Blaer Bjarkardottir, a 15-year-old Icelandic teen, isn’t allowed to go by her given name in her home country. She’s known officially as “Stulka” – meaning “girl” in Icelandic – because her given name, which translates to “light breeze,” is not on the government’s approved list of 1,853 female names.
Blaer and her mother, Bjork Eidsdottir, are now suing the state for the right to use her given name. Iceland has strict rules about what you can name a person. Speaking with the Associated Press, Bjork explained that she “had no idea that the name wasn’t on…the famous list of names that you can choose from.”
The country’s personal names register contains some 3,500 approved male and female names. As Icelandic last names follow a patronymic system (son of or daughter of the father’s name), people are known by their forename.
Under (a rather exhaustive) Icelandic law, a child must be given a name within six months of its birth. If parents wish to choose a name that is not already on the names register, they may fill out an application and pay 3,000 ISK ($23) to have the proposed name evaluated by the Icelandic naming committee. This committee determines whether the proposed name is in fitting with Icelandic language, gender and cultural conventions, as well as to make sure that it does not cause embarrassment — perhaps a prerequisite some parents should have taken into consideration before naming their child Ljótur (“ugly”).
Agusta Thorbergsdottir, the head of the naming committee, explained in an interview with the Reykjavik Grapevine, that their work is not about “personal taste” but instead finding compliance with the law. No other government body can overturn the committee’s ruling, but Blaer and her mother say they are prepared to take them all the way to the Supreme Court if a lower court does not overturn the committee’s decision by January 25.
“So many strange names have been allowed,” said Blaer’s mother to the AP, perhaps referring to the permission of names like “Elvis,” which both speaks to the prevalence of rock music and fits Icelandic conventions. It’s “even more frustrating because Blaer is a perfectly Icelandic name,” she said. Nonetheless, the panel rejected Blaer’s name on the grounds that it takes a masculine article, forcing her to be identified simply as “girl” on her official documents. While Icelandic naming conventions may seem unusual, there are many other European countries, including Germany and Denmark, that enact similar rules for name-giving so that monikers adhere to linguistic rules and won’t lead to embarrassment.
But the laws over child-naming have relaxed in recent years. Up until 1995, foreigners who obtain Icelandic citizenship were required to take on an Icelandic name and any children they had under 15 years were forced to forego their given name in place of an Icelandic name. This law has now been reversed, though all children born in Iceland are still required to have one Icelandic forename.