Thursday, September 23, 2010

Norwegian Naming Patterns

This blog is for anyone planning to trace Norwegian ancestors. Before you set off on your journey to 'grow' your Gulbrandsen, Olsen, Petersen, Henriksen, Elstad or Hansen family tree way back to the Viking days - be prepared for a challenge! The surname by which you know your Norwegian family, very likely, only dates back to the early 1900's. Prior to 1923, there were no fixed Norwegian surnames. Compulsory surnames were introduced in Norway between 1923 and 1925. Before the early 20th century, most Norwegian families, especially rural families, did not use surnames or family names in the way that we understand surnames, which is to identify patrilineal or matrilineal kinship or lineage.

The Norwegian tradition of naming was a patronymic system, derived from the father's name, but unlike other naming systems, a family name or surname, was not passed on from one generation to the next, to identify lineage or bloodline. This is where the difficulty lies in tracing Norwegian ancestry and why Norwegian naming patterns can be described as nothing short of a family historian's worst nightmare. So, unlike your MacDonalds from Scotland, your Jenkinsons from England, or your Sieglers from Germany, your Norwegian Håkonsen family cannot be traced backwards by its surname before the early 20th century. Fortunately for anyone hoping to research a Norwegian family tree, the Norwegian authorities have kept excellent records, however it is important to understand Norwegian naming practices, if you are to successfully trace your ancestry in Norway.

Once you are familiar with the Norwegian patronymic naming system, there are some excellent sources of Norwegian genealogical data online to help you to trace your family, such as the Norway Historical Data Centre ( ) and Norway Marriages, 1600's-1800's, which are available on (, My experience is, that without some idea of the Norwegian naming system, before you embark on your search, you might find yourself spending much more time cursing, than searching! Having a book of Norwegian/English translation on hand, will be useful as well, since the censuses on the Historical Data Centre website are written in Norwegian.


In ancient times, people in Norway were known only by a first name. Old Norse forenames were composed of two parts: a prefix and a suffix. There was a strict pattern to this system. Boys' names were constructed from a given list of prefixes and suffixes, and the same rule applied to the names for girls. Below are some examples of the most common prefixes and suffixes used to make up Norwegian names.

Male Prefixes

Alf, Arn, As, Berg, Bjorn, Bryn, Dag, Ei, Finn, Gaut, Geir, Gud, Halv, Har, Hen, Hjalm, Ing, Iv, Jard, Jarl, Jo, Jor, Jør, Kol, Lid, Lod, Magn, Malm, Mar, Mod, Nid, Nor, Odd, Orn, Os, Ragn, Reid, Ro, Se, Sig, Stein, Svein, Tor, Trygg, Ulf, Val, Ve, Tyg, Øy, Ås.

Male Suffixes

alf, ar, bein, bjørn, brand, dan, e, fast, finn, gar, geir, grim, id, ik, kjell, leif, leik, ljot, mund, mod, ne, odd, rød, stein, tor, ulf, ung, vald, vard, ve, vind, vor.

Examples of Norwegian Boys' Names:

Half/dan, Gud/brand, Bjørn/ar, Gunn/ar, Gul/brand (God's Sword, from gud meaning God and brand meaning sword).

Female Prefixes

Aud,Bjørg, Frid, Gull, Gunn, Heid, Hild, Inga, Mild, Møy, Mål, Rag, Sal, Sne, Sol, Svan, Unn, Yn.

Female Suffixes

borg, bjørg, frid, gerd, gunn, ild, møy, nild, rid, run, siv, unn, veig, vild.

Examples of Norwegian Girls' Names:

Gunn/ild, Bjørn/ild, Aud/berg, Rag/nild, Ingabjør

It was a popular tradition in Norway for parents to give children the names of ancient Kings, mythological figures, weapons and animals. The old Norse people believed that a child would be protected from evil if named after a brave figure such as a mighty warrior king, a sword or a fierce creature.

Examples of Norwegian forenames:

Halfdan was the name of King Halfdan the Black.
Gudbrand meant God's (God) sword (brand).

When Christianity was introduced to Norway, in about the 10th century, people began to give children 'Norwegianised' biblical names as well as the names of Saints.

Examples of 'Norwegianised' biblical names:

Johannes (John)

The giving of christian names for children in Norway usually followed a pattern:

  1. The first son was named after the paternal grandfather.
  2. The second son was named after the maternal grandfather.
  3. The third son was named after the paternal great grandfather.

  1. The first daughter was named after the maternal grandmother.
  2. The second daughter was named after the paternal grandmother.
  3. The third daughter was named after the maternal great grandmother.

Traditionally, the formula for the name given to a child was :

Christian name + father's name + appropriate suffix.


Henrik Gulbrandsen( son of Gulbrand Olsen) has a family. His first son would be named:

Gulbrand (christian name) + Henrik (father's name) + sen (suffix = son)

Henrik's first born son would be named Gulbrand Henriksen.

If Henrik had a daughter she would be named:

Ragnild (christian name) + Henrik ( father's name ) + datter (suffix = daughter)

Henrik's first born daughter would be named Ragnild Henriksdatter . (The name Ragnild would probably be the name of the child's maternal grandmother.)

Just to confuse matters more, it was not uncommon for children to assume the mother's 'family' name i.e. the name of her father. In Norway a wife was allowed to keep her father's name rather than to adopt the name of her husband. So if Henrik's wife was named Ingabjørg Evensdatter - her father being Even Tillesen- the children could be alternatively named Evensen and Evensdatter, instead of Henriksen and Henriksdatter. (datter is usually written in an abbreviated form as dttr i.e. Henriksdttr).

To illustrate the naming system, let us assume that Henrik Gulbrandsen and Ingabjørg Evensen had two sons and one daughter.

  1. Gulbrand
  2. Eiven
  3. Ragnild

Below are examples of the surnames that Henrik's children might have.

Example 1. Patronymic naming system

Henrik Gulbrandsen

Ingabjørg Gulbrandsen

Gulbrand Henricksen

Eiven Henriksen

Ragnild Henriksdttr

Example 2. Use of mother's surname:

Henrik Gulbrandsen

Ingabjørg Evensdatter

Henrik Evensen

Eiven Evensen

Ragnild Evensdatter

Now, just as you are probably quite confused enough, I will introduce you to Norwegian 'Farm Names'. Many Norwegian surnames that became fixed after 1925, were farm names. Farm names in Norway were adopted when a family worked and lived on a farm. The family often assumed the name of the farm instead of the father's or mother's name. Farm names are a very old tradition in Norway and most date back more than 200 years. Norwegian surnames which end in stad, set, heim, um, land, tveit or tvedt are always farm names. If Gulbrand Henriksen worked on a farm named Kolstad, his family would assume the 'surname' of Kolstad instead of Gulbrandsen. If the family moved to a farm of a different name they would usually assume the name of the new farm.

Example 3. Use of farm name:

Henrik Gulbrandsen Kolstad

Ingabjørg Evebsen Kolstad

Gulbrand Kolstad

Eiven Kolstad

Ragnild Kolstad

Farm names were registered so if your Norwegian surname is Kolstad or Elstad, you will possibly be able to locate the farm where your ancestors lived in Norway.

If you are now confused and thinking twice about doing the Norwegian family tree, don't be discouraged by the complicated Norwegian naming system. Tracing your family in Norway will be a most interesting although challenging project.

Some Tips for searching for Norwegian ancestors.

  1. Study the naming system until you are familiar with it.

  2. Use the naming system to try to work backwards eg. Ole Hanson's father would most likely have been named Hans Olsen if Ole was the eldest son. Ole's grandfather would most likely have been named Ole. If Magnus Hansen was your ancestor and you don't know his position in the family, don't dispair! You know his father's christian name was Hans.

  3. Search the Historical Baptisms for a Magnus Hansen born to a Hans around the date you believe to be the birth date.

  4. Search the Norwegian censuses.

  5. Search the Norwegian Marriage records as they will often tell you the names of both parents.

How to type the special characters in the Norwegian alphabet:

Æ - Press ALT while typing 0198

æ - Press ALT while typing 0230

Ø - Press ALT while typing 0216

ø - Press ALT while typing 0248

Å - Press ALT while typing 0197

å - Press ALT while typing 0229

Until the early 20th century Norwegian people (unless they were very wealthy or members of the clergy who sometimes did use surnames)

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