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Person names
When you get into Norwegian genealogy you will very soon find a number of unfamiliar and sometimes strange ways to name a person.
In this little article I will give you some information about what to keep in mind when dealing with Norwegian person names.

The first thing some of you may have noticed is that your ancestors name in Norway may not be the same as the name they were known by in the USA. It is a fact that many names were changed. Where it was done, who did it and why, is very different from person to person. I am not going into that discussion. I will just mention that some changed their names so that it would be easier to write or pronounce in English. I touch upon this problem in my article “The lost symbols”
When you have gotten through the “name-change obstacle” you will have to deal with the names the way they were written in Norway.
  • Everyone had a first name, -a given name such as Hans, Per, Ole, Lena, Anne etc.
  • The next part of the name is their “patronym”. This is their father’s name with the suffix –sen, -son or -søn for males and datter or dotter for females. Hansson; son of Hans. Olsdatter; daughter of Ola/Ole. On very rare occasions you will find a “matronym” meaning their mother’s name with suffix. This occur sometimes when children are born out of wedlock and nobody has accepted the paternity.
There is a common misconception that by looking at how your ancestor wrote his patronym, you can tell which Scandinavian country he came from. To make this very short and simple: In Norwegian genealogy you need to be prepared to find both –sen, -son and –søn. This can be written with one or two S’s like Hanson or Hansson. The same person may be recorded with different spellings in different records.
  • The last part of a person’s “identity information” is not part of his name. It is the address, -an indication of where he lived.
I wrote “identity information” to underline that we are not talking about a surname or a family name. The last part being an address is easily seen in some church records where the minister may have written “Hans Hansen paa Flate” instead of “Hans Hansen Flate”. This means Hans Hansen at the Flate farm.
As we now see that we are talking about an address it is easier to understand that our ancestors changed “their name” a lot. Hans Hanson Flate may a few years later be recorded as Hans Hansen Berg as he moved from the Flate farm to the Berg farm. This can be a challenge for a genealogist, but it is of outmost importance to keep this in mind and make sure that we always are dealing with the right person. I write about the problem of people moving from farm to farm in my article “What is a bygdebok?

If you are lucky, your ancestors owned their farm and had the same address through several generations. There were groups that moved around that can be difficult to trace. These were the cotters (husmenn), lodgers (inderster), paupers (legdslemmer), servants/farmhands (tjenere/tjenestejenter/drenger). Also people who rented their (leiglendinger/bygselmenn) land may have moved around and thus, changed address.

If your ancestor moved a lot, it can be a challenge to decide how to record their name in your genealogy software. I didn’t pay enough attention to this problem when I started out, but when I got to Knut Knutson Korsnes Hauge Nederhus Vestnes, I realized that I had to do something. I ended up recording the name of the farm where the person was born. So my ancestor is now Knut Knutson Korsnes in my software. BUT: I use the Legacy program and here I can easily register aliases. In print-outs this appear like “NN was also known as…..” No matter what software you choose I recommend that this feature should be included.

Even though the use of surnames was not common among Norwegians until about the year 1800 there were groups that used family names in the same way we use surnames today. This may have been ministers, officers or civil servants who came from Denmark or Germany (e.g. Munch). There may also have been craftsmen who came from abroad and used their “job title” as a surname (e.g. Müller – Miller). There was also a very small group belonging to the Nobility who used a family name.

Throughout the 1800 more and more people started to use what we today call surnames. The practice first appeared in the towns. Often they used their patronym (primary patronym) sometimes they used their father’s patronym (secondary patronym). Sometimes the easiest way to see that a patronym is used as a family-, or surname, is when the wife uses her husband’s patronym. My Great-grandfather Markus Olsen Moldenes in many cases dropped Moldenes after he settled in the town Ålesund in 1865. His wife Nicoline used Olsen as surname (her father’s name was Knut).

The use of proper surnames didn’t become law in Norway until 1923. Before this they could pretty much do as they wished. This means that the same name might end up being spelled differently. It also means that siblings might end up with different surnames.

There were many different spelling of Norwegian names and this may be a challenge. Even though the first public schools started in the 1730’s, I think it is safe to say that far into the 20th century the reading and writing abilities among Norwegians were poor. They seldom, if ever, wrote, or saw their own name in writing. This means that the name was written as the minister or other officials thought it sounded. Often they were of foreign origin (often Danish) and wrote the names based on how the sounds were written in their native language.
The many variations of names are too many to even try to list, but I’ll give you just a few examples of spellings of what was often the same name:
  • Ann, Anna, Anne, Ane
  • Jon, John, Joen, Johan, Johannes
  • Guri, Guro, Gurå, Gøro
  • Ola, Ole, Olav, Olaus, Oluf
  • Per, Petter, Peder
  • Pernele, Pernille
  • Pål, Paul, Povel
  • Kristian, Christian, X-tian
  • Kristoffer, Krestoffer, Chrisoffer, Christopher, X-ofer
These variations in first names will, of course, give the same variation in patronyms. The variations in spelling of farm names are equally great. Oluf Rygh in his books “Norwegian farmnames” lists different spellings of names. In my article “How to find place names” I tell you a little about how to use the online version of these books. You can access it by going to “Articles”.

I hope you find this information useful.  Don't hesitate to contact me if you have questions or comments on this topic. There may be things that should be added or things that needs clarification. Go to contact  and send me a word. 

Byberg, Lis: «Leseferdighet og skolevesen 1740–1830» Heimen, ISSN 0017–9841, bind 45, 2008

Nedrelid, Gudrun: “Framvoksteren av norske slektsnavn” in Sprauten, Knut (editor) “Å kallast med sitt rette namn» Skrifter fra NLI nr 38 2002

Sandal, Per: «Ættegransking : ei elementær innføring til bruk i brevkurs eller sjølvstudium» Fram brevskole, Oslo 1980

Lov om personnavn, Kapittel 4 – Historikk. NOU 2001:1