What’s in a Name?

Cultural Parallels

Shakespeare’s infamous second act of Romeo and Juliet posits the arbitrary consequence of names by asking, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Juliet muses to herself that were Romeo no longer a Montague, or she no longer a Capulet, the two star-crossed lovers would be free to pursue their relationship outside the confines of their feuding families. Shared familial surnames enforce the notion that identity is linked to the family unit. Iceland and Spain reject conventional Western naming practices in favor of those that promote individuality and gender equality. Though different, both structures endorse matrilineal genealogy in ways most Western societies do not. Notably, women of Iceland and Spain do not take their spouse’s name after marriage.

Leif Erikson, the historic Norse explorer. Photo credit: DK Find Out

Leif Erikson, the historic Norse explorer. Photo credit: DK Find Out

In Iceland, kenninafn, or surnames, are patronymic, meaning that the father’s given name forms the root of the child’s surname. This structure links the child to their parent but does not reflect any family lineage. Icelandic surnames are gendered, ending in the suffix ‐son (son) for males and ‐dóttir (daughter) for females. Therefore, the Norse explorer Leif Erikson was the son of Erik Thorvaldsson (Erik the Red), who was in turn the son of Thorvald Asvaldsson. Modern endeavors toward gender equality and a sudden rise in single motherhood have led to matronymic surnames. Icelandic footballer Heiðar Helguson’s name, for example, indicates that he is the son of his mother, Helga. In some cases, people can have a last name comprised of both matronymic and patronymic elements. Reykjavík City mayor Dagur Bergþóruson Eggertsson is the son of Bergþóra and Eggert.

Thwarting concepts of legacy and lineage, it is unclear how nepotism would work in Iceland. In America, legacy names can secure places at prestigious universities, or otherwise pave the way for a life of privilege. In Iceland, the response to “Don’t you know who I am?” would most likely be a resounding “No.” With popular Icelandic musicians like Björk, Sigur Rós, and Of Monsters and Men gaining worldwide recognition, it would be insincere to claim that fame is nonexistent in Iceland. However, with an average population of 329,000 people, there is a narrower gap between stars and their audience than there would be in most other developed countries. Partially due to this sense of national intimacy, but mostly because of the structure of Icelandic last names, Icelanders are generally referred to by their first names. Singer Björk uses her first name only, though her full name is Björk Guðmundsdóttir. The current Prime Minister, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, is simply referred to as Sigmundur Davíð. This familiarity is uniquely Icelandic, though the patronymic system was once common throughout Scandinavia. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden abolished patronymic names through separate national laws and adopted the Western concept of family names.

Pablo Ruiz Picasso is known by his maternal name because it is less common. Photo credit: Kübra Geyik

Pablo Ruiz Picasso is known by Picasso, not Ruiz, because it is less common. Photo credit: Kübra Geyik

Spanish apellidos, or last names, are a unification of a person’s parents’ surnames. The dual apellido system dates back to the sixteenth-century upper classes of Castille but only became common in the nineteenth century. Generally, a child is given the first surname of both the father and the mother. For example, if a man named Mateo Álvarez García and a woman named Marisol Ramón Benítez conceived a son named José Enrique, his full name would most likely be José Enrique Álvarez Ramón. Women do not take their husband’s names upon marriage, as doing so would eliminate the cultural practice of having two last names. In the way that Icelandic women would not suddenly become someone else’s daughter upon marriage, it would not make sense for Spanish women to cast aside their parents’ names. However, some Spanish women may choose to informally append their husband’s paternal surname with the particle de (of). Marisol Ramón Benítez, from the earlier example, would then be Marisol Ramón Benítez de Álvarez. Used solely for social purposes, the name would have no legal value.

Due to this format, members of a nuclear family cannot have the same last name unless they are siblings. Gender equality laws passed in 1999 enable matrilineal surname transmission to precede patrilineal transmission, such that our imaginary José Enrique Álvarez Ramón might instead be called José Enrique Ramón Álvarez. As the first surname is typically paternal, and children only take the first part of each parent’s surname, the maternal elements are generally lost after one generation. Regardless of which configuration parents choose for their firstborn, each subsequent child must legally bear the same arrangement of last names. Much like the Icelandic convention, Spanish surnames are generational, linking siblings, yet estranging children from a singularly named nuclear family unit.

Icelandic Ponies. Why? Because! Photo credit: fineartamerica.com

Icelandic ponies. Why? Because! Photo credit: Fine Art America

Before 1925, Icelanders were legally permitted to invent a family name, but that is no longer the case, unless granted by special exception. The Iceland Naming Committee, formed in 1991, upholds rules regarding the names of its citizens. Unlike Spanish citizens, Icelanders cannot have more than three personal names. Moreover, Icelandic names must adhere to the nation’s grammar, and they must contain only letters that exist in the language. The Icelandic alphabet contains thirty-two letters, not including C, Q, W, or Z. Despite the prevalence of Charlottes, Quinns, Walters, and Zacharys in the Western world, the Icelandic Naming Committee would reject said names and would require any immigrants with those names to choose a suitable Icelandic alternative. Iceland itself is referred to as Ísland by its inhabitants, due to the lack of the letter C in the native language, Íslenska.

Language aside, the Icelandic naming format can present unique problems. Families traveling abroad with small children are often scrutinized by customs officers who might not be familiar with families wherein mother, father, sister, and brother could potentially all have different surnames. To avoid this type of confusion within the country, Icelandic phonebooks have to be alphabetized by first name. Naming structures are strict, and occasionally challenging, but the Icelandic language is an important element of national identity amongst Icelanders. Today, with some effort, most Icelanders would be able to read the thirteenth-century Prose Edda drafted in Old Norse by Snorri Sturluson. In contrast, the epic poem Beowulf, composed in Old English sometime between the eighth and eleventh centuries, is incomprehensible to most modern English speakers.

Mendoza Vineyard with mountain view, in Argentina. Photo credit: Zicasso

Mendoza Vineyard with mountain view, in Argentina. Photo credit: Zicasso

The links between Spanish language and names are also strong. In some cases, Spanish surnames offer insight into the geographic history of one’s ancestors. The name Mendoza suggests that centuries ago, the family came from an area by a cold mountain, while those named Morales may have lived by blackberry groves. Occupational names such as Herrera, Molinero, and Romero, suggest that one’s ancestors were ironworkers, millers, and pilgrims, respectively. Descriptive names like Cortés (courteous), Delgado (thin), Moreno (brown hair and skin), and Rubio (blond) are common, as well.

Some of the most common Spanish family names are products of a historic patronymic system similar to the Icelandic model, though perhaps more akin to the Irish O’‐ (descendant of) and Mc‐ or Mac‐ (son of) prefix conventions established between the tenth and twelfth centuries—some of the earliest in Europe. Historically, the Spanish suffix ‐ez meant “son of,” denoting that a man with the surname Rodríguez was the son of a man named Rodrigo, or that a Sánchez was the son of Sancho, a González was the son of Gonzalo, and so on. Like Denmark, Sweden, and Norway—and Ireland—Spain eventually converted patronymic names into heritable family names.

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