To listen to and find out more about this episode, visit theallusionist.org/icelandic-names.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, save the last dance for language.
Coming up in the next episode: your stories of your name changes. I’m very excited about that. Coming up in this episode: a name change that took decades of wrangling. It is quite the story.
The Allusionist live tour of 2018 is in full swing, and one more date has been added: in St Paul, because what better time to visit Minnesota than mid-November when you don’t have your winter coat with you? Very excited though, the show is happening in a beautiful library, a wonderful place to finish off the tour. But before that, we’ll be playing in Boston, Toronto, Seattle, Portland, Vancouver and Los Angeles, get your tickets now, although some of the dates are sold out. Now listen, I don’t find it easy to be nice about my own work, I’m always in litotes mode, the opposite of hyperbole, but I’m going to suck it up and say, the live show is pretty good. It’s good. You should see it. See full gig listings at theallusionist.org/events.
On with the show.
JÓN GNARR: I had a daughter in 92, and she was named Camilla after her grandmother, it was Camilla with a C, spelled with a C. And so when I got the confirmation note from the National Registry, where they tell you that your child is now named something in the registry, they had spelled her name with a K. It's confirmed that the child Kamilla Jónssdóttir, blah blah blah. And I called them, because it was spelled with a C, and I just wanted to tell them it was a misunderstanding, my daughter's name is spelled with a C and she said yeah, wait, and I waited on the line and then she came back and she said no, it's no misunderstanding: C has been banned in the Icelandic alphabet.
HZ: C has been banned??
JÓN GNARR: C was banned. Yeah.
HZ: That’s inconvenient.
JÓN GNARR: So she is still Kamilla with K. And this really infuriated me. I was really upset. And I started to like reading up and following news about the issues here in Iceland with the names.
HZ: Because in Iceland there are laws governing what names you can be called.
JÓN GNARR: My name is Jón Gnarr. I'm Icelandic, I was born in Iceland in 1967 and I've lived here for the most part of my life. And I'm a comedian and writer, and I also was the mayor of Reykjavik for one term of four years, 2010 to 2014, on behalf of the Best Party which was a political party I came up with and my platform into politics.
HZ: And as you’ll hear shortly, he’s had another pretty big run-in with Iceland’s naming laws.
JÓN GNARR: Naming is controlling in a way, so if you rule the names, you have a lot of power through that. And this has caused a lot of harm and pain to people,
HZ: Iceland’s not the only place to have laws about names; many countries have them. Usually, the law states that a name must not be embarrassing for the bearer, and that it should work in the local writing system and, often, that it should not contain characters that would not be machine-readable on a passport. But then some countries get more exacting.
For instance, in Germany, a child’s name must be clearly male or female, and also must not be objects or brands. Portugal has a forty-page list of approved names and a longer list of banned names. Malaysia: you can’t name a child a fruit, vegetable, colour, animal or insect. Britain, you can go with pretty much anything, as long as it’s not an obscenity or starting with a number.
Iceland’s naming rules are notoriously strict: a name must be spelled with the letters of the Icelandic alphabet, so no C, Q, W or Z; it must work with Icelandic grammar, and it must not cause the bearer embarrassment. A first name must be male or female, and match the bearer’s gender accordingly - and yes, this is a binary gendered system. The name must be the Personal Names Register, on which there are around 2000 approved names for each gender. But if you want to name your baby or yourself a name that is not on the register, you have to send an application to the Icelandic Naming Committee.
SIGURÐUR KONRÁÐSSON: Helen is okay and Zaltzman - if you don't have any grandmother or grandfather called Zaltzman in Iceland - then it could be a little bit difficult. But zeta in your name, Zaltzman, actually two zetas you have in your name: it's not in the Icelandic alphabet, it's not used in orthography.
My name is Sigurður Konráðsson and I'm a professor in Icelandic at the University of Iceland, and also a foreman for the name committee in Iceland.
HZ: What do you enjoy most about being on the committee?
SIGURÐUR KONRÁÐSSON: It's talking about personal names. It's a very interesting theme.
HZ: It sure is. Each year the Icelandic Naming Committee receives around 100-150 applications for names, and the three members of the committee meet for around three or four days a month to decide whether to allow deviation from Iceland’s naming laws.
SIGURÐUR KONRÁÐSSON: The spirit of the laws is to preserve the old tradition of Icelandic name system. You first have your name, your personal name, in your case Helen. And after that the main rule is to to use your father or mother's name, adding -son, in your case -dóttir to your father or mother's name. When your father is called Paul, you would be Paulsdóttir. And your brother would be Paulsson. This is the main rule.
HZ: A patronymic, or a matronymic if it’s derived from your mother’s name, which is legal but rare. Family names, surnames, have never been standard in Iceland. The traditional Nordic naming system was first name and patronymic. In the 19th century, some people in Iceland started to use family names; they were even something of a status symbol for a little while.
JÓN GNARR: Back in the days when we were still part of the Danish colony, before World War Two, the Danish ruling class here had family names. So if you had a family name, it meant that you were either from a wealthy family or that you were educated, because people who were educated, they went to Copenhagen to study, and then it was custom to take up a family name so that everybody would know that you were educated.
HZ: In 1913 the Icelandic government legalised family names - but not for long. In 1925, they banned them, as family names were considered not authentically Icelandic. The small proportion of the population who had family names prior to the ban were allowed to keep them, but from then on, Icelanders were only allowed the patronymic last names. So it’s quite a small pool of names, if your first name is picked from a fairly short list and your last name is also derived from a name on that fairly short list. The phone book is alphabetical by first name.
The naming committee approves the majority of applications. But they’ve rejected names such as Cleopatra, Viking, Toby and Jennifer.
HZ: Are they angry with you ever?
SIGURÐUR KONRÁÐSSON: No. Sometimes maybe, but we try to explain everything in a letter to the applicant and we explain it and refer to the laws and to our rules, and most of the people understand this. We are not a committee who decides what to do. That's the government, the Althingi. They make the law.
HZ: And the committee enforces it. The overall objective is to protect and preserve Icelandic culture and language.
JÓN GNARR: Iceland has been very isolated for a very very long time, geographically and culturally also. So it can almost feel like you're on another planet, you're not really on Earth anymore when you're here, so we tend to be suspicious of of things that come from from afar. So it's a tendency to to overprotect our cultural heritage in a way. Like when I was growing up and and television was being introduced, people were really suspicious of it, like we cannot have Americanization through television corrupting our Icelandic culture and so on. With books, with cartoons. I remember, when I was growing up, discussions about if Donald Duck was dangerous, for children to read Donald Duck. Like, so foreign. And you would assume Iceland and Icelandic culture was very creative, like vibrant with creative energy and in a sense it is. And in another sense it's not. And it's still, when the naming laws are being criticized and there is debate about something. And usually there's this occurs after there's an incident with some name and somebody from the naming committee or official linked to the naming committee will say, “Well, we have the naming committee to protect us from bad names, and do we want every other person here to be called Son of Satan or Hitler?” And people would say no, of course not. “Exactly, that's why we have the naming committee, because these are the names that people really want to name their children.” They will say, “There was this woman in the US who named her child Hand Sanitizer. Is that something that we want to do here in Iceland?” It's like, no of course not. “Exactly, that's why we have a naming committee.”
HZ: There's a midway point. In Britain, you can call a child pretty much anything and I've never met a Hand Sanitizer or a Hitler.
HZ: The naming committee was only formed in 1991, but it’s not like before then there were people being named ‘Hand Sanitizer’: Iceland already had naming laws.
JÓN GNARR: The law was like just like a traffic law. So it didn't need a committee because it was all clear, it was all written down, and was mostly bans. And that's always been in our culture and also in many other cultures. This tendency to solve problems with a ban. It can be a very easy way to solve a problem.
HZ: Before the naming committee was instituted, the Icelandic naming rules were pretty clear and uncompromising. Everyone had to have a first name that was on the approved list and a last name that was a patronymic. If you came from abroad and didn’t have a name that was Icelandic or easily converted into Icelandic, you had to change it to one.
JÓN GNARR: I remember when when the first group of refugees came to Iceland. And I remember they were hunted to new passports at the airport when they arrived, with Icelandic names that had been picked out for them.
HZ: So they had no idea of their own names?
JÓN GNARR: No! They couldn't even pronounce their own names. People who immigrated to Iceland from somewhere else: when they applied for citizenship, if they wanted to apply for citizenship, they were forced to abandon their names and take an Icelandic-sounding name. So it was a condition: if you wanted to apply for citizenship you had to give up your name. And it was just horrible.
HZ: But in 1996 the law changed, so immigrants to Iceland are now allowed to keep their names.
JÓN GNARR: It was a violation of human rights to force people to abandon their names and take up another name just because they were applying for citizenship. They couldn't do it anymore. So there was a slight change in the naming laws. So now we have a twofold naming system: one that applies to people who are born here in Iceland, and a different system that applies to people who moved to Iceland from somewhere else. So people that were not Icelandic people or who were not born in Iceland were no longer forced to work or changed their names.
HZ: So if you were not born in Iceland, you can have a family name, you can have a name that is not compatible with Icelandic grammar, that isn’t on the approved lists. However, if you were born in Iceland, you still have to obey the naming laws.
JÓN GNARR: But the law is just so unfair. And with immigration it starts to discriminate, first against immigrants and when they cannot discriminate against immigrants, they discriminate against non-immigrants. It makes absolutely no sense.
HZ: Now, you might be thinking, even if you are Icelandic, you can use whatever name you want in your everyday life, so why does it matter what your official name is? Well, so you can have your name on your passport. You’re legally recognised. You have your full rights as a citizen.
JÓN GNARR: It can seriously affect - it's not just emotional, it can also be social and financial.
HZ: So you're effectively not fully recognised as a person unless your name abides by the laws.
JÓN GNARR: Yes. And this is what they use here and have use: they force you because you are denied stuff.
HZ: Take the 2012 case of a teenager who from birth had been called Blær, after a female character in a novel. Everyone knew her as Blær, had always known her as Blær; but her legal first name was Stúlka, the Icelandic word for ‘Girl’. Because ‘Blær’ was not on the list of approved female names.
JÓN GNARR: Blær as a name through history has been masculine and feminine in different periods. So in the Middle Ages it was masculine and then later on it became a feminine name and then masculine again or something. And she was named Blær, but it was rejected on the grounds that it was a boy's name. And so in the registry, she was called Girl. Girl. They didn't approve of her name. And her parents were obligated to come up with a new name for her and they didn't do that because they stood their ground and said "This is her name." So she was 'Girl'.
HZ: Her family ended up going to court to fight for her legal name to be Blær. They had to prove there was a precedent for Blær being a female name - it had actually only been registered as masculine since 1998 - and therefore that if this Blær was legally called Blær, it would not damage the Icelandic language. Eventually, the judge overturned the naming committee’s decision, and Blær was legally Blær. But contesting the naming committee is difficult and success is hard-won. Though Blær succeeded, a female Alex did not. And then there’s the case of Jón Gnarr here. It’s his legal name now, but it took enough time to get it.
JÓN GNARR: It was 25 years.
HZ: When he was born, he was named Jón Gunnar Kristinsson.
JÓN GNARR: When I was about 13 or 14, I invented the name for myself, which was Gnarr. And in the beginning it was just short for Gunnar. It was artsy. I was trying to be poetic. I wanted to have like a writer's name. I wanted to become a writer when I grow up. So I wanted to have a writer's name and call myself Gnarr, and it sounded cool and unusual, and I just liked it. And I started calling myself - from when I was 13, 14, I started writing poetry and I would always sign my poems as Jón Gnarr, it was like the poet me. And it grew on me, and with time it became my identity, it became my name. Your name becomes part of you and your identity, so it has an emotional attachment to it. And Gnarr became my name, just with time, and it was just part of what was me, I guess.
HZ: Were you the only Gnarr in Iceland?
JÓN GNARR: Yes. And probably in the whole world. It was something that I invented, it was something that I had created. And it was unique, and it was something people found it interesting and and usually more interesting than being Kristinsson. So it wasn't just cool, it was also interesting and creative and unique. I was really really proud of it.
HZ: When did you decide to legally change it?
JÓN GNARR: I had probably reached the age of 20 when it first occurred to me that I could apply for a name change. And that's when I learned about the strict naming laws here in Iceland. And surnames are basically banned. Family names are banned. And any foreign names at that time were also banned. And of course any creativity is banned. You cannot come up with a nonsense name that doesn't exist, it's absolutely banned. I was applying to be called to be Jón Gnarr, but in my passport I was Jón G. Kristinsson. So I would be called Jón G. Kristinsson, and I don't approve of this system. I find it insufficient and and complicated, and it's not of any importance in my opinion. So when I am travelling - and I have had problems travelling abroad because border control in different countries is not familiar with the Icelandic naming traditions. And so I was I was held at an airport in the US, at Logan International in Boston. I was held there for a whole day because border control didn't understand why I was Kristinsson and the two girls I was travelling with did not have my name, because they were both Jónsdóttir and I was Kristinsson and I said they are my daughters and they just didn't believe it. So they held me there. And as an Icelander, when you're traveling with your family, you all have different last names. Like I had one last name, my wife has another, and our children have completely different last names. So it can create complications when you're travelling and misunderstandings.
HZ: Every couple of years or so, Jón would apply to change his name legally to Jón Gnarr.
JÓN GNARR: And it was always rejected. But I would do it regularly. And I would sometimes get somebody with legal expertise, like a lawyer friend or somebody, who wanted to help me and write a letter or something, or I will find some loophole in the law. My friend whose parents - he was born here in Iceland but his parents are from Poland, they moved to to Iceland from Poland - he has a foreign name and he has a family name. And I would apply on the grounds, like why can he have a name that isn't on your list but I cannot?
HZ: Jón’s arguments didn’t work, though. Eventually, what worked was going 4,000 miles away.
JÓN GNARR: I lived in Houston, Texas for a year after my term as mayor, and I was invited there by Rice University and I was on a residency. And while I was there I applied for a name change, I petitioned for a name change; and as a resident - because if you live there for longer than three months you're considered a resident - I had the right to apply and the judge showed no objection to granting me the name change. So I legally changed my name there. And when I came back to Iceland I went to the national registry with my papers and announced my name change. And they rejected it. At first they rejected it. But then they cannot do it. They cannot. They just couldn't do it because it was a legal name change and so they had to accept it, and so my name became Jón Gnarr, and my children are also Gnarr. Gnarr is now officially an Icelandic family name and my children are allowed to be Gnarr, and my children's children; but not my wife. So the spouse of somebody who has a family name cannot take up the family name. That's one of the regulations, one of the law.
HZ: And after 25 years, when you finally got your legal name, how did you feel?
JÓN GNARR: It was a very big relief. I was really emotional. And everybody in my family was really emotional. And we would cry. And I think I slept for 48 hours or something. And I was of course extremely proud to have my name because I've felt it was my name. It was not the name given to me. But it was my name. So I was just extremely happy to have that confirmed and relieved.
HZ: The naming laws do attract quite a bit of criticism. People are dissatisfied with the different laws if you’re born in Iceland or elsewhere; the ban on family names; the gendering of all the names, and the difficulty it presents for nonbinary and trans people. In recent years the government has considered bills to curtail the naming committee’s powers, or abolish it altogether. But so far, the committee continues. And Jón Gnarr helps people get around it.
JÓN GNARR: I advise people on loopholes because I know all the loopholes, so people will write me and they will ask me like, "We had a baby last week and there's a name we want, we want to name it Snow al Freedom and we know it's absolutely banned in Iceland. How can we name our daughter Snow Al Freedom?" And I will tell them: go to Denmark and you can register into the country and you can do that in a day; then you become residents of Denmark and then go into the nearest church and bring the baby with you and tell them you you want to baptize it there and you want to baptize Snow Al Freedom and they don't have a problem with that in Denmark. So you can name your daughter Snow Al Freedom. And then you just go to your hotel room and rest for the night and then go back to the day after and say, oh, on second thoughts we don't want to stay in Denmark. We want to go back to Iceland. So you unregister, and it doesn't cost you anything because it's like some agreement between Iceland and Denmark because we were their colony for such a long time. And then you go back to Iceland. You can do it in two days. And then you go with the papers from Denmark to the national registry here and you tell them, "Yeah. Our daughter, Snow Al Freedom," and they cannot do anything, because it's already processed in Denmark. So it's easy to bypass; and that's what I encourage people, instead of wasting time and energy on trying to fight it here, just take the fight somewhere else, do it somewhere else. Because they cannot do anything about it. That's how I advise people to solve this problem. Because they are never going to give up, because they get paid for it.
HZ: Would you like any of the laws to be different?
SIGURÐUR KONRÁÐSSON: Yes, I would like to. I would like the law to be more - they have to review those laws, and we have talked about it for many many years, but we have to sit down and think how we should have this. But some people on the Althingi are trying to put through new laws, but they are not too good. They make difficulties, but not lose the problems.
HZ: So what would you prefer to happen?
SIGURÐUR KONRÁÐSSON: I would like to actually have the laws a little bit simpler than they are now. The spirit in the law should be the same as it was 25-30 years ago when when they were accepted in the Althingi. And so we don't have to change the main line in the laws, but we have to make them a little bit more clear. And we are now living in a multicultural society and we have to think about that, and put it into the laws.
JÓN GNARR: Just get rid of the law. They cannot have a strict naming law here in Iceland anymore. They cannot do it. Like with immigration and with people from all around the world moving to here, and with globalization, they cannot do it. It's impossible. And they should just give it up.
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The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a collective of the finest podcasts ever podcasted. One such is The Truth. They make movies for your ears, and their latest is a serial called The Off Season. It’s a thriller that takes place against the backdrop of the MeToo movement, about a TV host who is fired for sexual harrassment, and the aspiring journalist he meets while plotting a comeback. It’s in four parts, I’ve heard the first three and can’t wait for the final installment. I’ll be refreshing my feed until it drops. You can hear The Truth on your favourite podblasters, and at thetruthpodcast.com.
The Truth has been at the vanguard of audio fiction for many years, but if you fancy wrapping your ears around more audio fiction, I would recommend shows by our friends at Welcome To Night Vale. They have a couple of new shows, a musical called Dreamboy, and an Afrofuturistic buddy comedy Adventures in New America. Also, the third season of Within the Wires has just started, and the second season was one of my favourite shows of last year. Each season tells a story through found audio from an alternate universe - relaxation tapes, museum audio guides, and the new season dictated letters and notes from a bureaucrat to his secretary. I love how this concept is playing out. Find all these shows at nightvalepresents.com.
While you’re stocking up on audio fiction, check out The Shadows from the CBC, made by members of our once and forever Radiotopia sibling The Heart. It’s a gorgeous intimate portrait of a relationship - note, it features adult content. It’s beautiful stuff - I felt like I was eavesdropping where we shouldn’t be allowed, but we are allowed because the show is right there in the podcast-listening places!
Podcasts are possible thanks to you diligent and generous listeners. Your randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
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This episode of the Allusionist was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, with music by Martin Austwick, and help from Rikke Houd, Jon Hallur, Sarah Geis, Halla Þórlaug and Chris Berube. Many thanks to Jón Gnarr and Sigurður Konráðsson for speaking to me.
Convene with me in person at one of the live shows in the next month - listings are at theallusionist.org/events. I’m on Facebook and Twitter - search for allusionistshow - and find every episode, the full dictionary entry for the randomly selected words of the day, transcripts of the episodes and additional reading matter about every topic, at the show’s forever home theallusionist.org.