My name is Benný Ísleifsdóttir and I’m Icelandic. My surname, Ísleifsdóttir, means ‘daughter of Ísleifur.’ My father’s surname, however, was Gíslason, ‘son of Gísli,’ and my grandfather’s surname was Þorsteinsson, because his father was Þorsteinn.
It’s a bit complicated but that’s because Icelandic surnames are individual, not hereditary.
The system of hereditary surnames came from the Romans in the tenth century and from there it spread throughout Europe.
The elite, i.e. the aristocrats, had a taste for surnames and realized how they could be of benefit to them in preserving and passing on their prestige.
The custom of using hereditary surnames became the standard practice through-out Europe over the next few centuries.
Somehow, inheriting a name was less of an issue to the lower classes but eventually filtered its way, gradually, from the higher ranking to those belonging to the lower classes.
In Iceland this was somewhat different. At the turn of the 20th century, hereditary surnames were relatively uncommon; they had spread most in the upper classes, which consisted primarily of those Icelanders who had traveled abroad, either for trade or education, and had therefore been introduced to this new custom.
They were also used by foreigners who had moved to the country, often officials, merchants or craftsmen, carrying along their own family names.
There were, however, the odd farmers and laborers who also welcomed the custom but they were relatively few and thus the understanding was that the new hereditary surnames matched only those who could actually inherit something more than a name from their parents.
The increase in hereditary surnames brought about heavy discussion within society, since Icelanders had for centuries got used to being the daughters and sons of their fathers.
Abandoning the naming system they had been brought up to believe was unique and distinctive caused dispute among the public, and also among intellectuals and politicians.
Should the Icelandic people welcome the new system of hereditary surnames, like most of their fellow Europeans already had? Or should they continue being daughters and sons of their fathers?
That was a tricky question, to which there wasn’t a unanimous answer.
Clinging on to the old naming system was considered old fashioned and outdated and perhaps might even give the impression that Icelanders themselves were out of touch (which they kind of were) and that was a sensitive subject.
Others were quite content with the old system and thought Icelanders should stick to it; it had worked perfectly since settlement, when Ingólfur Arnarson and Hallveig Fróðadóttir turned up, each bearing their own surname (or so the Sagas tell us)—as have all married couples from then on.
Be true to who we are, they said, let’s not throw away a perfectly workable, not to mention unique, naming system that has served us for centuries.
On the grounds of the uniqueness of the Icelandic surname system, laws were passed which banned family names and even forced foreigners moving to Iceland to take up an Icelandic last and first name.
This didn’t apply to all, however. Those Icelanders who already had family names could keep them—and pass them on from parent to child—and it seemed as if some of our new settlers were famous enough that it didn’t matter if they had a not-so-Icelandic-surname.
The matter seemed to strike the respective authorities as something of an impolite gesture, so when a world-renowned pianist was granted Icelandic citizenship, no one asked: “Mr Vladimir Ashkenazy, do you mind calling yourself Valdimar Aðalsteinsson?”
I don’t think anyone did at least, but those not-so-famous (or not-famous-at-all) had to change their names to good solid Icelandic ones.
Later we came to our senses regarding new Icelandic citizens and since 1996 they no longer have to change their names (not even if they are complete nobodies) because it goes against their human rights.
Family names with a foreign and even exotic ring to them—which Icelanders sometimes have no idea how to spell or pronounce—are thus becoming more and more common, but it’s still forbidden to create a new Icelandic family name.
And why? Because it’s considered to be of common interest to maintain the old naming system; so most of us will keep on being Arnarson and Fróðadóttir.
It’s all for the public good. For the Icelandic nation as a whole, who loves to explain to foreign friends how ‘unique’ our naming system is.
Within one family of four there may be Anna Jónsdóttir, who is now married to Sigurður Halldórsson and they have a daughter, Guðrún, who is then Sigurðardóttir, and before Anna got married to Sigurður she had a son, Kjartan, with another man, Tryggvi, and thus his name is Kjartan Tryggvason.
So within this hypothetical—and yet so real—family we have four different surnames: Jónsdóttir, Halldórsson, Sigurðardóttir and Tryggvason.
Complicated to some, but really Icelandic in every way. And this is what is considered important to preserve and maintain.
Since 1991, in the name of equality, it has been legal to be known as the daughter or son of one’s mother instead of one’s father; so my own daughters could decide to be Bennýjardóttir instead of Óskardóttir (their father’s name is Óskar), and my son could be Bennýjarson instead of Óskarsson.
They could even be both! Bennýjar- og Óskarsdóttir and Bennýjar- og Óskarsson (with or without a hyphen and in any order).
Even though human rights trump tradition, causing naming laws to be modernized, and some Icelanders have family names, they are the exception that proves the rule.
But overall, we, as a nation, are still very much Arnarson and Fróðadóttir, all those years later.
Benný Sif Ísleifsdóttir is a folklorist, who covered this subject in her 2013 BA thesis.