Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Name Post: On Cultural Cohesion

In some ways, Icelandic naming regulations and traditions aren’t that different from many of those in other places I’ve visited this year. In my mind, I’ve looked at Iceland as being in the same camp with Morocco and Germany because of the relatively strict legal regulations for what people can and can’t name their children. Lately, I’ve also been intrigued by the possibility of comparing how people use names from Norse Sagas here to how people in India pass on names of Gods & Goddesses from Hindu myths.  Also, because the patronymic gets passed on in Icelandic families, in some ways, it reminds me of how family relationships are spelled out in names in a similar way as to how they were in Bali. Similar to Bali, in Iceland, as a result of many people living in a small population with the same name, new strategies have to be used. Nicknames become important, as does listing occupations in the phone book.  
What makes Iceland unique, however, is just how few names there are.  Of all the places I’ve gone this year, names in Iceland are limited the most, by far.
 Almost every day I walk from my apartment to downtown Reykjavik and I pass by a building that’s outside is covered in names (one side for boys, one side for girls). My first week here I couldn’t believe my luck that I had somehow landed somewhere so close to the hubbub of all Icelandic names, until I learned that it was actually the office of an insurance company who thought the names would make for an interesting decorative choice. Although my hopes were a bit dashed, I often stop and linger here on my walk home, trying to decipher unfamiliar letters and sounds. 

Obviously, I included “Nella” and “Nelly” (approved Icelandic names) in my photo.

They are not particularly big walls. It is pretty easy to write out the list of sanctified “Icelandic names.” The definition of what constitutes an Icelandic name, as spelled out in my previous post, is comparatively simplistic and shaped around linguistic and grammatical rules. It seems to me that on average, only three or four names per year are added to the list. A 2010 article from The Reykjavik Grapevine reveals that “Mara” and “Sophie” were added to the list, whereas Marias, Dania and Vikingr (among others) were rejected. Apparently, Marias and Dania were rejected because they were not “in harmony with Icelandic rules of writing” (this refers to the four grammatical forms names have to be able to take on that I mentioned in my previous post), and Vikingr was rejected because it doesn’t fit the “Icelandic language system” (apparently the “singular ‘r’ ending was dropped centuries ago” and was replaced with “-ur, -ar, or ir.”).It seems that the forms names can take on are, in some ways, more important than the names itself. The same year, “Ripley” was approved, because though it’s far from being Icelandic in a cultural sense, many Icelandic names to end in “ey”, so “Ripley” could be consistent with Icelandic grammar. 

Another lovely sight on my daily walk home. 
I’ll admit it, I’m skeptical. I’m always skeptical of countries where governments try to regulate names and naming because it seems that in doing so, there is an inherent bias against the names of people who are new to these countries or, as I learned in Morocco, may have been living there for centuries but are a discriminated-against minority. Inherently, defining and creating a specific cultural identity  also involves a process of exclusion.
On the other hand, Iceland has a population of 320,000 people. These people all seem to be trying as hard as they can to maintain what they define as “Icelandic culture” in a big, wide world (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s locals, not just tourists who don the popular Icelandic sweaters downtown). And though I’m skeptical about name regulation, I’m just as worried about the risk of losing cultural traditions (like tribal names being lost in many parts of Zambia as biblical names were adapted). The Icelanders I’ve spoken with seem to view names as a fundamental aspect of Icelandic culture; all of the people I’ve spoken with so far have complained more about the names the committee has approved than the ones it hasn’t. The naming committee is a point of great controversy here, and part of me wonders if this is why getting a hold of them for an interview is proving to be quite difficult.  

Interestingly, I’ve had several Icelanders tell me they believe a person should be able to name their child whatever they want, but then, a few minutes later will point out the “ridiculousness” of certain names that the committee has approved—names that they wouldn’t have approved themselves.
It seems that sometimes Icelanders are torn between wanting to believe in an ethos of  individuality and independence, but also wanting this individuality and independence to remain within the homogeneity of their population. Names in Iceland have, for centuries, reflected homogeneity. I recently read an article by Bob Brooke which said that since the 13th century in Iceland, 25% of males have been named Jón. In the 1703 census, over half of all men and women had names that were found in the top ten respective lists. The greatest increase in diversity of names was from 1921 to 1950, a time which, (not coincidentally) coincided with a lot of economic and political change in Iceland.
I forget this when I look at Reykjavik’s spotless streets and well-dressed, healthy, populace, but until relatively recently, Iceland was quite poor.  Because of its geographical isolation, it took a long time for many technological and social innovations to reach Iceland. A huge proportion of the population was living off subsistence farming in turf houses into the 20th century when fisheries finally became industrialized and the Marshall Plan went into effect after World War II. These factors combined made Iceland skyrocket to being one of the wealthiest countries in the world by the 1990s.
It’s interesting to me that this period of time was also when there began to be much greater diversity in names. It’s unsurprising that as there was more access to other parts of the world through trade and technology, Icelanders would start picking up on different names as well. But it was also around this time, a time of huge economic growth, and gaining independence, that there were also huge questions about what Icelandic identity consisted of in relationship to all of this.
The answer seems to be largely linguistic. People say that Icelandic is a virtually untouched language. When Iceland’s first settlers left Norway in the 9th century, all of Scandinavia spoke one language. As a result, modern Icelandic is very similar to this original language, whereas in comparison, Norwegian, Finnish, Swedish and Danish have all changed much more. This is partly because of Iceland’s geographic isolation, but also because it has always had an astoundingly high literacy rate, which helped preserve and pass on its language. Modern Icelandic is supposedly very close to that original Scandinavian tongue -- whereas Norwegian, Finnish, Swedish and Danish have all changed substantially.

On the one hand, I get it. There aren’t very many people speaking this language in the world. If you’re living in Iceland, the least you can do is give your kid a name that will abide by the grammatical rules of the country your kid was born into. But on the other hand, it makes me kind of uncomfortable.
This is most likely because I grew up in a place where creating a wall of the names that I was surrounded by would be impossible.   I like imagining what painting “American names” on a wall would look like, and all I can think is that better be one big insurance company.
I’m still not sure how I feel about the rules that govern naming in Iceland, but I think of my imagined wall of American names, and I wonder if maybe a lack of a coherent cultural identity is a price worth paying for a devotion to inclusion. 

(Thanks to Rebecca Roberts: http://www.exploratorium.edu/theworld/iceland/names.html, Paul Fontaine: http://www.grapevine.is/News/ReadArticle/Name-Committee-Adds-To-The-List, Bob Brooke: http://www.allscandinavia.com/icelandicnames.htm, Wikipedia, and my recent conversations with Sarah Brownsberger and Bryndís Guðjónsdóttir).

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