Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Name Post: Laws & Loopholes

             It’s one thing to read the laws that regulate names in a particular place, and it’s another to get a glimpse into the actual process of how they affect the decisions people are making. What I find kind of amazing about the system in Iceland is how watertight it is. Unlike in Germany, where it seemed like names were being added or made exceptions for all the time (something that makes sense considering the German population is much larger and less homogeneous), Iceland has a remarkably straightforward (and strict) system.  I’ve been lucky to get some insight into the process of name approval in Iceland from a variety of perspectives over the last couple of weeks.  
Sola, who I talked about in my last name post, gave me a glimpse into what getting a name approved looked like from a parent’s perspective. She has two children, Jón Þór, (pronounced like “Yown-Thur”--a combination of his two grandfathers’ names), andsan Klara. She wanted to name her daughter “Susan”, after her American grandmother, but in Icelandic, without the accent over the “u”, the name would sound more like “Suh-san” than “Soo-san” She thought that adding an accent to the “u” would make it look more Icelandic, but sound more like the American version after her grandmother.
She told me that, somewhat ironically, the name “Susan” is approved in Iceland, but for “san”, they had to write to the committee to ask for permission. It was a fairly straightforward process where they went down to the government registry bureau, paid 3000 krona (around $25) and wrote a paragraph on a form about why they believed “san” would fit with the Icelandic language and grammatical rules. A few weeks later, they checked the Committee’s website and learned that “san” had indeed been approved. (They also got an official certificate in the mail—one that they plan to frame for Susie when she’s older).
Because san followed all components of the name laws and “an” is a common ending to conjugate for girls’ names here, it was pretty clear the name would go through. The process isn’t always this simple. I recently had the chance to talk to Guðrún Kvaran, the author of “Nöfn Íslendinga” (in English: “The Names of Icelanders”), who works at the Institute for Icelandic Cultural Studies.  The first edition of the book came out in 1991 and to write it,  Guðrún compiled the names of all the Icelanders who ever lived. (I’m not joking. This sounds like an impossible task, but as she pointed out to me, “There haven’t been that many.”). She started with the first-ever census in 1703 and kept going from there (note that she only used names with evidence showing people actually used them…for example, she didn’t use all of the names from the Sagas, since it’s unclear if the people in them actually existed for not).
 Guðrún was the perfect person to write the book, (the first of its kind in Iceland), because she was also the Chairperson of the Naming Committee for several years. She told me a few things I found especially interesting. First of all, just because a name has been used by Icelanders in the past does not mean that it is automatically approved today. There are some names in her book, for example, that she indicates would need to get approval from the naming committee because they might not fit to today’s standards.
She also told me that in practice the law that parents can’t give their children names that would be embarrassing to them rarely has an effect on the ruling of the committee. In recent memory, there have only been two names that were rejected for this reason alone: Satania and Lucifer.  She also told me that while this law is applicable for parents naming their children, if an adult comes to register a name change, they can’t reject his or her choice on these grounds. The example she used was “Cactus.” “If an adult wants to change his name to Cactus,” she told me, “we can’t say ‘no, you can’t do that. That would be embarrassing for you.’” Because of this, the committee would approve the name Cactus, but, once approved, this means others are allowed to use it as well. If an adult Icelander has changed his name to “Cactus”, hypothetically, parents could now use it for their children. “We just have to hope young parents don’t hear about this particular name,” she told me. 

She also explained that on the inside, being the Chairperson of the Naming Committee in Iceland is a very stressful job. The committee has a traditionally rocky relationship with the public, who generally seems to feel they make their decisions according to personal opinions and biases rather than the law.  She told me that when she was the Chairperson, her weekends would often be dominated by intense conversations surrounding these issues.
            In Iceland, parents are not required to give their child a name while still at the hospital. In fact, today most parents don’t even reveal the baby’s name to anyone until the baptism a few months later (today 60-70% of Icelanders are baptized).  Most people decide on a date for the baptism, and discuss what the baby’s name will be with the Priest so he can plan a fitting ceremony. Guðrún told me that this often resulted in many panicked phone calls on Saturday nights before Sunday morning baptisms.  Pastors would often call her at home, asking if she thought a particular name would go through or if he should encourage the family to choose something else.  She said she would receive these phone calls and would always picture the cakes these parents had already baked, the family members they had already invited, and sigh.
            I got to hear the other side of this from Pastor Sigurður Árni Þórðarson at Neskirkja, downtown last week. He told me that he tries to emphasize to parents that he is baptizing the baby, not the name, so if the name doesn’t go through, it doesn’t somehow render the baptism invalid.  It’s an interesting distinction though, and he told me that very few parents would want to baptize their child with a different name than the one he or she would end up having. He told me that he’s learned to ask the parents’ if they’ve already gotten approval for a name before the baptism, and if he’s skeptical, he’ll check the committee archives online, or ask the parents to show him a form from the registry as proof. He told me a few times parents believed they could “sneak in” a name if he baptized the baby with it, even if they hadn’t gotten permission first.
            Apparently, it’s a valid concern. Guðrún told me about one case where a baby girl was baptized “Blær.”  (In Icelandic, “æ” is pronounced like “eye”).  Apparently, the priest who baptized this baby didn’t think anything of it because Blær is a relatively common name.  The family soon learned, however, that this name was not approved for girls. The battle between this particular family and the committee has been going on for the last fourteen years.  The teenage girl in question has “Stúkla” (“girl”) written on her passport.  Currently, the parents are appealing to the Minister of Justice and part of their argument is that their daughter was baptized as Blær. In Iceland, a country where there is not separation of church and state, this might carry some weight.
            Despite the possible tension these issues clearly bring up, Guðrún clearly loves her job. She talked to me about how you can learn Icelandic history just from looking at the patterns of Icelandic names. She’s studied how in the late 19th century, when the struggle for independence began, Icelanders began using names from the Sagas as an expression of their patriotism. She talked about how the Danish influence on Iceland can be seen from the adoption of middle names—a fashion that began when they arrived.  Guðrún told me that today 80% of children in Iceland have a first name and middle name, and most often first names are two syllables and middle names are one. 

Apparently David Sedaris once called Reykjavik the city of "statues of depressed people." He is pretty  accurate. 

            One of the most interesting things that came out of our conversation was one of the protocols for names of foreigners.  I learned for the first time, that a name can officially become an “Icelandic name” (from a legal standpoint) if there are fifteen people with that name living in the country. Take, for example, the name “Jane.” In Icelandic, there are no names that end in “e” because that ending can’t be conjugated in the nominative, accusative, dative and genitive.  However, if there were fifteen immigrants in Iceland who came with it as their legal name and gained citizenship, “Jane” would then become acceptable for Icelandic parents to use.
From a more philosophical standpoint, I think it’s kind of fascinating that fifteen has been determined as the magic number that allows a name to become a part of Iceland’s onomastic landscape.  I’ve been thinking a lot more lately about what it means in general when names are conjugated in a language. It’s the only place I’ve been this year where names work like this. It means that names are actually changing depending on the linguistic context—whether you’re talking to a person, or about a person.  
It’s almost as if the structure of the language takes precedent over the identity of the individual—names are expected to be shaped and structured depending on their context, and names that are unable to do this are not allowed for Icelandic children.  Though legally foreigners who gain citizenship in Iceland can keep their names now, many of these names (including my own) can’t be conjugated properly, which means, essentially, there is a different way of talking about Icelanders than there is foreigners.
I tend to think of the laws about Icelandic names as having a slightly xenophobic bias to them. I’m still not sure how I feel about them now, but I do find this tiny country pretty endearing for its rule that once fifteen people are living here with a particular name, it can pass as Icelandic.  Restrictive though the laws may seem at times, I’m realizing that perhaps in addition to preserving a specific cultural and national identity, there may be provisions like these that do allow others to fit into it and that recognize that the Icelandic population is becoming less homogenous. As more and more strangers settle in Iceland, new language is required to talk about them--the national vocabulary is slowly growing, fifteen people at a time.

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