Monday, September 28, 2009

The Icelandic Phonebook Surprise

Look up a phonebook in Iceland and a surprise awaits you. It is listed in first name order followed by surnames, occupations and addresses.

This makes good sense when you realise that everybody in Iceland is known by his or her first name and nobody uses Mr. or Ms. in any situation. Young children call their teachers and friend’s parents by their first name and Icelanders even reference their president by her first name. Unlike virtually all countries, Icelanders do not have surnames in the traditional sense. A surname in Iceland is simply their father’s name suffixed with either son for boys or dóttir for girls, based on the same patronymic system from the time of the Vikings.

This can be confusing when you consider that it means that a typical family of four will almost certainly have multiple different “surnames”. For example, if Jón Helgason (his father’s name is Helgi) and Margrét Magnúsdóttir (her father’s name is Magnús) have a son, then his surname will be Jónsson while his daughter would take the name Jónsdóttir – four different surnames in the same family!

In a strange way, I believe that this approach to names gives Iceland a greater sense of equality and respect in how they approach their lives with excellent gender and age balances in most walks of Icelandic life.

The well-known eclectic Icelandic singer Björk simply uses her first name as is the Icelandic tradition. According to Wikipedia being the daughter of Guðmundur, her full name is Björk Guðmundsdóttir of which there are a few in the phonebook.

Moreover, when choosing a name for a newly born, the parents must select a name already approved by the Icelandic naming board which would screw up some of those Hollywood types with a penchant for choosing weird names (like Dweezil, Moon Zappa, Diezel and Pilot Inspektor to nominate just a few). New names can be added by special application but they need to be Icelandic in nature.

Similar in motive to the names, a special group designs new Icelandic words to maintain the purity of the language from the Viking age. So rather than take modified English words for modern terms as many languages do (what is the word for computer or television in most languages?), the Icelanders create their own suitable words to maintain their language. So the word for telephone is sími (Viking word for thread) and computer is tölva (by combining Icelandic words for number and soothsayer).

With such a potpourri of surnames, it is little wonder that the Icelandic phone book is sorted by first names. Try the online version in Icelandic or English if you want to test it. Mind you, if the population were 300 million rather than 300,000, I suspect the system may not work as well.

Other Icelandic Posts
Lake of Dancing Icebergs
Astride the Continents
Nature’s Wonderland
Remote Sign


Sherry Ott said...

That's hilarious - I never knew any of that. They seem to be opposite of Bali where everyone has the same 4 names depending on birth order!

Jim said...

Excellent, informative, post about the Icelandic phone book and naming system. How do you know this information?

Heather on her travels said...

It's interesting how names and words can give an insight into the culture.

Barbara @ Hole In The Donut Travels said...

I really found this to be amazing! But considering it is there, I suppose it helps to be extra friendly ;-)

Mark H said...

@sherry: I thought I was being kidded when first told but on checking, it is certainly true.

@jim: Told by an Icelander in Iceland.

@heather: I guess they have preserved their Viking culture really well assisted by geographic isolation.

@barbara: It just seems natural to them. It certainly doesn't remove respect, in fact I found them to be most respectful and polite in their conversations and their treatment of others.

Kirsty Wilson said...

This was so interesting Mark. Thanks for thinking to share here in such detail. I recently read somewhere about how the Japanese address their mail (weird!) & if it wasn't for these blogs, sharing such information - you'd never know about it!

Shannon said...

I guess you learn something new every day. Crazy cool and funny!

Toby said...

I had no idea! That would have definitely taken me by surprise...

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