Can the Government Outlaw Your Name?
A teen in Iceland wins the right to use her own name legally
Icelandic is one of the oldest languages. (Jim McMahon)
For years, friends and family in Iceland have known the young girl by her first name, Blaer. But her passport and school documents referred to her only as stúlka, which means “girl.” Why? The name Blaer was considered illegal by her country’s government. But last Thursday, the 15-year-old won a lawsuit finally allowing her to use the name given by her mother.
A NAME VS. A NATION
Names in Iceland are chosen from a list called the Personal Names Register. Parents can choose from 1,712 names for boys and 1,853 names for girls. Blaer is an Icelandic word, but it is not an official name.
When Blaer was born, her mother chose her name, which means “gentle breeze” in Icelandic. A priest baptized the baby with the name, but then later informed the family that “Blaer” was not a girl’s name approved by the government.
“I had no idea that the name wasn’t on the list,” explains her mom, Björk Eiðsdóttir.
The family asked a special government committee to allow Blaer to keep her name. But the committee rejected the request, saying the name sounded too masculine. Instead of picking a new name, Blaer chose to continue using the one her mother had given her.
Years later, Blaer was tired of being known as “girl” on official documents. So she decided to sue the government. In court, she said she had used the name Blaer all her life without any problems. Last week, she won the right to officially use the name.
“I’m very happy. I’m glad this is over,” Blaer says. “Finally, I’ll have the name Blaer in my passport.”
First names are very important in Iceland. The country’s phone book is arranged alphabetically in order of first name, not last name. That’s because last names (called surnames) are based on the parents’ first names in Iceland. Blaer’s last name, Bjarkardóttir, for example, means “Bjarkar’s daughter.” Bjarkar is her father’s first name, and dóttir means “daughter.”
Iceland has one of the oldest languages in the world. Authorities say the name list helps preserve (keep strong or maintain) the country’s language by helping parents choose names that follow its rules for pronunciation and grammar. For example, names such as Cory or Christina are not allowed because the letter C does not exist in Icelandic. Several other countries also have lists of approved names to preserve their languages, such as Germany and Japan.