A Student By Any Other Name…

A couple weeks ago, midterm tests were handed back in one of my classes. You’d think this would be a relatively simple process, but it actually revealed some very interesting cultural confusion surrounding names. To start off, though, here’s a little background on Icelandic names and naming conventions, which many of you are no doubt familiar with:

  • Icelanders use patronymics (and, in rare cases, matronymics) instead of last names (family names). This means that someone’s second name is formed by combining their father’s first name and the ending -son or -dóttir depending on the individual’s gender. So Anna Björnsdóttir is Anna, daughter of Björn. Her brother is Karl Björnsson, or, Karl, son of Björn.
  • Patronymics don’t fill the same formal roles that last names do in places like the U.S. You will never hear an Icelander referred to as Mister or Miss (Ms.) Björnsson or Björnsdóttir. In formal situations, a full name or a title may be used, but in general, everyone is just referred to by their first name. This includes teachers, religious leaders, your best friend, famous people, the prime minister–everyone.
  • Alphabetization is then done by first name. This applies to everything, including phone book listings and government/formal records.
  • Although many Icelanders are not terribly religious, Iceland does have a national church. (Whether this should continue has been debated quite a bit over the years, but in October, when voting on whether or not to create a revised constitution, 57.5% of Icelandic voters said “yes” to the question “Would you like to see provisions in the new Constitution on an established (national) church in Iceland?” So the national church doesn’t seem to be going anywhere for the time being.) On an official basis, Iceland has been a Christian country since somewhere around 1000 AD. This long Christian heritage cannot help but show up in the language from time to time.

Keeping the above in mind, here’s a replay of the episode with midterm returns:

The teacher asked for students whose names started with ‘A’ to come to the front of the room and pick up their papers. She meant students whose first names started with A, but didn’t specify, of course. A student who happens to be from Iran got up to collect her paper, but it is her last name that starts with A, not her first.

The teacher leafs through the stack of A name midterms and doesn’t find the Iranian student’s paper. “What is your name?” she asks. The student gives her last name.

“No–your name,” the teacher replies, a little vexed. “Your Christian name.”

At this point the student–who I am going to make a generalized, but educated guess is a) not Christian and b) has not heard the phrase “Christian name,” which is, honestly, a bit of an old fashioned and British-derived (?) term for “first name” or “given name”–stops short. She says something about not having a Christian name. This then completely flummoxes the teacher, who knows that the student standing in front of her must be called something. It takes about three students yelling various things at both teacher and student–“Well, it’s not a Christian name, is it?” and “She means your first name!”–to sort things out for both of them.

A reminder, perhaps that even things which seem totally straightforward and universal–such as one’s name–can be a big source of cultural confusion, and not just for foreigners in their adopted country. I don’t think it occurred to the teacher to explain that she was distributing papers by first name–it just seemed self-evident to her.

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “A Student By Any Other Name…

  1. Hi –
    I wonder if Icelandic’s use of a person’s full name in formal situations is similar to the practice in Danish news stories where a subject is referred to by his or her full name repeatedly long after they have been introduced to the reader? When reporters do this in English the repetition is for a purpose, perhaps to create a sense of irony or for emphasis.

    • I actually have no idea, Pete, but that is an interesting connection! I actually remember noticing the repeated use of full names (first and last) in a number of Scandinavian crime novels, particularly Swedish ones. That sort of repetition pops out at an English-language reader for sure, but I can’t account for it in Scandinavian languages. I’d be interested to hear an explanation from a native speaker, though.

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