Naming Traditions


A crash course in Danish naming traditions:

The basics: (By Ulrich Alster Klug) Surnames are a very recent development in Denmark. You cannot conduct research along the Danish lines of your family based upon the surname of an ancestor in the United States because up until the mid-1800's, 99% of the people in Denmark used "patronyms." What is a patronym? This can best be explained by example.

Let us start with a man named Jens Pedersen. The sons of Jens Pedersen would have the 'last' name (or sometimes 'middle' name) of Jensen, not Pedersen. Now say one of Jens' sons was named Hans. The sons of Hans Jensen would have the 'last' name of Hansen, not Jensen. Now let's say that one of Hans' sons was named Anders. His son's names would be -- you got it -- Andersen. See the pattern? The corresponding name for the daughters was Jensdatter, Hansdatter, and Andersdatter. So there is no reason to suppose that one Jensen was related to another Jensen, or one Hansen to another Hansen unless they were brothers. You are more likely to find your family from the PLACE they were born in Denmark rather then from their American surnames. Therefore, it suggested that when you make your postings to the Denmark List, that you also list the place in Denmark where your family is from in addition to the name you are looking for.

(By Paula Goodfellow) One nice thing about Danish naming traditions is that a woman kept her "last name" all her life. In earlier times, up to the 1840s or so, her name will be taken from her father's and will end in -datter. Around the 1840's you'll begin to see daughters named for their fathers, but with -sen. So the daughter of Niels Sørensen will be named Ane Nielsen. Later those patronyms will begin to be used as fixed surnames. My maiden name was Jensen, and that has been our family's surname since only about 1850. My great great grandfather was named Christen Jensen, born 1821, and his father's name was Jens Christensen. Christen's descendants all used Jensen for their last name.

Different regions of the country may have had slightly different traditions and the changes phased in at different times in different parts of the country-- so keep an open mind of what the name might be when you are looking for your ancestors.

Advanced naming traditions: (By Lars Jørgen Helbo, posted to the Denmark list.) I must admit that I am a bit confused, why some people seems to be so upset about the issue of surnames. I wonder if it is in part a language-problem. In Danish we talk about slægtsnavn, patronyms and tilnavn.

Slægtsnavn is what I use to translate with family-name. It is also, what is usually meant, when talking about surnames. This is the kind of names, which are now used in Europe, North America etc. Such a name is handed over from father to children according to a set of fixed rules - usually described in official legislation.

Patronyms (both Danish and English) are also handed over from father to children based on a set of fixed rules. But the rules for patronym and slægtsnavn are very different. Nevertheless both sets of rules are fixed and rather strict and they are based on family relationships. Therefore, if you know the rules, then you can in both cases make conclusions about family-relationships based on the names - and this is off course useful for genealogists.

Tilnavn is what I use to call added names. The problem with these names is that there are NO rules for their use. They are given, adopted and used on a case-by-case basis. A man might get the name Snedker because he had a father, a brother, a father in law or an uncle of his wife, who used to have this name. He may get it because he lives in a house, where somebody else (completely unrelated) with this name used to live 20 years ago. He may also get it, because he actually is a Snedker (Carpenter).

The lack of rules mean that these names are not terribly useful in our research. They _may_ tell us something about relationships; but we never really know, what it is that these names try to tell us. What they can do however is to mislead us. We are so used to the fixed rules of slægtsnavn and patronyms that we very often tend to unconsciously take for given that a tilnavn would work the same way and give us the same information about relationships. This may of course be true, but it may just as well be wrong.

Because of this trap, it is so important to realise when a name belongs to one group or the other. In determining this we can of course look at the years of legislation: 1526 slægtsnavne becomes mandatory for the nobility. 1771 slægtsnavne becomes mandatory in Schleswig-Holstein, 1828 slægtsnavne becomes mandatory in Denmark, 1856 the law from 1828 is reinforced because so few cared about it and 1904 changing slægtsnavn becomes allowed.

But as has also been said, the time of transmission was pretty long. There are no rules for the use of tilnavne, therefore anybody who liked to, could use and give them before 1828 according to the rules for slægtsnavne. This was done in some areas (towns, upper class and German-influenced). The problem is that you never really know, if they were really given because people wanted to imitate the use of slægtsnavne or for some completely different reason.

My great-great-grandfather Henrik Anthon Funck Pedersen was born in 1819. He was born on the island of Langeland, which was under heavy German influence, as the local Count had also a lot of land in Schleswig. He was in a village, but the family belonged to a group of rather rich farmers, people, who had owned their farms even during stavnsbåndet. On this background, on this place and so close to 1828, I went directly into the trap and thought his father should also have the name Funck. But he had not- there is no other Funck in the family. Of course his father might have been a Funck, but what is the use of a rule that only works now and then?

Also closer to the present day, we may get fooled. My name Helbo was used as a tilnavn since at least 1680. In 1840 at the baptism of my great-grandfather we got our first slægtsnavn - that was Pedersen. So the family had Pedersen as slægtsnavn, but continued to use Helbo as tilnavn. E.g. my oldest uncles and aunts were:

Ellen Goth Pedersen born 1913
Poul Helbo Pedersen born 1914
Hans Helbo Pedersen born 1916

Then finally in 1917 the family applied for a change of family-name. That way we finally got Helbo as slægtsnavn. Before 1917 it was tilnavn. As a result of this my uncles and aunts became:

Ellen Goth Pedersen Helbo born 1913
Poul Helbo Pedersen Helbo born 1914
Hans Helbo Pedersen Helbo born 1916
Sven Helbo born 1918
Gudrun Helbo born 1920

But the three brothers of my grandfather, who emigrated to the US before 1900 were still Pedersen ;-)

Christening customs:

The following was posted to the Denmark List by Ulrich Alster Klug pertaining to identifying witnesses at christenings and naming customs.
It was not until mid last century, that the parents occur among the witnesses. The witnesses had to make sure the child was educated in the right Christian faith if the parents died. Therefore having the parents of the child (or very old family members) was considered somewhat foolish. The witnesses are usually family - often brothers and sisters of the child's parents.

Usually the child was carried to the font by a young girl or a married female member of the family. The tradition varies from parish to parish. In some parts of the country, the custom was to have a godmother who was respectable (no issues before marriage) and married. The child's 'christening-hat' would be held during the christening ceremony by an unmarried member of the family (this so that she would become fertile), and of course she was to be of good reputation too (no issues before marriage).

If a grandmother or great-grandmother was still alive, she might be the one who held the child. This was something that a family could be very proud of, since so many people died very young.

There had to be from two to five godfathers and -mothers. Usually two women and three men. More that that was not allowed for the peasants. This was so to decrease the christening parties and consumption among the lower classes. Also the peasants were not allowed to use knitted jackets nor lace broader than four inches. (It seems that at least some peasants were rather well off!!). The number of guests at a wedding and the amount of luxury goods they were allowed to consume at the party was also limited by law.

The best men (at a wedding) usually were the bride's and the groom's fathers. If they were dead, it would have been the brothers or uncles if that was possible.

Sometimes people of high birth, or superiors of the family, or people superior to the family in regard to financial state or rank in society are chosen. Also family could have been chosen, but this is most likely among the most well off part of a family. The upper ones were god parents of the less fortunate ones because the godparents often used their influence to benefit the child, for example, to make sure it got an education, to let it join the army as an officer, and so on.

When a child was born to a married couple, the phrase would be like this:
Parents: Farmer Jens Nielsen and wife Maren born Larsdatter on Søndergaard
- Søndergaard would then be the name of the farm.
If a child was illegitimate, the entry would something like:
Parents: The girl (or unmarried female person if it was her second bastard child) Maren Jensdatter, who is in service of farmer Ole Christensen on Ebberup Mark. Alleged as the childs father was Jens Pedersen from Nykøbing Falster, who is a soldier there.
If a figure is stated (from about 1840 an on) after the mother's name, this would be her age.

Burial Customs:

Graves in Denmark are only "rented" and the tombstones are often removed after 10, or 30 years and the site is used for a new grave. Ten years is if the body has been cremated. If the body has been buried without cremation, then the grave must stay for 30 years. The difference is just to make sure that nothing is left. After 30 years the worms have turned dust into dust, so there is no need to do anything special for the previous remains. Remains are buried with no personal effects as is sometimes common in other countries. It is very unusual to find a tombstone that is more than 100 years old in a cemetary. It is different from place to place, but in most cases the cemetary belongs to the church. However, in some cities, the city often has its own cemetary. Perhaps saying that the graves are "rented" is a wrong choice of words as it varies from town to town. Generally, the grave itself does not cost anything. However, it must be maintained. So if one lives close to the grave and can go there twice a month to maintain it, there is no problem. But in many cases, the family moves to another town and can not do this themselves. In that case, they must pay for grave maintenance, and this can be pretty expensive. Also, a family may have to pay something for the grave if they are not a member of the church. When it comes time for the grave to be reused, the tombstone can be lined up along a fence at the edge of the cemetary, or it may simply be removed. As far as what can be inscribed on the tombstone, it is very different from one family to another. One may see names, professions, dates and places for birth and death, while on the other hand, one may also see nothing but the name and maybe a text like "rest in peace". Finally, you will never find any information on a tombstone that you could not find much easier and better in the churchbook.

The image on this site is a couple outside their cottage in Halsted about 1900. (Personal collection of Paula Goodfellow.)

Design by Paula Goodfellow
Information and text by Paula Goodfellow, Betty Jack, Rock Johnson and other members of the Denmark Rootsweb email list.
Inages and text copyright 2004-2012.
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Page last updated September 3, 2012