Iceland is a small country with a population of a borough in London. It’s a country where surnames are not family names and the few family names in use are very rarely passed onto spouses. There are exceptions from the rule, for example, Icelanders who marry spouses from countries with the family name tradition.
Surnames are used to identify our mother or father’s first name, more commonly the father’s, but sometimes even both. For example, my surname, Björnsdóttir, means Björn’s daughter. I could also be Sigríðardóttir (Sigríður’s daughter), or both, Björns-and Sigríðardóttir.
Whatever surname is chosen doesn’t matter. All that my surname tells you is that my dad’s first name is Björn. That’s as far as it goes. I like my name and I identify with it. It’s part of who I am, with which I identify my persona and character. To part with my surname is unthinkable.
My South African partner likes the Icelandic tradition. He likes my name, and the person represented by that name. And likewise, I love and adore the man behind his name. He is an extraordinarily kind and decent human being that brightens up my world and makes me a better person.
Nonetheless, I am quite familiar with the English tradition of the wife taking the husband’s surname, and as out of the ordinary as it is to me, I do not give myself a license to have an adverse opinion of what other people do, or dictate how people live and by what name they should go.
Titles, such as “Mister”, “Mrs.”, “Ms.” and “Miss,” are not used much in Iceland either. Yes, we have these titles and they translate to: “herra,” “frú,” and “ungfrú.”
For some reason, mister is always mister and “herra” is always “herra.” It’s a never-changing title that lasts a man most of his life. For a woman, she remains “ungfrú” from childhood to single adulthood. In married adulthood, she becomes Mrs. or “frú” in Icelandic.
However, in our daily life, we do not refer to each other by title and surname. No, far from it. We refer to our superiors, including CEOs, by their first name. We are that informal. If I book a room at a local hotel, I will be asked for my full name, but they will refer to me by my first name. I am not Mrs. Björnsdóttir, or Mrs. My-Husband’s-Surname. I am Júlíana.
This is a delightful tradition that is truly very dear to me and that I hope will remain in our culture for the unforeseen future. It is a beautiful tradition that recognizes the individual in the name and places an emphasis on the importance of our first name.
I live in the vicinity of one of Reykjavík’s oldest cemeteries, Hólavallagarður, and I have come across a few headstones where the wife has taken her husband’s family name. Most of these graves go back to the 19th century, so seemingly there is a brief history of the wife assuming the husband’s family name.
Iceland is a place where informal communication is the rule. Our most informal communication takes place when we communicate with a potential employer or an official, and that is always on first name basis.
So, it really comes naturally to us to refer to one another by first name. It is a reflection of the limited hierarchy in Icelandic society. There certainly is elitism but it has more to do with money rather than who your parents are, their social status, or the existence of an esteemed family name alone.
Of course, coming from a family of politicians and successful businessmen can open doors of opportunity, and there are families whose wealth has carried from one generation to the next. But in terms of social status and general opportunities in life, it’s not a deal breaker to be the son of a famous politician.
But at the end of the day, wealth or no wealth, we are simply the children of our father or mother. That’s all there is to our surname.
So, if you were wondering whether the Icelander you just met is related to the Icelander you met last week because they have the same surname,it’s unlikely. The simple naming tradition is one that I have always cherished and always will because of the simple but personal approach adapted in our isolation.
Júlíana Björnsdóttir – [email protected]