Sunday, June 17, 2012

Name Post: Introduction to Iceland

 Somewhere in Southeast Iceland.

              On our road trip, Katie pointed out that if ever we were driving around and things got tense, all any of us had to do was try to pronounce the name of the place we were driving to. This had the inevitable outcome of making us all laugh hysterically. The string of syllables coming out of our mouths, even when said in earnest, were never correct. I am convinced that even a town with an easy-seeming name like “Vik”, is probably not pronounced how we think.  I’ve realized that as a result, I've been creating my own names for things over the last two weeks in Iceland. "Laugavegar”, the main shopping street in Reykjavik is, in my mind, “That Lag-pedestrian street.” Hallgrimskirkja, the modernist church and my landmark for navigating my way around the city is “Hall-something-church.”  Everything is shortened and nicknamed and terribly butchered. 

                It goes without saying that this becomes a problem when it comes to people. I still cannot pronounce my landlord, Steingerður’s, name and I'm worried that we may have passed the point in our relationship where it’s okay for me to ask. “Kirsten” might be the only vaguely Icelandic name that I know how to pronounce at this point, which makes me a bit worried that all of my interviews about names in Iceland will be composed of the interviewees repeating their own for me countless times.

                There are very few people in Iceland with names that are more familiar to me and that would give my brain a break. This is because there is an Icelandic Naming Committee, the Mannanafnanefnd--("mannafa name thing")--which is the main reason I came here to study names in the first place. A 2010 article in the Reykjavik Grapevine newspaper clued me in to a few statistics surrounding it: 1) Parents must submit their baby’s name to the Naming Committee within 6 months of his or her birth. 2) If the name they choose has been previously registered by someone else, they have to fill out an application and pay 3000 ISK (roughly $25) to have the proposed name evaluated by the committee and then accepted or rejected. The article mentions that the committee receives about 100 applications to evaluate a name per year (there are about 5,000 births per year total in Iceland).  In 2009, 105 applications were received and 46 were rejected (rejections included Konrad, Hector, Cara, Kelly, Bót, Ralph, Villy and Werner).

                Before looking into law 45/1996, the Personal Names Act, I assumed that names in Iceland were rejected for reasons that had something to do with the preservation of national identity and culture; ideas similar to the ones behind the regulations I studied in Germany. , It seems, however, that in Iceland, the rationale for controlling names is largely linguistic.

                To quote the law, “Names have to have Icelandic genitive endings or shall have to become established by tradition in the Icelandic language” and “names may not conflict with the linguistic structure of Icelandic.” This means that names must work with Iceland’s linguistic structure, which, as this article points out, means names must be nominative, accusative, dative and genitive. The author of the article, Anna Andersen, uses the example of the name Njáll, which would become Njáll, Njál, Njáli, and Njáls in these respective cases. Apparently, Konrad, Hector, Cara, Kelly, Bot, Ralph, Villy and Werner can't do this. 

Names also have to follow Icelandic orthography. (If you have to look up this word like I did, I’ll save you some time and tell you that orthography refers to the standardized system for writing a particular language). I learned that Icelandic has a 32-letter alphabet, and in that alphabet, the letter “C” can’t be found (hence the rejection of the name Cara, but acceptance of the name Kara). As I’m finding with many governments that regulate the names people give their children, there is also what I would like to call “the name welfare clause.” In the case of Iceland, the law states that a “forename may not be such as to cause its bearer embarrassment.” This means, of course, that it’s very open to interpretation.


Along the Ring Road

One of the main reasons I wanted to study names in Iceland wasn’t only the influence that the naming committee has on baby names, but also on foreigners arriving in Iceland.   When I was looking up places to do this research, one statistic that lodged itself in my brain was that law required that immigrants change their names to Icelandic ones in order to gain citizenship. This seemed too problematic and too crazy, so I wasn't entirely surprised to find upon arriving that this law was actually abolished in 1995 (catch up, internet).  Still, 1995 is pretty recent history. Part of this law also required that children 15 years and younger were also forced to adopt an Icelandic name and give up whatever name they had before.  (Talk about an identity crisis). After the law was abolished in '95, whoever chose to could go back to their old names, even if they had adopted an Icelandic name under the law. Today, foreigners can keep their names as they are, but if they have children in Iceland, these children are required to have at least one Icelandic first name (another name can be a foreign one).

Yet another regulation in Iceland has to do with names and gender (similar to some of the jurisdictions I found in Germany). In Iceland, baby girls must have "girls' names" and boys must have "boys' names." Another recent article in the Reykjavik Grapevine interviewed the first Icelander to undergo sexual reassignment surgery and discussed names from her perspective. Apparently to have her name changed, she had to go through a series of interviews by psychiatrists, psychologists, and endocrinologists to determine whether or not she was a candidate for "GID" (gender identity disorder). If you are diagnosed with this, which she was, then and only then can you gain permission from the Naming Committee to change your name according to your preferred gender. 


First names are important in Iceland not only because they can be controversial, as demonstrated above, but also because in Iceland, pretty much everyone is on a first name basis. People are listed in the phone book by first name and everyone from teachers to police officers to the president can be addressed this way. Last names follow a patronymic system (although more and more people are using the matronymic) which means that families don't share a last name. By law, you can’t choose to use a family surname instead of using this system. (This law was not effectively enforced until 1991, however, so you do have some Icelandic families who got away with it).

Here’s how the patronymic system of last names works: To copy the example on Wikipedia, let's say that a man named Jon Einarsson has a son, Olafur. Olafur' last name would not be Einarsson like his father's, but would be Jonsson, indicating that Olafur is the son of Jon (Jons + son). Jon Einarsson's daughter, Sigríður, would have the name Jonsdottir (Jons +dottir, meaning daughter).  When people are using the matronymic system, children take on the mother's name + son or dottir instead. Apparently, this system is similar to historical Russia where a similar style was used (ex. Ivan Petrovich), but as the population grew, surnames were needed to identify family units and lineage. Iceland doesn't have that problem of size. 

For people who seem to have a rather anarchist and pacifist bent (Icelanders have no military, and are often quite cynical of the US one drunk Icelander put it at a bar the other night, the US is the "cancer of the world”), names seem to follow quite a rigid system of government laws. I’m curious how the majority of the population feels about these laws, and I’m hoping to find out just that. I’ll keep you posted as I dive in these questions surrounding names yet again. I'll let you know if I ever learn to pronounce any of them correctly, too.  

With help from: 

p.s. Sorry for the strange spacing. Sometimes Blogger doesn't like me.  


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