Björk Icelandic Name Mini Lesson


Once upon a time someone mentioned an Icelandic linguist with a last name of something like "Sigurðsdóttir", then said he wasn't sure if "it was a man or a woman".

If only this person had known the secret of Icelandic family names...namely that they switch gender depending on the gender of the person.

Most of seen lot's of names like English "Johnson" or Scandinavian "Sigurðsson" and you may have realized that once upon a time they meant "John's son" and "Sigurd's son". Now imagine if you were a woman... wouldn't it have been "John's daughter"?

The answer in Iceland is ...yes. Hence "Sigurdsdóttir" is actually "Sigurd's daughter" (with "dóttir" being a cognate with English "daughter." So with many Icelandic names, you can tell the gender of the person -"-son" is usually a man and "dóttir" is usually a woman.

Probably the most famous Icelandic woman is the singer-songwriter Björk. And yes her last name is a -"dóttir" (Guðmundsdóttir). Just some other notes.

1) Many Icelandic "last names" are refer strictly to the father's (or mother's) first name.
In Icelandic, my name would be Elizabeth Davidsdóttir, while my father would be David Warrensson. Icelanders do have the option of using a single family name, but many use either the "Patronymic" (father's name) or "matrionymic" (mother's name)

2) Apparently native Icelanders prefer to be addressed by their first name...even Prime Ministers. Hence Björk (unlike Madonna or Donovan) is following normal naming procedure by using just her first name...I suspect that it's also very convenient for many English speaking fans as well.

3) These names include the possessive/genitive -s. Thus "Guðmundsdóttir" is an exact cognate with English "Guðmund's dóttir". The name looks exotic, but contains direct cognates English vocabulary and grammar. I think it's fascinating how something familiar can appear exotic with just a few changes in spelling and usage.

Just to wrap things up, Icelandic is not the only language in which last names change depending on the gender of the person. Other languages with similar patterns include Irish, Middle Welsh, Russian and Czech.

* Iceland Ministry of Justice Icelandic Surnames
* Wikipedia Icelandic Name