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Scandinavian Naming Patterns and Lifestyles

By Ruth Ellen Maness, AG

Is it “-sen” or “-sson” or “Lien” or “Ström”?

The Nordic countries (Scandinavia) include Denmark, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden and their possessions. The Finnish language is totally different from the other Scandinavian countries, but Finland was under Swedish monarchial rule for much of its history. Thus, Finland’s official records are in the Swedish language from the beginning of record keeping to about 1867 or later. Patronymic naming customs also apply.

Depending upon your ancestor’s country of origin, his or her surname (family name) may lead you to the exact spot in the country where he or she was born, or leave you amidst a mass of “-sens” or “- sons.” Some general guidelines for Scandinavian naming practices follow; then more specific information will be given.

Surnames (Family Names)

First, the patronymic naming system was used in all of Scandinavia. That means a Scandinavian’s surname (family name) was formed by taking the first name of the natural father, and adding “- sen/son/sson” or “-datter/dotter/dottir” to it. Lars Olasen was literally “Lars, the son of Ola.” Birthe Johansdatter was literally, “BIrthe, the daughter of Johan.” That means there could be many people living in the same record keeping jurisdiction at the same time, with the same surname, who are totally unrelated.

Generally, in that country’s records, Danish and Norwegian surnames end in “-sen” or “-ssen;” Swedish, Finnish, and Icelandic surnames with “-son” or “-sson.” However, all record keepers, whether in Scandinavia, America, Canada, Australia, or Brazil, spelled first and surnames the way they heard them and the way they thought they should be spelled. Your ancestor was not looking over his shoulder saying, “Hey, spelling’s wrong!”

Though it might seem strange to us, the patronymic naming system was the best system for the time and the culture, since just a few names–among them Lars, Peder, Ole, Anders, Jens and their derivations–were used 90% of the time. With this system, the first name of the next generation is always known.

Second, Scandinavian females do not assume the surname (family name) of their husbands when they marry. They usually carry their maiden surname throughout their life in the records. If you find an Lars Jensen and a Maren Jensdatter having a child, she is not Mrs. Lars Jensen in the traditional American sense. It simply means Lars and Maren both had a father with the first name of Jens.

Marriages among the higher social classes were an exception to that rule. If the bride had a little higher social status than the groom, he might actually assume her surname. If he were higher class, or they were equal in class status, the bride might be listed by his surname in the records rather than with her patronymic surname.

Third, you have to think PHONETICALLY when doing any kind of searches, in any country’s records.


If a Dane moved from the country into the city, he could have taken a farm or village name as his surname to be known by in the city records. Otherwise, as early as the 1850s in most major Danish cities (1828 in Copenhagen), the use of the patronymics began to be discontinued. In the countryside, the change from patronymics to using the same surname began around 1867. The key to finding out when the change occurs in the area you are researching is to watch for the pattern in the birth records. Note if children are being given their patronymic surname, their father’s surname, or, if the record reflects a mixture.

If your Danish emigrant/immigrant ancestor or the subsequent generation used a surname (family name) that did not/does not end patronymically–that is, in -sen or -son, or –sson–there is a 25% chance that non-patronymic surname is the name of the farm or village in Denmark where the immigrant ancestor was born, lived, or worked at some point during his/her life. If the name is unusual enough (i.e. there are only a few places with that name listed in a Danish gazetteer), you could go directly to the church records for the parish to which that place belongs and see if you can find your ancestor. If he/she is not born/christened, or confirmed in that parish, try surrounding ones. If that doesn’t work out, other research steps may still have to be followed to discover the place of origin.

There is also a small possibility a Dane may have a non-patronymic name as a result of having served in the military—either soldier or sailor (merchant marine)—or having learned a trade and then taken the non-patronymic surname of their mentor.

Yet a third way a Danish ancestor came by a non-patronymic surname is because of their possible Germanic origins. In the 1500s, Germanic traders were granted special trading rights in Copenhagen. They formed what is known as the Hanseatic League. They were given special housing and wharf areas along the docks in Copenhagen. Many of them lived there for generations after that time period, marrying and having children. Since they did not have a patronymic naming system in their country, their “set” surname (family name) was handed down each generation.


The change from patronymics to set surname came about in the late 1880s to 1890s. Some of the Finns who emigrated also used a place name as their surname when they arrived in the United States. If you have a Finnish ancestor whose surname does not end patronymically–i.e. with -sen, -son, or – sson–look in a Finnish gazetteer to see if the name or a close derivation thereof appears. If it does, you could search the church records of the parish to which that place belongs for your ancestor.

It should be noted there are also some areas of Finland, western Finland particularly, where a set surname was used; that is, it did not change every generation like a patronymic surname. If in American records your Finnish immigrant ancestor keeps listing his father and grandfather with the same surname (family name) as himself, he might have come from a set surname area.

Note: The Institute of Migration/Emigrant Register in Turku, Finland, is creating databases of Finnish immigrants and other types of information, i.e. Finns deceased abroad (1918-1950). They can be reached at:


The majority of early Icelandic emigrants went to Spanish Fork, Utah. The remainder generally went to Manitoba Province in Canada. No known official Icelandic passenger lists exist. Some Icelandic emigrants may have gone through Copenhagen as the country was under Danish rule until June 17, 1944.

A few Icelanders may also have used a place name as a surname. However, since the patronymic naming system is still being used in Iceland today, it is more likely that an Icelander who emigrated to another country would have taken a non-patronymic name, sometime after he was in his/her new country. That non-patronymic surname could still be checked out in an Icelandic gazetteer.


If a Norwegian moved into a city from about the 1850s on, he or she could have used the farm name as a surname. A law was passed in 1875 that mandated a countrywide change to a set surname. At/after that date the Norwegian child could have been given (a) the patronymic of the father which would not change in the next generation; (b) the surname the father had at that point; or (c) they could have opted to go back and change to their farm name or another name to use as a surname when they became older. In both Danish and Norwegian church records, which are their official vital records, there are examples where a name has been crossed through and another surname written in with reference made to the law of 1875. To show you how individualistic Norwegians are, another law to choose a set surname had to be passed in 1905, basically saying, “OK, now we really mean it!

Approximately 50% of Norwegians who emigrated began to use a place name as their surname after arriving in their new country, or sometime thereafter–whether that was America, Australia, or someplace in South America. This may have been the name of the farm they were born on, married to, worked at, resided upon, or just knew about because it was in the local area, and they liked the sound of the name. It may also have been a shortened version of the whole name of the farm.

For example, Ramsgaardslie may have been shortened to Ram, or Lie (Lee). That name change may have taken place when your ancestor registered with the port authorities in the home country, immediately upon arrival in the new country, or even later. For example, Grandpa John Petersen’s mail kept going to the other John Petersen down the road, and that man actually had the temerity to open the mail he knew wasn’t his! So, about three years after John emigrated, he began to call himself John P. Tregaard.

Please note: In the early days of this country that did not require court action–no official record exists. Your ancestor just had to tell his/her relatives and the postman so they would address/deliver the mail properly.

To find out if your non-patronymic Norwegian surname is a place name, check a Norwegian gazetteer. If there are only a few places listed with that name, go to the church records of the parishes where those names are located, and try to find your ancestor in a life event record. If there are more than 10 or so places by that name listed in the gazetteer, you may want to try other steps first to find the place.

There is also a small possibility a Norwegian may have a non-patronymic name because of having served in the military, either soldier or sailor (merchant marine), or having learned a trade and then taken the non-patronymic surname of their mentor for their own.


If your Swedish immigrant ancestor or subsequent generation has a non-patronymic surname, IT IS RARELY a place name. It most likely comes from one of two ways. The first is military service. A Swede who went into the military made a lifetime commitment. He served until he was physically unable to handle his duties. To explain the name: Each Swedish parish was divided into military districts called røter. Each rote had a name assigned to it, which the district (rote) soldier took upon himself. The young man literally had a written contract with the farmers who were in his rote or military district. They promised him, “1 pig, 2 barrels of corn, 3 barrels of wheat, 6 boxes of apples, 1 cottage to live in” and so forth per year. He, in turn, was their soldier. In times of peace, he became a jack of all trades, helping the farmers in his military district with what was needed. Often, since he may have been the only one besides the minister who could read or write, he was employed by young swains to write their love letters to their female friends.

If the soldier had a particular characteristic, i.e., was unusually strong, had a thick shock of red hair or some such thing, a name describing that may have been given him. Also, if a soldier moved from one military district to serve in another, he would take the name assigned to the new military district. This non-patronymic system was a great help to the captain so he wouldn’t have to deal with a company full of 10 “Per Persson’s” or some such thing.

Many of the Swedish soldiers continued to use the name and/or be known by their soldier name even when they were no longer serving. His children may also have been known by that name. Because of this system, two men having the same non-patronymic surname, living in the same parish, who may appear to be father and son, may simply be the old, retired soldier and the new young man who was taking over the soldier place. Make NO assumptions about relationships; great care must be taken to prove the facts.

A few examples of Swedish military and sea service names are:

Ahl – Alder tree

Björk – Birch tree

Blixt – Lightning

Brink – Steep hill

Bäck – Brook

Fisk – Fish

Frisk – Fresh

Fröjd – Joy

Fyr – Spark

Glad – Happy

Hassel – Hazel tree

Hed – Moor, heath

Hake – Hook

Hjelm – Helmet

Hjort – Deer

Holm – Island

Hult – Grove

Häge – Heron

Hägg – Cherry tree

Krabbe – Crab

Kron – Crown

Lans – Lance

Lind- Linden tree

Ljung – Heather

Quist – Branch, twig

Skog – Forest

Spelare – Player

Ström – Stream

The second major way a Swede obtained a non-patronymic name was through professional training, to a greater or lesser degree. The “trade-tech” schools of Europe were the guilds. A person who was trying to get to the top of his profession would try to find a master of that trade under whom to train. When he had worked through his apprenticeship and become a journeyman, he might then take the surname name of his mentor, spreading his teacher’s fame far and wide as he traveled around and plied his trade. As a consequence, Swedes who have the same profession and the same non-patronymic surnames are likely NOT related unless a father trained his son, or they were both trained by the same master.

Other times, it seems as if a Swede just tired of being known as Jon Jonsson, and literally pulled a name out of the air to use. There were no laws in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, or Iceland, or even in early America, against doing that. You could just start using another family surname, without having to register it.

A Swede moving into a big city as early as the 1860s could have (a) used their father’s soldier name, (b) perhaps selected a trade mentor’s name, or (c) chosen a name out of the air to be known by. In the countryside, the use of patronymics began to phase out in the 1860s to 1870s. As mentioned before, look for the pattern.

Should you find your Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Icelandic or Finnish male emigrant on a U.S. census with a non-patronymic surname and a letter for the middle initial, such as John P.Lien, the chances are very good the P is the first letter of his true patronymic surname—Pedersen, Pehrsson, Paulsen, Pofvelsen, etc.

IMPORTANT – PLEASE NOTE: When doing Scandinavian research, whether searching emigration records, church records, or so forth, remember that females are almost always listed with their MAIDEN surnames in all old-country or native records. They did not assume the surname of their husband at marriage—they carry the patronymic surname from their natural father (i.e., Anna Jönsdotter is literally Anna, daughter of a man named Jöns). It is, however, possible, if the husband emigrated first, worked a few years, then sent money back for the family to emigrate, he may have told his wife it was the American custom for the female to use her husband’s surname. IF the family was inclined to become “Americanized” as soon as possible, she may possibly be listed with her husband’s surname, even on European originated passenger lists. Search for her under her own patronymic surname first. If you don’t find her, then look under her husband’s surname.

Remember, many Scandinavian emigrants, upon arriving in the U.S. and learning that the custom was to use one’s father’s surname, adopted that custom. So their names in the records here could be different than how you will find them in the records of their native country. A combination of becoming Americanized by using one’s father’s surname, plus the custom of using a place name as a surname and the use of the patronymic system, again, means full-blood brothers and sisters may have wound up with different surnames in American, Canadian, Australian, and other records. Hopefully, that’s in family memory.

First Names

In terms of first names, it was a general custom, though not strictly followed, to name the first son after the father’s father, the second son after the mother’s father–the first daughter after the mother’s mother and the second daughter after the father’s mother. Then, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and so forth followed.

Though it was somewhat of a European and Scandinavian custom to name the next child of the same gender after a previously deceased one, that was not always the case. Do not assume the first child with that same name died, unless you find the actual death or burial record, and know for sure it is him or her! The author worked a problem where there were six sons named Ole (Olsen) in the same family–all grew up, all married, and all had children.

It was also somewhat of a custom that if a spouse died and there was a re-marriage and subsequent children, the first child of the same gender might be given their first name(s) or a derivation of it.

In order to keep all your Scandinavians straight, it is crucial that you be very consistent in using family tree charts, and family group sheets, and putting the proper names and dates on those sheets immediately when identified. You may run into a farm or community history for your ancestors, particularly in Norway or Sweden, which could take you back several generations in a short time period. If you don’t keep up the family tree charts especially, it may be very difficult to reconstruct the true facts later.

A large list of over 600 given names used in the Nordic (Scandinavian) countries can be accessed at:

Also use the FamilySearch Wiki for research guidance, links to free Scandinavian data bases, parish outline maps, word lists, farm names, interactive training videos to learn the script and many other good things Nordic.

Working with Scandinavian names and finding your cultural roots can be fun. Use care and you’ll find great success and joy in your research results!

Effective Use of Gazetteers

Thomsen, Finn A., Genealogical Guidebook & Atlas of Sweden. Bountiful, Utah: Thomsen’s Genealogical Center, c1981. FHL book 948.5 E7t FHL fiche 6054632

This book is NOT a gazetteer, but a very useful tool when you need to do area searching. It contains an alphabetical listing of all Swedish parishes, and indicates the county and hårad (legal district), and map grid for each parish. This author loves it for the maps – which show the parishes in relationship to each other. Ancestors were not static – they moved around quite a bit, and, if an area search is necessary, this resource is invaluable in figuring out which parishes to search.

The Newest, Latest, and Greatest!

The reference staff of the Family History Library, missionaries, volunteers, and others in the genealogical community have been working very diligently to make FamilySearch Wiki THE place to go for information and research help with the Nordic (Scandinavian) countries. (Click on the “Wiki”” tab at Technology makes it possible to do many, many things, create wonderful tools and links to tools and other resources which were previously not possible. Parish outline maps, parish listings with connections to the FHL Catalog, village listings for parishes, case studies so you can see how professionals research using alternative types of records, and other exciting things are all being added to each country’s pages. You are encouraged and invited to add your knowledge as well to make it great!






For those of you with Scandinavian ancestors you are in for a real treat from Ruth Ellen Maness, AG. Ruth is the Senior Research Consultant for Scandinavian Reference at the world famous Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Ruth will be teaching a total of eight classes during the Colorado and Midwest Expos. You don’t want to miss this! You may want to attend both Expos!

In addition Kathy Meade will be presenting three classes at the Colorado Expo and three additional at the Midwest Expo. Kathy is the North American representative for ArkivDigital, a company that offers online access to color images of Swedish church books and other historical records.

If you have Scandinavian ancestry you do not want to miss out on this amazing feast of information. Both Ruth and Kathy will be available for personal consultations between classes or during classes when they are not teaching.

Sign up today! Just click this link.

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