The Social Hierarchy of European Naming Restrictions

The Social Hierarchy of European Naming Restrictions

North America and Europe are different. That’s not a huge shocker. We all know about the historical, geographical, political and demographical differences between the two. I have not heard much about the differences in personal names. Obviously many of the differences here can be easily explained by looking at the demographics of the United States and the countries in Europe. Polish names are common in Poland and Swedish names are common in Sweden. What kind of names are popular in the US is dependent upon who lives where. That is all well and good. I’m not an American so I’m no expert on the legal system in the US or the laws of the country. But I have never come across laws governing what sort of names parents can give to their children. At least not to the extent that such restrictions are common in Europe.

I will speak about two case studies (because I’m not familiar with the situation in the other European countries). Norway has a law called “The Name Law”. One of the paragraphs of this law states that surnames used by fewer than 200 people are protected. It is illegal to give your baby (or yourself through a name change) a name that is protected unless everyone that currently has that name gives their consent. Every single one. During the US presidential election season I watched a video about a guy with the name Donald Trump that lived in some rural place. He had had his name for a very long time, even before the “other” Trump became famous and a success story (and now President!). In fact the newsstory mentioned another guy with the same name. You can commonly read about parents in Africa naming their children after famous people in the West. Barack Obama being an example. From this I can deduce that strict naming restrictions are absent in many (or at least some) parts of the world. Iceland is another example of a country with strict naming laws. As far as I know surnames have to be picked from a list of approved names by the government. Want to choose a different name? No bueno.

What is the purpose of these kind of laws? As far as Iceland is concerned, they have a very small population size. I believe that their restrictions are mostly due to their politicians wanting to protect the Icelandic identity and culture. Norway on the other hand is very different. The Nordic countries are famous for their flat social hierarchy. They don’t really have an elite class of people running the show. Or do we? A name is key to identity. A name can equal power. Many of the wealthy, politically connected and culturally influential citizens of Norway have distinct surnames. As a Norwegian myself I can instantly recognize such names. They remind me of important historical figures. They sound aristocratic and “posh”. As someone with a common surname I’m aware of the difference. Nobody bats an eye at my surname, but if I had one of the special names people would instantly be curious about my family and its importance.

Thus the Norwegian naming restrictions serve to protect the elite. In effect it creates a kind of “soft” social aristocracy/social hierarchy in a country that has the self-image of egalitarianism.





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