Understanding the Norwegian Naming Practice
Having good knowledge about Norwegian Naming Practices is necessary to do Norwegian genealogy.
- History and periods
- Farm names in the sources
- Norwegian last names today
- Spelling and variants
- Some misunderstandings
Norwegian Family Names: The most important fact about Norwegian names is that hereditary surnames were not usually used. Except for the bourgeoisie in the cities and some civil servant families, almost all Norwegians were farmers, and used a three-part naming system:
- First name: all given names
- Patronymic: Olsdatter, Sveinsson, Nilsen etc, showing the given name of their father
- Farm name: the name of the farm where they were born or lived – this would change when people moved, but is the name that can best be used to find a person’s origin
Neither patronyms nor farm names are “surnames”.
- Given name: all given names. (Unlike the US, additional given names are not “middle” names in Norway; a middle name here is either a patronymic or an additional family last name.)
- Patronymic: a descriptive name telling us the first name of the person’s father
- Surname: a hereditary last name normally inherited from one’s father, that can be used to follow a paternal line back in time, shared by the whole family
- Last name: a last name is used by an individual and his/her family, normally inherited from one of the parents. A last name can be a hereditary surname, a former farm name, a frozen patronymic or other variants, and was introduced in Norway by the Names Act in 1923.
- Farm name: an “address” telling us on which farm the person lived. Over 90 % of Norway’s population lived on farms/in rural areas in 1801 (number based on census 1801)
- Frozen Patronymic: A former patronymic (male form, -sen or -son) adopted by a family as their new last name
- Legal name: Before the Names Act in 1923, the given name(s) was the actual name, and patronymic and farm name were descriptive names. After 1923 the given name(s) and a last name form the legal name.
- Maiden/married name: This is not a Norwegian custom, and women had all their names in their own right. Women with hereditary surnames would still use it after marriage. All people with farm names would change farm names when moving, independent of gender. Only around 1900 in the cities the Continental custom of families all using the father’s name were introduced, and the Names act 1923 introduced this custom as a new rule, until 1965.
- Byname: A descriptive name used in addition to the actual name. Both farm names and patronyms are originally bynames.
- Middle Name: A middle name in Norway is either a patronym or an additional family name, for example the father’s family name if the last name is the mother’s family name. Additional given names not in daily use are not middle names in the Norwegian naming system (like in the USA), but are part of the given name(s).
Not that patronymics are gender specific, and that a woman would never have a male patronymic.
- Larsson (Old Norse, Norwegian, Icelandic, Swedish) son of Lars
- Larsen (Danish, Norwegian bokmål after ab 1800)
- Larss. (common abbreviation in parish records)
- Larsdóttir (Old Norse, Icelandic) daughter of Lars
- Larsdotter (Norwegian, Swedish)
- Larsdatter (Danish, Norwegian)
- Larsdtr (common abbreviation covers all three forms above)
History, dates and timeline:
- before 1850: traditional system of given name, patronymic and farm name
- around 1850-1923: gradual change starting in cities moving towards hereditary last names – circumspection must be used to judge what is more correct in this phase, especially for those who moved from their farms to towns
- 1923-1965: Norwegian Names Act: everyone had to take a hereditary last name. Children would have their father’s last name. Women would use their husband’s name
- 1965: Women could again keep their name (as before/tradition) and children could use either parents’ last name, typically both (one as middle name)
Up until 1801 over 90 % of all Norwegians lived on farms in the countryside, and would be referred to by their farm name and/or their patronym as bynames in addition to their (given) name.
Exceptions to farm names:
There are only a few groups of people who did not have farm names:
- Families with hereditary surnames: typically immigrants to Norway 1500-1800 from Holland, Germany, Denmark, clergy, civil servants (only a few per cent of the population)
- Some northern fishermen families who lived in cottages with no farm name
- Craftsmen, labourers and their families who did only stay in one place a short time, and made a living travelling to get work, moving from farm to farm
But there is never a farm name in the records I have?
The farm name will often be implied as can the patronymic be. Everyone knew that if you referred to Ingrid Sollien, it meant that she lived at Sollien, and if she was referred to as Ingrid Knutsdotter she was the daughter of Knut. Sometimes people would use one, sometimes the other, depending on the setting. Typical christening records list the child with given name(s) only, then the father with given name and patronymic, and the mother with given name and patronymic and the (common) farm name last.
But where do I find the farm name then?
In a census (1801, 1865, 1900), people are listed under the farm they live at, with their given names and patronymics in the name fields. You then find the farm name on top of the forms, as each page is sorted by farm. The farm name is implied.
Below is an example from the census (folketelling) of 1865, in Vestre Slidre. The family members are listed by first name and patronymic, and the farm name is found under “gard”, here the name Berge.
In the 1900 census the son Ole has taken over, and he and his wife are listed with first name and farm name only, while their children are listed with patronymics.
In parish records for christenings, marriages and burials you find the farm name either listed as address, or as name together with given name and (most probably) patronymic.
Below is an example, from a list of marriages (Fron, Ministerialbok nr. 4, Ekteviede 1846). Bride and groom are listed with their given names. Then under “address” one finds the farm names, and the patronymics are implied from the list of the bride and groom’s fathers names. Witnesses are listed either by given name + patronymic + farm name, or given name + farm name.
Another example below from Gloppen, Sogn og Fjordane 1699, where the three parts of the names are all spelled out in full, with farm names underlined:
Norwegian Last Names Today
In 1923 when everyone had to settle for a hereditary last name (family name), there were some typical patterns: People in the towns usually chose a patronymic from their father or grandfather. Frozen patronymics were used as last names in Denmark since about 1800 and were seen as more modern and fashionable. Some had started to use these gradually already from around 1850 onwards. In the countryside most people would choose a farm name from their family. For those with a strong history at the same place/farm, the farm names were already used similar to surnames, and were strongly connected to people’s identity.
For Norwegian last names (family names) in use today (keeping foreign names outside), between 65 and 70 % of all people have former farm names like Berg, Hagen, and Lie. About 30 % use frozen patronymics like Olsen, Hansen, and Johansen. Among the top 50 last names in use we find mainly frozen patronymics, see SSB.
The tendency today is that families often choose the rarer names as their new family name when they marry or have children. Thus names like Olsen and Hansen are on decline.
When a couple marries, they can choose to either keep their last names, share either last name, or combine the two last names, entirely to their choice. The same goes for their children.
Today we perceive Sigurd, Sivert, Sjur and Syver as different names. Originally these were just variants of each other, all derived from Sigurd (Old Norse Sigurdr), and the actual name used/pronunciation chosen would depend a lot on the local dialect.
If you wish to learn more about this, study name etymology. A good first name dictionary is necessary.
Set spelling is a very modern invention, and for names entered in any original record before 1900 we have to be aware that it was not the people themselves who entered the name, they would say it, and the minister/office clerk/census data collector would write it down – the way he perceived it. Thus the spelling of the name of one and the same person could vary a lot between all records that exist. Jon, Joen, John could refer to the same person.
Language normalization is actually a subject at university, and you will find that almost all authors of bygdebøker (bygdebooks) have used normalized spelling of the names, based on the local practice in the area. It basically means using the standard common official spelling of a name in our database, to ease comparison and finding duplicates, and avoiding wrong matches.
Why should I spell the name differently from what I find in the source?
Records were not written by the people themselves – they were written by civil servants, mostly the clergy, who were Danish or who had their education from Copenhagen – and wrote Danish. The spelling would be chosen by whoever wrote it down, and not the people themselves.
The same person could in various records from Sogn og Fjordane have been entered as:
The normalized version in this case would be Sjur: This is the name form that people in this area used, and it is still a popular name today. In other areas the common form could be another.
This means that for this family in Sogn, we should enter “Sjur” as given name, “Sjursson” or “Sjursdotter” as patronymic (in the middle or given name field), and the farm name in the “surname” field as usual. The actual spelling from the parish records, census records, probates etc, should be entered exactly the way it is found in the record for each entry, when we describe the source.
The actual name fields when you use genealogy software should have:
- original name at birth, or earliest known name
- normalized spelling (remember Æ æ Ø ø Å å – copy/paste from here if you do not have a Norwegian keyboard)
As for which name variant is the best, local knowledge is essential. Read local history books and talk to local genealogists.
Farm names should normally be written according to their normalized form, typically the one used in Oluf Rygh: Norske gaardnavne. Some families today who use a farm name as family name use a different spelling, and it is natural to add these under their actual spelling of the name for family members born after 1850-1923, depending on what actual sources exist for that spelling.
Some common misunderstandings
“My ancestors changed their name”
No – they were referred to by another farm name because they moved, or they chose a surname when immigrating to a country with hereditary surnames (like the US)
“The people who wrote the books could not spell”
No – there were no set spellings, that is a very modern invention. Most people could not write nor read, and when they said their names it was up to the minister or civil servant to write it down the way they perceived it. There would be a lot of individual variation and preferences. Thus the same person could be listed with numerous varieties in the records during a life-span, depending on who wrote down the name.
“My surname looks similar to some Norwegian names today, is it possible that I am Norwegian?”
No – not if you do not have other indications about Norwegian ancestry. The name alone is too little to go by. If you study the name’s etymology – the history and meaning of the words making up the name – you will find more information. Also Norwegians have not used hereditary surnames, so current last names often have a short history. Older farm names are often based on quite common words of Germanic origin, meaning various words and names in other countries can be similar to them, without there being a common origin or connection.
Further reading about Norwegian names:
Oluf Rygh: Norske gaardnavne – a huge source for farm names in Norway, University of Oslo database
Genealogical pages from Johan Borgos explaining the Norwegian Naming patterns.
Article from Norway Heritage which explains why you can’t follow the surnames of your Norwegian paternal line, but need to add the farm names.