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"The Confusion of Norwegian Names"

from

Norse to the Palouse

Sagas of the Selbu Norwegians

by

Marv Slind

Pullman, Washington: Norlys Press 1990, pages 66-69

Used here by permission of the Author

 

Norwegian immigrants arriving in America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries not only had to deal with a new language, but they were also confronted by a naming system that was different from that used in Norway.

When most Americans think of Scandinavian names, they usually recall names like Johnson, Olsen, Knudsen, or similar monikers Beginning with -son or -sen.  But the list of Norwegian immigrants to La Crosse contains few such names, because there were really two systems for assigning names in Norway.  The better-known, long-standing system, common throughout Scandinavia, identified children by indicating their father's name19.  This "patronymic system" consisted of the father's name, followed by -sen (or -son) or -datter.  For example, if a man named Ole had a son Knud and a daughter named Anna Olesdatter.  Consequently, new surnames were created each generation.  There were no continuing family names as we know them today.  (Although this system is no longer used in Norway, Sweden, or Denmark, it still prevails in Iceland today.)

Frequently, the oldest son was named after one of his grandfathers. Thus, names tended to be repeated every other generation.  In the example cited above, Knud Olsen's oldest son would probably be named Ole Knudsen.  Examples of this system can be found among immigrants who came to La Crosse, even style.  Perhaps the clearest example is that provided by the three generations of Nervigs who arrived in 1907.  They included Halvor, his son Henrik Halvorson Nervig, and Henrik's son, Halvor Henrikson Nervig.

If the above examples were not confusing enough, it could become even more complicated when siblings were named after both paternal and maternal grandparents.  Such was the case in the Slind family.  In Norway, Gunder Slind's father and father-in-law were both named Ole, so his oldest sons were also named Ole - one after each grandfather.  According to one of Gunder's grandsons, "they both had to be named Ole because one of the grandpas would have been madder than heck - he would have never talked to either one of them, ... well, that's about how it worked."20

Within the immediate family and circle of friends, having two Oles was not too confusing, since the boys quickly became known as Stor Ole and Lille Ole (Big Ole and Little Ole).  But it could become complicated for outsiders, who might not realize that there were two Oles in the family.  Such a situation arose as a result of both men immigrating to La Crosse - but at slightly different times.  Big Ole came in 1907 and then moved on to Limon, Colorado, in 1918.  When Little Ole arrived in the Palouse Country in 1922, confusion inevitably developed.  According to Little Ole's son, Gilbert, "When Dad started, I can remember when he signed his name "Ole Slind," they said "I thought he moved."21

The modern system of assigning family names that continued from one generation to the next had become widespread in Europe during the Renaissance and Reformation, and had come to Norway during the seventeenth century.  But this method of giving surnames was used almost exclusively by Norway's urban population.  in the countryside, the ancient and revered patronymic method predominated.  Yet, even another method of naming people evolved and came into widespread use in many areas, including the region around Selbu. (and Hadeland)  By the late nineteenth century, it had also become common to assign a second surname - a name taken from the farm on which a person lived.  Thus, a man had three names: his given name, a patronymic surname, and a farm name.  To use the hypothetical example, once again, if Knud Olsen lived on a farm called Bakken (hill) he would be called Knud Olsen Bakken.  Anyone else living on that farm would be called Bakken as well.  But this "farm name" was not a family name in the sense in which most Americans would understand the term.  Individuals sharing farm names were not necessarily related.  If Knud Olsen Bakken moved to the Haugen farm, for example, his name would be changed to Knud Olsen Haugen.  It made no difference if a family had lived on a farm for generations. Anyone moving from one farm to another took the name of the new residence.

If, as increasingly happened in the nineteenth century, younger sons left the family farm, they also abandoned their old names and took up the names of their new residences.  If a man married the daughter of another farmer and then went to live on her family's farm, he would take that farm's name - a name that was also his wife's surname.  Farm names reflected the local landscape and helped to identify the locality, and remained constant throughout many generations.22  In the Selbu area such farm names included Guldset, Klegsth, Valli, Garberg, Nervig, Slind, Kjosnes, Aftret, Aune, Solem, and others common among Norwegian immigrants who settled near La Crosse.23 (In Hadeland, farm names include Sorum, Alm, Dvergsteen, Gulden, and Lunder)

When Norwegians came to America, they had to conform to the American system of surnames - our modern "family names."  In many cases, the name they chose was the last farm name they had used in Norway.  In other instances, people chose to use the last patronymic surname that had been assigned before arriving in America, but not all members of a family chose to use the same method.  One brother might select the farm name, while another might choose to use his father's name - what had been his "middle name" in Norway.

The selection of names was further complicated by spelling or pronunciation problems.  Many Norwegians changed the spelling of their names in order to make them less difficult for Americans to pronounce. Others changed their names entirely, in order to appear "more American," and avoid the stigma of possessing an "immigrant-sounding" name.  Names containing Norwegian letters "ø" and "æ" were often simplified by changing them to "o," "oe," "ae," or "a."  Again, one family might choose one alternative, while relatives with the same Norwegian names might select another.  For example, Martin Fall and Ole Christoferson were brothers.  In Norway, their father's name was Christopher Føll.  When Martin and Ole came to America, Martin changed the spelling of his name to Fall; Ole simply used his patronymic name, Christoferson - the name by which he had been known in Norway.24

First names were also changed to accommodate American pronunciations.  Frequently they were simplified to conform with popular American nicknames.  For example, women named Ingeborg were sometimes known as "Emma" (Emma Wigen Emerson and Emma Larson Korsvold).  Malena quickly became "Molly."  Similarly, Peder became "Pete" or "Peter" and Per became "Perry."

All of the patterns discussed above can be found among the immigrants who arrived in La Crosse.  Some families kept their Norwegian names, spelling and all.  Others made changees; some were slight, others were major.  For example, Ole and John Vallie became Ole and John Walli.  Simon Lia changed his surname to Lee.  Mikkel Aftret became Mike Johnson.  One of the two men named Haldo Kjosnes became Haldo Thompson.  Still, name problems were relative.  When J. C. Carlson's brother, Carl, attended a Lutheran seminary he reportedly found so many Carlsons there that he changed his name to Landahl.25

 

Footnotes:

#19 - Haugen, Einar.  The Norwegian Language in America: A Study in Bilingual Behavior.  2nd edition.  Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1969, pp. 192 ff.

#20 - Interview with Gilbert Slind, December 27, 1980.

#21 - Ibid.

#22 - Haugen, Norwegian Language in America, pp. 192-193.

#23 - Ibid., pp. 201-202.

#24 - Interview with John B. Walli, October 30, 1983.

#25 - Dr. Landahl subsequently served for many years as a missionary in China.  Although he visited his brother in La Crosse, he never actually lived in the area

 

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