unfamiliar with the practice and therefore expect children to have the same last names as that of their parents.

Icelandic footballers who work abroad similarly will be referred to by their patronymics, even though such use of the term is considered improper from a native Icelandic standpoint. Aron Gunnarsson, for example, wore the name "Gunnarsson" on the back of his shirt in the Premier League before his move to Al-Arabi, and was referred to as such by the British media and commentators.

Expatriate Icelanders or people of Icelandic descent who live in foreign countries, such as the significant Icelandic community in the Canadian province of Manitoba, usually abandon the traditional Icelandic naming system. In most cases, they adapt to the naming conventions of their country of residence—most commonly by retaining the patronymic of their first ancestor to immigrate to the new country as a permanent family surname, much as other Nordic immigrants did before surnames became fully established in their own countries.[15] Alternatively, a permanent family surname may sometimes be chosen to represent the family's geographic rather than patronymic roots; for example, Canadian musician Lindy Vopnfjörð's grandfather immigrated to Canada from the Icelandic village of Vopnafjörður.[16]

See also


  1. ^ The system has recently been reintroduced as an option elsewhere in the Nordic countries. Current law in Denmark (since 2005),[1] the Faroe Islands (since 1992), Norway (since 2002), and Sweden[2] (since 1982) allows the use of patronymics as a replacement for (or addition to) traditional surnames. In Finland it is possible to give a child a patronym or matronym, but they are registered as given names.[3]


  1. ^ "Fornavne, mellemnavne og efternavne". Ankestyrelsen. Archived from the original on 16 October 2017. Retrieved 29 October 2017.
  2. ^ "Surnames with the suffix -son or -dotter". Swedish Patent and Registration Office. Archived from the original on 30 October 2013. Retrieved 25 October 2013.
  3. ^ Nimilaki (694/1985) § 26. Retrieved 3-11-2008. (in Finnish)
  4. ^ "Personal Names Act, No. 45 of 17th May 1996". Ministry of the Justice. Retrieved 15 November 2023.
  5. ^ (10 July 2014). "So What's This Naming Law I Keep Hearing About? - The Reykjavik Grapevine". Retrieved 31 July 2018.
  6. ^ "Naming Committee accepts Asía, rejects Magnus". Morgunblaðið online. 12 September 2006. Archived from the original on 14 March 2012 – via Iceland Review Online.
  7. ^ Blaer Bjarkardottir, Icelandic Teen, Wins Right To Use Her Given Name, Huffington Post, 31 January 2013
  8. ^ "Where Everybody Knows Your Name, Because It's Illegal". The Stateless Man. 28 January 2013. Archived from the original on 31 January 2013.
  9. ^ Kyzer, Larissa (22 June 2019). "Icelandic names will no longer be gendered". Iceland Review.
  10. ^ TheLurkingFox (26 December 2009). "Mr. Bjarnfreðarson (2009)". IMDb. Retrieved 31 December 2014.
  11. ^ "9/149 frumvarp: mannanöfn | Þingtíðindi | Alþingi". Retrieved 24 January 2020.
  12. ^ "Lög um kynrænt sjálfræði. | Þingtíðindi | Alþingi". Retrieved 24 January 2020.
  13. ^ "Stúlkur mega nú heita Ari og drengir Anna | RÚV". 21 June 2019. Retrieved 24 January 2020.
  14. ^ a b c d e f Björnsson, Páll (Fall 2017). "Ættarnöfn - eður ei". Saga.
  15. ^ "Icelandic anchor makes Manitoba connection". Winnipeg Free Press, 26 July 2008.
  16. ^ "Where Are They Now?" Lögberg-Heimskringla, 24 February 1995.