It seems like whenever I show my slides of Iceland, people find these tombstones and their names more interesting than anything else!  I was asked to write out an explanation for the Icelandic naming system, so I did, complete with my pictures:



Icelandic Family Names


     Iceland is the only country which still follows the ancient tradition of patronymic family names as established by the Vikings.  In Iceland, one's last name is not handed down from one generation to the next; each generation gets a new one.  And it is even possible for a family of four to have four different last names.  It sounds rather strange, but actually it is a very logical system. 

     A man gets his last name by taking the first name of his father, and adding the ending "-son" to the father's name.  So below, the man named Ársæl was the son of a man named Jon, so his whole name is Ársæl Jonsson. 

     His wife, Guðrún, was the daughter of a man whose first name was Gunnstein -- so her last name is Gunnsteinsdóttir.  When two Icelanders get married, the wife does not take the last name of the husband; that would make no sense.  Guðrún did not take her husband's last name Jonsson, because she was not the son of Jon.  She was Gunnstein's daughter, so she stays Gunnsteinsdóttir all her life! 



     When Ársæl and Guðrún had children, they didn't take the last name of either of their parents.  Their son Einar took his father's first name + son, so his last name is Ársælsson.



And when Ársæl and Guðrún had a daughter, Sigríður, her last name became Ársælsdóttir. 



     So this family of four had four different last names.  The law in Iceland requires that all citizens follow this ancient system of naming, to keep up the old traditions.  The only exceptions are people who move in from other countries, which is not very common.  Also, in Iceland, in any alphabetical list of names, such as the telephone book, all names are alphabetized by the given name first, not the last name; that is because one's first name is considered to be one's real name; to them it would be illogical to list people by their last name, since that just tells who their father was. 

     A title such as Mr. or Dr. would not be attached to a person’s last name, but to the first, or to both names.  The cultural meaning of an Icelander's last name is not that it is a part of one's name, but a short description of who one is. 

     If for some reason the mother doesn't wish a child to take the name of its father in its last name, it is legal for the child to take the mother's name... so a last name such as Helgasson or Katrínsdóttir would be possible. 

      More examples:  the famous Icelandic singer, Björk, is really named Björk Guðmundsdóttir.  Her parents are Guðmund Gunnarsson and Hildur Rúna Hauksdóttir.  Her son is Sindri Eldon Þórsson (Thorsson), since his father’s first name is Þór (pronounced Thor).


     In addition to having odd letters such as ö and æ, Icelandic is the only language in the world to use the two additional letters þ and ð (capitals Þ and Ð).  Þ and þ are pronounced like “th” in “thick and thin”.  Ð and ð are pronounced like “th” in “this and that”.  It is also the only language besides English to have both of those sounds, they are actually very rare sounds in world languages.  So you can get some strange-looking words such as the towns below.  They also seem to like very long words!





 I took the pictures of the tombstones at this little church in Dýrholey, on the south coast of Iceland: