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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