Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Name Post: Voices of Iceland
I think I just had my last interview of the year. It’s the last one I have scheduled, anyway, and I want to keep it that way and hoard these last few days all to myself. I still don’t know what (if anything) is to come of all of the conversations of this year or of my own relationship to this research and to this topic. I seem to fluctuate wildly between thinking I should go home and write a book with all of it immediately, and wanting to shut the cover of my black notebook and lay it to rest as this year comes to an end.
And it has. When Katie and Isa were visiting me at the very beginning of my time in Iceland, we talked about how this topic is impossible to study without talking to people. You can’t (usually) learn someone’s name through observation alone. It requires a conversation, and, if the conversation is to be at all interesting or revealing, it requires a connection. Studying names has given me a reason to talk to people, and a reason to travel. Even if those were the only reasons for studying names, they’ve made it a worthwhile topic.
My last few weeks in Iceland have been filled by a steady flow of these conversations. I’m still working on how they all fit together, but I also think that in some ways, that’s what the Icelandic naming committee is currently figuring out too--how these different aspects of a changing Icelandic population work, where the lines are between cultural insularity and cultural acceptance, what it means to carry a name that breaks linguistic and grammatical rules, and if that even matters. I’m breaking down my recent interviews (the ones I haven't written about yet) into brief descriptions of what I think were their most interesting moments below. Hopefully this gives you a sense of the questions that arise in discussing what constitutes an Icelandic name in 2012.
Outdoor art in downtown Reykjavik
Monument to civil disobedience outside the parliament to commemorate the protests following the 2008 economic crash.
Sara & Olga
Sara & Olga are two sisters who live out in Hafnarfjarðar. I met with them a few weeks ago and they kindly gave me breakfast and some pretty adorable babies to hold (it was all in all a great morning). They have three daughters between them and we talked about how they chose their names.
Sara’s daughter, Rafnhildur Sjorn, is six weeks old. She was going to be called “Marta” or “Isabella” until Sara took a look at her jet black hair and fierce, determined eyes. Rafnhildur is an old Valkyrie name that comes from the words “raven” and “battle.” The name “Sjorn” is Sara’s mother’s name.
Olga has two daughters, four year-old Úlfhildur Sjorn (the Sjorn again after her mother, and Úlfhildur meaning “battle of the wolves”), and one year-old Salvor Vega (Salvor meaning “sun season”). She told me it’s taken her a while to decide on both of her daughters’ names. (Úlfhildur wasn’t named until she was six weeks old). She felt it was a great responsibility, she told me. She said that she kept wondering, if “a baby makes a name, or a name makes a baby.”
Sara and Olga spent a large part of their childhoods in Sweden, and they said that at times their Icelandic names posed challenges. Like in most Icelandic families, their names followed the patronymic system, which meant they all had different last names. In Sweden, their whole family decided to go by their father’s last name to make things less complicated. Olga also told me that in school she was self-conscious about being the only girl with her first name. “I really hated it,” she told me. “But then I started realizing that teachers always remembered it. I was the only Olga, and I got to make up what that name meant.”
We talked a bit about the patronymic system and how it worked. It struck me for the first time that Iceland was a place where, if you took your mother’s name, it was quite obvious. In the states, if you go by your mother’s last name instead of your father’s, it can easily go unnoticed (“Smith” and “Garcia”, for example, are genderless, and could have come from either parent). In Iceland, however, since surnames are derived from first names, and first names are regulated by gender, a baby named with the last name “Helgasdottir” as opposed to “Jonssdottir” would clearly be going by her mother’s name. There may be some stigmas surrounding this (stigmas that are starting to change as more and more people are opting to use the matrynomic). Traditionally, however, having your mother’s last name could be an indication either that you have a radical feminist for a mother, or, to the delight of the gossiping Icelandic countryside, the father’s identity is unclear.
I recently heard a story that during World War II when there were many American and British soldiers in Iceland, many babies were being born to Icelandic women with the last name “Hermatthson” or “Hermathsdottir.” In Icelandic, “hermaður“ is the word for soldier, so these invented surnames conveinently left the identity of their non-Icelandic fathers unknown.
We got on this topic because Sara is raising Rafnhildur Sjorn on her own. Her full name is Rafnhildur Sjorn Sarasdottir. We wondered whether Rafnhildur would face people making assumptions about her based on her surname, or whether by the time she’s going to school, it will be more commonplace.
Sara and Olga are fiercely against the regulations on names in Iceland. They think they’re arbitrary and feel that often the reasons behind the naming committee’s decisions are vague and illogical.
“A society is only a living society if it is willing to change,” Sara told me. She foresees many changes in Iceland’s near future.
I’ve already written a bit about my conversation with Maria, a Columbian woman who has been living in Iceland for the last twenty-two years. I wrote about her parents emigrating from Columbia to Iceland to join her, and about the pumpkin soup and sunshine in her backyard on a Monday afternoon.
She told me about choosing names for her three Icelandic-Columbian children that would work in both places (Michael Luis, Sara Isabel, and Gabriel). Her Icelandic husband had many traditions in his family about passing on names, but he insisted that they break them. “He wanted the kids names to show that they weren’t only Icelandic,” she told me. “He wants them to be proud of all parts of themselves.”
One experience that was particularly interesting to her as an outsider was following the Icelandic tradition of not revealing the baby’s name until the baptism. “I didn’t get it at first,” she told me. “I didn’t see what the big deal was.” She told me that in Columbia, the baby is usually named in utero, spoken to by that name, planned for. It seemed so strange to her to wait for months after the baby’s birth to reveal the name. “But I loved it.” She told me. “I did it with all my kids. It was such a fun surprise. Everyone was just so happy, and that way, no one can say they don’t like the name. When the priest says it, it’s there.”
Like Lani, Maria arrived in Iceland before the law changed that forced immigrants to choose Icelandic names for themselves in order to gain citizenship. Unlike Lani, she was one of the lucky ones. “Maria” worked perfectly in the Icelandic language and is on the approved list of names. “Maria” could cross cultures.
Maria knows lots of people who decided not to get citizenship in Iceland before the law changed. She has a friend from Bolivia, for example, who only recently got citizenship after twenty-eight years in the country. Before the law changed, he would just continually get his visa renewed, rather than change his name.
She told me about one time when she was in line at a government office watching a Vietnamese women in front of her. The Vietnamese woman was asked her name and told the official at the desk, “one second, I have to look it up.” She started shuffling through her purse, and Maria realized she must have adopted an Icelandic name formally, but had to look it up to remember what it actually was. It was an identity that existed on paper alone.
Maria thinks the regulations about names have gotten more and more flexible each year that she’s been here. She has started an organization for families who are new to Iceland, and she always finds it interesting what choices they make in terms of changing or keeping their names. Many of their Icelandic-born children’s names are approved, names Maria thinks would never have been approved when she first arrived.
“More Icelanders are traveling and that makes them think,” she told me. “They realize that they can travel around the world with their Icelandic name and people will call them by it. It doesn’t make sense that they wouldn’t do the same for foreigners coming to Iceland.”
The Icelandic tradition of naming your children after your grandparents was so popular in his family that he has five cousins who are named Tryggvi as well. We talked about this tradition and how Tryggvi thinks that when he was growing up in Iceland, families were more like clans. The names indicated who was related to who, and how they were related, and everyone knew what family was known for what. Traditionally in Iceland, these names became important for questions of inheritance and marriage and family relationships. “Icelandic families had their own little mafia,” he joked.
I’m starting to get a handle on just how small the population of Iceland is. Its one thing to know the number, and it’s another to be here and see how people operate in a place where everyone is so inter-connected. I realized today for the first time that the population of the state of Vermont is double that of Iceland.
Tryggvi told me that the tradition of passing on names from within your family is dying out a bit, something that he thinks is quite sad. He thinks that more people are traveling and coming back to Iceland, and choosing not to use names from their families for their own children. He believes names should continue to be regulated here. He doesn’t want all of these traditions to die out.
I tend to be skeptical about the Icelandic name regulations, but I sympathized with Tryggvi on the rainy drive. At the heart of it all is the importance of a sense of belonging and of community, of a big Icelandic family. There’s a sadness that comes from realizing maybe today people are less interested in where they came from, more interested in where they are going.
My last interview was with Auður Eir, who happens to be Iceland’s first female priest. She’s somewhat of a celebrity here, but it’s a small country, and it turned out she knew Steingurther, who put us in touch. Auður kindly picked me up at my apartment on her way to work and we went to the “Kvenna Kirkjan” ("Women’s Church"), that she runs downtown. She talked to me about her four daughters’ names: Dalla, Yrsa, Elin Þöll, and Þjóðhildur. Dalla was chosen because it’s Auður’s mother's name and the name of the wife of the first Icelandic Lutheran Bishop. Yrsa is named after her sister, Þöll is the name for a small tree, and Auður thought it was very pretty combined with Elin. By the time Þjóðhildur came around, her oldest daughter, Dalla, was reading Icelandic history in school. She wanted to name her new baby sister Þjóðhildur after Leif Eriksson’s mother. Auður told her, “that is such a big name for such a little girl,” but now, she loves it. She thinks Þjóðhildur has grown into her name.
For Auður, the naming committee is a gift. She told me that before it formed, she had to act as an informal committee herself.
“Before, I had to be the one to tell parents yes or no about whether they could have a name. I had to read the law and decide whether I could baptize a baby with that name or not.” She was ordained in 1974, 17 years before the foundation of the naming committee. “It was really hard to face the parents and tell them I couldn’t baptize the baby with that name, but it was my responsibility as an official.”
A few times, if she refused, the parents decided to go to another priest instead (some of them tended to be more flexible than others). She told me that in a few heartbreaking cases, she had been baptizing babies in a family for years, but then when someone came to her with a name she thought didn’t meet the standards, she had to refuse them. There have been three cases that she remembers where this happened and the family stopped speaking to her. She remembers every one.
The committee makes her job easier. There is a higher authority that approves or rejects a name, and she can turn to them to ask whether a name will go through—it is not up to her interpretation of the law alone. But when I asked Auður about if she thought names here should be regulated, she wasn’t sure. She thinks it’s important for names to work properly in the Icelandic language, and to preserve a kind of cultural identity, but she wonders if perhaps, people would self-regulate. She wonders if the rules should be there or if, as she put it, they could just “let it be.” She thinks that right now more international sounding names are popular, but she thinks these trends move in a circular fashion. She thinks that maybe as people become more global citizens, they might actually choose more Icelandic names for future generations. It might happen on its own.
Auður confessed to me that baptisms are her favorite. “Weddings and confirmations are nice too,” she told me. “But baptisms are smaller. You can be with the whole family, talking, singing hymns. And then of course, there’s cake and coffee.” She told me that she loves hearing names, of seeing the happiness in families as they learn what their newest member will be called. “You hear your name so many times a day,” she told me. “People need to love their name.”
These conversations all happened individually, in different contexts; a woman’s church, apartment buildings, a car ride. Most of these people do not know each other, but their words may be most interesting when put in dialogue with each other, like most of the conversations I’ve had this year. These names have become part of an Icelandic cultural landscape, and the onomastic landscape that this year has been to me.
I don’t think this will be the last time I write something about names. I might try to write some more overarching, cross-cultural posts when I get home about what I’ve learned about names this year in general.
Or maybe not.
It’s the last name post for now. I’m so grateful I had a reason to meet these people, people who have now defined who a Tryggvi or an Auður is, who have showed me the ways a Maria can cross borders, how a Sara and an Olga think and behave, how we all somehow ended up in this place, introducing ourselves to each other by name, and all that they encompass.