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What’s in an Icelandic (Legal) Name?

The following is a guest post by Elin Hofverberg, a foreign law research consultant who covers Scandinavian countries at the Law Library of Congress. Elin has previously written on a variety of topics including Glad Syttonde Mai! Celebration of the Bicentenary of the Norwegian ConstitutionHappy National Sami Day!, the bicentenary of Norway’s constitution and a boarding school scandal in Sweden for In Custodia Legis.

Introduction

Earlier this year my colleague Connie wrote about how the Icelandic Personal Names, Act No. 45 of 17th May 1996 (Names Act), triggered an international debate for “penalizing” a baby girl named Alex. This was hardly the first time Iceland’s Names Act has gotten international attention for banning seemingly common names.

Icelandic Names Photo by Elin Hofverberg

Icelandic Names
Photo by Elin Hofverberg

In 2014 the Act got media attention when an appeal was filed against the National Registry in Reykjavik for its refusal to renew a passport held by a girl with dual Icelandic-UK citizenship whose name, Harriet, was not on the list of recognized names in Iceland. Harriet’s appeal was filed just a short time after another Icelandic girl, Blaer, fought a long battle to get recognition for her name. According to an August 28, 2015 report by the Icelandic newspapers Morgunbladid, Harriet has finally received her passport thanks to her parents both holding foreign citizenships (Her mom is both Icelandic and American and her dad is British).

The controversy over legitimacy of names caught my attention. Having a Scandinavian name myself I started to look into the matter more closely. Relieved, I found that both my first and middle name would qualify in Iceland. In fact, Elin was on the top 20 list of names given to newborn girls in Iceland last year.

So what are the Rules that Govern a name in the Far North?

Iceland, like all the Nordic countries (Denmark , Finland, Norway and Sweden), has a special act that regulates what and when a child may be named, as well as when he or she can change their name. The following are the legal requirements under the Icelandic Name Act:

1. Middle Names – Not Too Many!

Similar to the other Nordic countries, Iceland caps the number of middle names a person may have. In Iceland it is three (Names Act Art. 4).

2. Conform to the Icelandic Language

The Act also requires that all first names be “capable of having Icelandic genitive endings or shall have become established by tradition in the Icelandic language”. The Act further provides that “[n]ames may not conflict with the linguistic structure of Icelandic. They shall be written in accordance with the ordinary rules of Icelandic orthography unless another orthography is established by tradition” (Art. 5).

Turns out this is why you cannot be named Harriet in Iceland although it’s a perfectly acceptable name for any other Scandinavian country. Harriet cannot be conjugated.

3. Gender Specific Names

Another requirement under the Act for given names is that “Girls shall be given women’s names and boys shall be given men’s names” – this is why you cannot be named Alex if you are a female. (id.) In the Nordic countries this is a typical boys’ name.

4. Not Embarrassing to Bearer

And the final requirement is that it cannot “cause its bearer embarrassment” (id.).

Who Decides?

The name Harriet appears to have only complied with two out of the last three requirements in that the name does not appear to cause embarrassment, and that it is gender appropriate. While everyone must comply with the first requirement to not have more than three forenames, Harriet could be exempt from the other three requirement based on her parents’ foreign nationalities (Art. 10).

Still, under the Names Act a child must then have at least one other name that does conform to all the rules above; i.e., one (out of three) name(s) that is not embarrassing, gender specific and that conforms to the genitive endings of the Icelandic language.

You might ask, who decides whether a name causes embarrassment or if it is a traditional name? That decision is made by a special Personal Name Committee (id. Art. 22) which consists of four members appointed for that purpose by the Minister of Justice after being nominated by the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Iceland, the Faculty of Law of the University of Iceland and the Icelandic Language Council. A list of names that has previously been approved in Iceland can be found on the Personal Names Committee’s website.

Neighboring Greenland also has a list of approved names (no wonder as their alphabet is a mere 19 letters). Don’t worry though, as a foreigner you may use any name that complies with the Danish Name Law.

Final Thoughts

Recent media reports suggest that the movie Frozen has contributed to an increase in the popularity of Scandinavian names such as Elsa and Olaf in the United States . If these names have caught your eye, you might want to consider an Icelandic name for your son or daughter to go with your newfound love for Icelandic Skyr. Try Guðrun, the number one ranking name for newborn girls in 2014, or Jón, the number one ranking name for newborn boys in 2014.

So what can I conclude from my quick research into Icelandic name laws? Well, in short, for anyone considering naming their child while in Iceland, there is a lot to think about. No wonder that new parents get a full six months to think about it before registering their babies’ names (Names Act Art. 2). They certainly need it!

If you want to make sure that your baby’s name can enjoy international protection and recognition, I highly recommend Kelly‘s great post on the banning of baby names in New Zealand.

One Comment

  1. Anisha Kohli
    October 2, 2015 at 10:59 pm

    I suppose I like this article. I do think it’s quite factual- in a good-ish way though. Unbiased too for such a controversial topic. I do think Iceland’s naming laws are particularly harsher than some countries’. While frequently, a simple list of banned names is established, in Iceland that would not be the case. I wonder, have there been any cases referring to the requirement of gender specific names for transgender infants…

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