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Norwegian Surnames

Date Added: June 17, 2011 05:39:53 AM
Author: Fredrik Nygaard
Category: People: Names

Introduction to Norwegian surname conventions by Steinar Furan:

The Norwegian surnames where up until the mid 1800s a construction of your father's given name with the ending -son (or -søn or -sen) or -datter. This is identical to the system used on Iceland. To identify the homeplace, they usually added the farm's name, like Jon Jonsen, Lie. If they were moving to a new homeplace, the surname changed. I believe that this practise was changed around 1870 and that the reason was that the authorities required fixed family names for taxation purposes (the last info. here might be unprecise).

An example could be an ancestor of mine, Petter Bersvendsen. Originally born at the farm Furan in Stjørdal, he moved to a farm in Selbu around 1870 (Haarstad Nedre). Unlike the rest of families at the neighbouring farms, he kept his surname. All other settlers changed their name to the farm's name, Haarstad. The family name of people not having a -sen name is thus originally their address. Meaning that my correct name should have been Steinar Arnesen, Bellsli (which is the name of the farm where my house is built).

Other facts worth noting about Norwegian surnames:

Names ending in 'son' are unusual in Norway. Much more common is the 'sen' ending. If you are an American with a Norwegian name ending in 'son', your forfather almost certainly changed his family's name on coming to America to make it sound more Anglican. This was quite common in the 1800s, and immigration officials back then were more than willing to help the newcomers find names more easily pronounced in English. This could result in anything from small and almost insignifficant changes to dramatic alterations. Examples are:

  • Aanonson - from - Aanonsen
  • Britson - from - Ingebritsen
  • Hanson - from - Hansen
  • Nelson - from - Nilsen
  • Olson - from - Olsen
  • Reierson - from - Reiersen

Other names that have changed their spelling from the original are:

  • Selgelid - from - Seljelid
  • Lea - from - Lie
  • Lee - from - Lie

The 'sen' ending has the same original meaning as the 'son' ending in English: It used to mean "son of". Some of these names like "Nilsen" are, therefore, very common. However, a name like "Reiersen" is quite rare.

The female equivalent to the 'sen' ending was 'dtr', where 'dtr' is short for 'datter' or "daughter of". However, when the system of patronymes ended, only the male patronymes went on to become surnames, so names ending on 'dtr' are no longer used in Norway.

Some names have changed their spelling several times and people from the same family have ended up with different surnames. One example of this is the unusual name of Qvenild which changed to Quenild, Quinnild, Quinnel and Kvenild. All these names are actually one and the same, and are all in use today.

Names are often related to a place, usually a farm, or 'gaard' (spelled 'gård' in modern Norwegian spelling). Names ending in 'gaard' are for this reason quite common.

Other names that derive their meaning from places are:

  • Li means side of a valley. Names with Li or Lie in them refer to such a place. (Solli translates to the "sunney side of the valley", and Grønli translates to "green valley side".)
  • Dal means valley. Names with Dahl or Dal in them refer to some, usually minor, valley.
  • Mo means meadow or flat area. Names with Mo, Moe or Moen in them refer to such an area. (Modal translates to the "bottom of the valley".)
  • Rud is old norse for 'cleared area' or settlement. Names with Rud or Ruud in them refer to a farm, usually in eastern Norway.
  • Names with Ås or Aas in them: The word means a hill or small mountain.
  • Val is old norse for a flat field, and names with Val or Wal in them, such as Valen or Walle, usually refer to this. 
  • Hval is old norse for a small round hill, and names with Hval, Kvale or Kvåle in them usually refer to this. However, hval in modern Norwegian means whale, but this is not usually the meaning of the word when it appears in a name.
  • Strøm means current, or water flow. Names with Strom or Strøm in them usually refer to some place close to a beach with strong water currents. (Walstrøm translates to "flat area by the beach".)

In general, all Norwegian surnames are either constructions ending in 'sen' (meaning son of), or refering to some place in Norway. There are exceptions to this, of course, but generally speaking this is the case. And very many places in Norway have names that have some meaning. It is, therefore, possible with the use of a good dictionary to derive the meaning of a Norwegian surname. Helpful language resources can be found at Norway > Language.

One way to find out if a name is Norwegian is to check the telephone directory to see if there are people with that surname living in a large town like Oslo. To do this, simply type in the surname and then Oslo. E.g. Kaarhus Oslo. Note that this particular example returns just a few hits ("treff" in Norwegian) which indicates that the name is Norwegian, but quite rare.