Nonbinary patronymics in Iceland

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  1. John Roth said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 6:08 pm

    Is the non-binary suffix assigned by the parents, or is it chosen by a person when ce is an adult?

  2. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 7:35 pm

    And can people who identify as male or female use "-bur" if they want, maybe to show support for their non-binary friends?

  3. Chandra said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 8:25 pm

    According to the comments on the Twitter thread, it seems that people's patronymics must match their officially registered gender, so nonbinary people switch to this suffix once they have registered their gender as X.

  4. Kevin Cole-Meneses said,

    June 29, 2019 @ 10:07 pm

    What is used instead of a patronymic if one (male, female, or non-binary) has no father (e.g. the child of a lesbian couple or of — in the future — a non-binary couple)?

  5. maidhc said,

    June 30, 2019 @ 3:27 am

    Some years ago I knew someone from Iceland who had a non-patronymic name. I suppose someone in his family must have come from another country. I happened to be in Iceland and I wanted to look him up. This involved using the Icelandic telephone directory. Until that time I had never considered the problem of finding someone in the telephone directory when all the names are based on patronymics. My friend was relatively young and I imagine he was living with his parents. If he had a patronymic surname then of course his father's surname would have been totally different.

    Since my friend was one of the few people in Iceland with a non-patronymic surname, I was able to find someone in the telephone directory with the same surname. When I called them, they knew who he was. I was informed that he was on a fishing boat that was out at sea, so our plans to meet up did not work out.

    I guess the telephone directory worked for Icelanders because it was such a small population that everyone kind of knew everyone else. My story is from several decades ago, so things may be much different now.

    Let me add a little anecdote. On this same trip I was wandering around Reykjavík when I saw a sign with a big arrow directing people to something. Evidently a site of some importance, judging from the size of the sign. I thought "I'll go and have a look at it, whatever it is". I set off in the indicated direction, but at the next intersection I saw another sign for the same place directing me off to the left. Certain that I was getting closer to the goal, I set off again. But at the next intersection, there was yet another sign for the same place, but pointing me back in the opposite direction from the one I had started on.

    Only then did the thought dawn on me "I wonder what is the Icelandic for One Way Street?"

  6. Avinor said,

    June 30, 2019 @ 4:29 am

    maidhc: I thought the telephone directory (back when those existed) was sorted by first name?

    Native Icelanders with proper surnames are uncommon, but not extremely uncommon. Well-known examples are former prime minister Geir Haarde, author Halldór Laxness, and (father and son) football players Arnór Guðjohnsen and Eiður Guðjohnsen.

    Kevin Cole-Meneses: The use of matronymics is long-established in cases when, for whatever reason, a patronymic is unsuitable.

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    June 30, 2019 @ 5:38 am

    I did exactly the same on my first visit to Germany — carefully noted the name of the street in which my hotel was situated, but only realised some time later (when lost) that there were many Einbahnstraßen in this particular town …

  8. RP said,

    June 30, 2019 @ 9:46 am

    According to Wikipedia, Geir Haarde inherited his surname from a Norwegian immigrant father, whilst Halldór Laxness was born with a patronymic and changed it to a proper surname – a practice which Wikipedia suggests was outlawed shortly afterwards ("Since 1925, one cannot adopt a family name unless one explicitly has a legal right to do so through inheritance. (The law was amended in 1991 and 1996)".)

  9. Athel Cornish-Bowden said,

    June 30, 2019 @ 1:03 pm

    I'm not sure if I've ever looked in phone book in Portugal or Brazil, but one thing I noticed in both countries is that lists of students (for example) are often listed by alphabetical order according to first names. I don't know why that should be, but it might be that the Portuguese are very unsystematic about how they write family names. If I were Spanish I would be Athel Cornish-Bowden Duncan and everyone would know to look me up under C. If I were Portuguese I could be either that or Athel Duncan Cornish-Bowden, or even, if I decided to go back another generation (as some Portuguese people do) Athel McMurtry Duncan Kitson Cornish-Bowden. The only way that everyone knows where to look is to use first names for alphabetical order.

    I didn't think of it until I was typing the above, but names like McMurtry invoke a difference between American and British practices.In the traditional British system, now breaking down under American influence, it would be ordered as if spelt MacMurtry (but still written as McMurtry), bur I think in the USA it would be ordered as written.

  10. A J CORNISH BOWDEN said,

    June 30, 2019 @ 1:08 pm

    Philip Taylor's comment reminds me of a time I almost died of exposure inBerlin while trying to find my hoteL

    My travel agent had booked me into Stammhaus Berlin. I didn't know that that just meant Hotel Berlin (I should have, as it wasn't all that long ago) , but I didn't. I saw a big sign that said "Hotel Berlin", but I didn't realize that that was what I wanted. It was very cold and there was a lot of snow on the ground.

  11. Bob Ladd said,

    June 30, 2019 @ 3:22 pm

    @maidhc,@Philip Taylor

    And I've had the same experience looking for a non-existent place called "Innesto" in Sardinia (I eventually learned that it means a spur or side road off a numbered highway).

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 30, 2019 @ 6:21 pm

    Chandra: Thanks for answering my question.

    My next question is whether this means Iceland has reached the Einstein intersection. In that book male characters were addressed with the honorific "Lo", as in "Lo Lobey", female characters with "La", and others with "Le".

  13. Brett said,

    June 30, 2019 @ 9:42 pm

    @Athel Cornish-Bowden: You are mistaken. Standard American alphabetization practice places "Mc" with "Mac." If this system is breaking down in Britain, it's not because of American influence. A more likely explanation for a change would be the failure of some electronic directory systems to be programmed to account for this rule.

  14. R. Fenwick said,

    July 1, 2019 @ 1:49 am

    @Kevin Cole-Meneses:
    What is used instead of a patronymic if one (male, female, or non-binary) has no father (e.g. the child of a lesbian couple or of — in the future — a non-binary couple)?

    A matronymic, of course. :) Matronymic names are formed just as patronymics are: the genitive of the parent's name plus either –son or –dottir (or –bur). They aren't common, but have been long known in Iceland. The late 10th-century poet Eilífr Goðrúnarson, author of Þórsðrápa ("Thor's Lay"), was an early bearer.

  15. Cindy said,

    July 1, 2019 @ 5:28 am

    @Brett: I've worked at several public libraries in the US and we alphabetize fiction by author's last name. Mac and Mc are definitely treated differently and all Mcs would be shelved after Macs.

  16. Rodger C said,

    July 1, 2019 @ 10:21 am

    In the public library I once worked in, Mc and Mac were grouped together at the beginning of the Ms. This included Machiavelli.

  17. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    July 1, 2019 @ 10:24 am

    Regarding Mc and Mac: I recall index card dividers (such as in a Rolodex) having separate cards for M and Mc, so names beginning with Mc we're not alphabetized with the other M names, but treated separately.

    That said, I don't know if Mac names were included with the Mc names, or with the M names. Hmmmmm.

  18. RP said,

    July 1, 2019 @ 1:15 pm

    There are some languages where the sort order used in telephone directories conventionally has special characteristics (for example, according to Wikipedia, "for [German] phone directories and similar lists of names, the umlauts are to be collated like the letter combinations "ae", "oe", "ue" because a number of German surnames appear both with umlaut and in the non-umlauted form with "e" (Müller/Mueller)").

    That said, the Mc/Mac rule was apparently once applied much more widely. But Wikipedia also claims that it is now associated mainly with British phone directories: "this type of alphabetization is less frequently encountered, though it is still used in British telephone directories" ( ).

    There's a whole Wp article on the subject – which notes the 1942 American Library Association Rules for Filing Catalog Cards rules, which included treating Mc as equivalent to Mac.

    Even though those 1942 rules had been cited by Donald Knuth in a 1970s book apparently alluding to the need for software to take account of these rules, it seems software developers generally fell short of the task, resulting in the rules being abandoned. Similarly, in Danish "aa" should be sorted as equivalent to "å" if it's a Danish long a, but as two a's if it's a German double a. Doesn't necessarily mean it'll happen, nowadays.

  19. Ellen K. said,

    July 1, 2019 @ 4:52 pm

    The American library where I work used to shelf Mc and Mac together as if they were all Mac, but we changed a few years ago to alphabetizing as spelled.

    I do remember when I started working there, many years ago, asking which way there were done, as I was away of these names varying in how they are alphabetized.

  20. Ace said,

    July 2, 2019 @ 1:30 pm

    According to the news article I link to above, it appears that in addition to permitting "-bur" for the patronymic, they are also abolishing the rule restricting given names by gender, so that any given name can be given to a child of any gender. (There was a ruckus a few years back about a child whose mother wanted to name her Blær, meaning "breeze", and was refused on the grounds that "blær" is a masculine noun. She challenged the decision in court, arguing in particular that an important Icelandic novelist had used the name for a female character, and won.)

  21. KevinM said,

    July 2, 2019 @ 4:01 pm

    (1) @Cornish-Bowden: I had a friend, hand to God, who during a visit to France remarked that the "Hotel de Ville" chain seemed to be ubiquitous. I suppose he would have noticed the false-cognate translation if he'd tried to check in. (2) As a person with a "Mc" name, I can state that in my youth it was often, and annoyingly, alphabetized separately from the rest of the M listings, including "Mac" names. I see that far less often today, perhaps because alphabetization is now done by an algorithm that doesn't have whatever human preconceptions (about ethnicity? consecutive consonants?) that produced the old system.

  22. Philip Taylor said,

    July 2, 2019 @ 5:05 pm

    I too once tried to check in at an Hotel de Ville; my request provoked not a moment's hesitation but simply a suggestion that I should perhaps try one of the short list of hotels which the person to whom I had spoken then produced. I very much suspect that I was neither the first nor the last Briton to make such a request, and that the staff were so inured to it that they treated it as a normal part of the working day.

    P.S. Does "hand to God" mean the same as "honest to God" (i.e., a declaration that one is absolutely not lying) ?

  23. KevinM said,

    July 3, 2019 @ 8:41 am

    @Philip Taylor. Yes. It means "I swear," or "As God is my witness," although it has a somewhat informal or jocular quality. Specifically, I believe it alludes to the taking of an oath (left hand on the Bible, right hand to God). It may be a New Jerseyism; at any rate, it's common around these parts. BTW, HdV's market saturation would be the envy of McDonald's; one in every town!

  24. Athel Cornish-Bowden said,

    July 10, 2019 @ 10:37 am

    @Philip Taylor. Have you ever tried to check in to the Hôtel de Police? Any accommodation they might offer wouldn't be very comfortable!

    @Brett. I have just remembered to do something that I intended to do 10 days ago. I have checked in the Chicago Manual of Style to see what they say about Mc names. They say (§18.71 15th Edition) what I expected ("Names beginning with Mac or Mc are alphabetized letter by letter, as they appear.") However, they recognize that that style isn't universal in American usage, and note that Merriam-Webster doesn't agree.

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