Introductory Guide: How To Decipher Your Scandinavian Naming Patterns
Researching Scandinavian ancestors? Learn about important Scandinavian naming patterns and how they impact your genealogy research.
Welcome Jenny Hansen of My Favorite Ancestor as a guest contributor.
One of the biggest challenges for research in Denmark, Norway and Sweden is understanding the Scandinavian naming patterns. I have an experiment I like to conduct when I teach groups about Scandinavian research. I ask, “Who here is related to Hans Jensen?” Usually the majority of the room answers in the affirmative. This question would be similar to asking if anyone is related to John Smith, except multiplied by about 100!
Scandinavian Naming Patterns
Our Scandinavian ancestors, like many other cultures, used patronymic surnames. The term patronymics refers to the practice of using the father’s given name as the surname while attaching –sen or –datter to the end.
For example, if I had an ancestor named Maren and her father’s name was Peder Christiansen, Maren’s full name would be Maren Pedersdatter. All of her siblings would have the last name of Pedersdatter or Pedersen. Peder Christiansen’s father would be named Christian, and all of Peder’s siblings would have the Christiansen or Christiansdatter surname. While this is very different than our modern naming customs, it’s actually no more difficult than finding matching last names; it just requires changing the way your brain thinks.
In Scandinavia there are only about ten given names for men and about the same amount for women. These names are used in different combinations for generations. Children were always named after a family member, so these names are found in every generation. Mix in the practice of using patronymic surnames, and sometimes it feels like we are looking at a pot of only Peder, Maren, Jens, Hans, Anna and Christian.
The practice of changing surnames with each generation was generally phased out by the mid-1800s. At that time, the patronymic surnames stayed the same from generation to generation. During the same time periods we also see the use of other identifying surnames, including place names and occupations. In these situations a patronymic surname was given and the name of the farm where the family lived could be attached to the end. One example of this would be a Swedish ancestor named Anders Jonson Liljenquist. Jonson is the patronymic name and Liljenquist is the descriptive name of the farm where the family lived. This was a helpful tool for everyone in the community to keep track of which Anders Jonson was which.
Cultural Rules for Naming Scandinavian Children
There were some strict cultural rules for naming children, as well. This pattern is consistent throughout Protestant Europe, not just the Nordic countries.
|First-born son||Paternal grandfather|
|Second-born son||Maternal grandfather|
|First-born daughter||Maternal grandmother|
|Second-born daughter||Paternal grandmother|
|Subsequent children||Other family members|
*The order of the grandparents may be switched.
It was also common practice to re-use the name of a child if that child died before adulthood. Don’t panic if you find a few children with the same given name. That’s just a good hint to look at the burial records for deceased children.
One helpful naming custom is that women did not change their surname at the time of marriage. This practice stayed in place until the 1900s. When we are looking for our immigrant ancestors, we typically look in the years prior to 1900. With patronymics, you already know the name of the woman’s father.
The following example provides the details about one of my ancestral families. Peder Simonsen’s parents were Simon Pedersen and Mette Sorensdatter. His wife was Maren Pedersdatter. Their children were:
Simon Pedersen, b. 1810
Peder Pedersen, b. 1812
Mette Pedersdatter, b. 1815-d. 1817
Mette Pedersdatter, b. 1820
The child Simon (b. 1810) was named after Peder Simonsen’s father, Simon. The next child, Peder (b. 1812) was named after Maren Pedersdatter’s father, Peder. The daughters were both named after their grandmother, Mette. Because the first daughter died very young, the next daughter was given the same name. All of these children had the Pedersen/Pedersdatter surname because their father was Peder Simonsen. The concept is not too tricky, but the repeating of names requires us as researchers to really pay attention.
While this serves as a very brief introduction, understanding some of these basic naming concepts will help you feel more comfortable as you start researching your ancestors in Scandinavia.
Watch the Facebook Live where Jenny and I talk about those naming patterns. (Pardon the glitches. Technology was a bit challenging the day we recorded.)
Jenny Hansen has a B.A. in Family History and Genealogy. She is accredited in Danish research and currently works as a professional researcher. Follow her at www.MyFavoriteAncestor.com.
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I understand the Swedes use/used the patronymic system, but my great grandparents are named: Andreas Hjort and Benta (Betty) Swanson/Swensdotter and her parents are: Olsen and Unk. Where to go from here?
I’ll pass this along to Jenny. 🙂
Hi, Carol. HJORT is one of those surnames that falls into the “other” category. This is a type of descriptor for the family, either a place name, occupation, etc. In Swedish, HJORT means “deer.” When patronymics were phased out, this family kept the Hjort surname, rather than the patronymic surname. As you reach back in your research, you will find a patronymic surname as well.
Changing surnames can be a challenge because it really is a different way of thinking. When I do my research, I always note the surname given at the time of birth, and I note any changes or additional names that the family used.
The other line you mentioned seems to be one that needs more research to define. This would be a great starting place for research in the church records.
Philip Niel Randrup
You will note that mine is a surname ending in “rup” as do many placenames in Denmark. I should mention that my grandparents brought their young family to New Zealand in the late nineteenth century (and had to learn a new language}. I was born here of course, and given my grandfather’s name of Niels, retaining the “i” before the “e”, but dropping the “s”. I would greatly interested, and appreciative, of your take on the “rup” suffix. I have formed the private conclusion that Randers may have figured as a place in our origins, as I have found in a Danish phone book some years ago, families spelling their name inclusive of the “e”, Randerup. Could the “rup” perhaps mean “adjacent to” or “coming from”?
I await your reply with interest and great appreciation
Philip Niel Randrup
Great question! We do see patterns in the non-patronymic surnames. I’m including an article for you from the University of Copenhagen. The associated links may also be helpful. In a nutshell, your suspicion is correct. -rup indicates “next to” or “from.” Good luck!
My struggle is how to fit my ancestor’s 3 part names into the 2 name fields easily available on genealogy sites like Ancestry. Was my great grandmother Hannah Stinette / Olsdatter Sather, or Hannah Stinette Olsdatter / Sather?
Thanks for a concise and useful article.
Laurie, That’s a really good question. I’m going to put this question to Jenny.
Great question, and I get this one a lot! The patronymic name is part of the surname. I would have the fields as you described in your first example:
Hannah Stinette / Olsdatter Sather
Susan M Masse
Jonas Svenson was the son of Sven Stadig. Jonas’ son Svante Jonsson emigrated to North America in the 1880s and adopted the surname Stadig. I have been told that Stadig is a soldier’s name. Does that mean that Sven would have been born with a different, patronymic surname?
Yes, he probably did have a different surname at birth. The only way to verify this is to find the records for his christening. My suspicion is that when you find his records in Sweden, you will see the name change. Good luck!
Hi there! I have a hard time deciding when to give a child the father’s surname as I create a digital record. At what point in time would you definitely cut off the patronymic method and switch to maintaining the same last name?
Let me forward this one to Jennie! She’s the expert.
I always record the name as is appears in the records. Yes, this will likely mean that you will have different names for the same individual over time. But this is a modern problem, too. Today we see individuals changed surnames at marriage or other times in life. I record the ancestral name in my files as it appears in the christening/birth record. With every record I find, I note the name as it appears in that record. As long as you keep track of these name changes, you will be in good shape.
Anders Petersson and Annica Peersdotter have 9 children. The first 3 are either Andersdr or Andersson. The next three are Johansdr, and the last 3 are Andersson or Andersdr. I am confused! Why would they do that?
Asking again–Anders Petersson and Annica Peersdotter had 9 children. The eldest three and the youngest three have the surname Andersson or Andersdotter. The middle three, all daughters, have the surname Johansdr. Is there something I don’t understand about naming patterns? I thought they would all have the Andersson/Andersdotter surname. Can you tell my why their surnames would be different?
I am a Dane and have spent many hours reseaching for my ancesorts. At this time I need to set up a better organized system that I am using now. I am using the color dot sysem and would like to continue work with it. My proplem is that some of my ancestors on my four lines have the same last name and it is hard to identify which line they come from. I need guidance to fine a system that I can Identify and file the father, grandfather, the great-grandfather, so that I can quickly turn to the ancestor I am looking for. Winnie K.
My Danish surname RANDRUP is fairly rare. Our family is the ONE AND ONLY family in Canadawith the Randrup surname. And Canada has a population of 37 million people so that’s a lot of families. It started in 1956 when my parent and my oldest brother moved to British Columbia, Canada. Now with marriages, children, grandchuildren and grand nieces and nephews there are 20-25 of us (a guess). In Denamrk the surname RANDRUP is a “protected” name and cannot be used without permission. My (and my siblings) have a middle name that is actually a “family” name. It is GARTNER which translates to “Gardener”. [It differentiates family lines. We are “Gartner Randrup’s” not “Nygaard Randrup’s” or… ] I have never met a person with my surname that wasn’t a relative. 25 years ago or so I wrote to a few of the USA Randrup. Not that many there either. Theare are a few in New Zealand, Australia, Alaska, the Phillipines and Argentina. It was weird seeing Randrup children with names like Maximo, or Fernando. Guadelupe : )