Patronymics and Naming Practices of Scandinavia

Do you have Scandinavian ancestors? If so, you will be interested to learn about naming practices used in earlier times, especially if you want to investigate your family tree.

The Nordic countries, more commonly known as Scandinavia, includes Denmark, Finland, the Færøe Islands, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden.  Finland’s language base is totally different from the other Scandinavian countries, but was under Swedish monarchial rule for much of its history. Finland’s official records are in the Swedish language from the beginning of record-keeping to about 1867.

Depending upon your ancestor’s country of origin, his or her surname (family name) may lead you to the exact spot in the country where they were born, or leave you amidst a mass of “-sens” or “-ssons.” Some general guidelines for Scandinavian naming practices follow, for more specific information you may want to read details in the Scandinavian Research Guide available from Family History Expos, Inc.

First, the patronymic naming system was used in all of Scandinavia. That means a Scandinavian’s family name was formed by taking the first name of the natural father, and adding “-sen/son/sson” or “-datter/dotter/dottir” to it. A person named Johannes Augustsen was literally “Johannes, the son of August.” Maria Pedersdatter was literally, “Maria, the daughter of Peder.” Because of this system, there could be many people living in the same place at the same time, with the same surname, who are totally unrelated.

Generally Danish & Norwegian surnames end in “-sen” or “-ssen;” Swedish, Finnish, and Icelandic surnames with “-son” or “-sson.” However, all record keepers, whether in Scandinavia, America, Canada, Australia, or Brazil spelled names the way they heard them, and the way they thought they should be spelled. Your ancestor was not looking over his shoulder saying, “Hey, you spelled my name wrong!”

Though it might seem strange to us, the patronymic naming system was the best system for the time and the culture, since just a few names, among them Lars, Peder, Ole, Anders, Jens and their derivations, were used 90% of the time. With the patronymic system, at least the first name of the next generation is always known.

Second, Scandinavian females do not generally assume the surname (family name) of their husbands when they marry until the late 1800s or early 1900s. They carry their maiden surname throughout their life in the records. If you find an Ole Pedersen and a Synnova Pedersdatter having a child, she is not “Mrs. Ole Pedersen” in the traditional American sense. The record simply means that Ole was the son of a “Peder” somebody, and Synnova was the daughter of a “Peder” somebody. The key to finding when the change occurs is to watch for the pattern of the records you are researching.

There is an exception – that is, marriages among the higher social classes. If a bride had a little higher social status than the groom, he might actually assume her surname. If he were higher class, the bride might be listed by his surname in the records rather than by her patronymic.

Third, you have to think PHONETICALLY when doing any kind of searches, in any country’s records.

Thanks to Ruth Ellen Maness for her words of wisdom, to those seeking to find details on their Scandinavian ancestors. This excerpt was taken from the Scandinavian Research Guide, published by Family History Expos, Inc.

Holly T. Hansen

Holly T. Hansen, President and Founder of Family History Expos, Inc. Has been instrumental in helping thousands understand the principles, strategies, and sources they can use to trace their roots in today's ever-changing technological environment. She is the mastermind behind more than 50 Family History Expos, held across the United States, and numerous Retreats at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah and other repositories in diverse cities. She is dedicated to helping individuals and families, one-on-one, with their personal research needs. Currently, she is involved creating podcasts, webinars, and video presentations to help people move forward in their family history endeavors with the comforts of home. Holly's titles include author, lecturer, editor, and publisher. She has produced more than 100 unique syllabus and class handout books for Family History Expos attendees. She is a former editor of Everton's Genealogical Helper magazine, and editor of the 10th and 11th editions of The Handybook for Genealogists, with more than one million copies sold. She has also authored The Directory of North American Railroads, Trekking for Ancestors, and co-authored a series of 16 family history interview books entitled Celebrating and Capturing the Memories and 20 in-depth Research Guides for many aspects of family history research. Holly and her husband, Chris P. Hansen, have been married for 40 years and are the parents of five remarkable children. Holly received an Honors BA in History from Weber State University and continues to dedicate time to education on a daily basis.

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