Norwegian naming practices are unique and can be a bit confusing.
Traditionally, there were three parts, the first name, the patronymic
and the farm name such as Erik Jonsen Bakke, and we'll deal with them
First names are simple, there are the ancient Norse names such as Olaf,
Håkon, Bjørn and Erik. When Christianity came in the 11th
century there was a profusion of Christian names such as Peder, Jon,
Paul and Johan.
There was a tradition that was fairly rigidly followed until the 19th
century. Children were usually named after a grandparent or other
family members. A first son would be named after his father's father, a
second son after the mother's father. A similar situation occurred with
daughters. This could get a little complicated if both grandparents had
the same name. Using our example, if there were two Erik Jonsens in the
family, they might be distinguished as Big-Erik and Little-Erik.
Children could also be named after deceased uncles and aunts and even
deceased siblings and occasionally after a great-grandparent. Quite
commonly a widowed spouse in a second marriage would name the first
child after the deceased spouse.
Patronyms are probably the most confusing aspect of Norwegian naming
practices. The name patronym or patronymic derives from late Latin
patronymicum from patr- (father) + onyma (name)]: a name derived from
that of the father or a paternal ancestor usually by the addition of a
In the case of Norway this was practiced by adding the suffix '-sen'
(son) or '-datter' (daughter) to the father's name. For example if Jon
had a son Erik, he would be known as Erik Jonsen, or a daughter might
be known as Marit Jonsdatter. The patronym was not a surname but just
an expression of who their father was. Women would retain their
patronym when they married.
Then there are the farm names. All farms in Norway have a name, in
addition to the Land Registry numeric descriptions. Most of these farm
names are a geographic description of the farm. Bakke or Bakken, for
example means a hill and the name would be applied to a farm up the
hill. Since there might be more than one Erik Jonsen in a community,
they would be distinguished by adding the farm name to the rest of
their name. Our man might be known as Erik Jonsen Bakke, or commonly
just Erik Bakke. Again, these were not surnames. Erik Jonsen Bakke only
means Erik, Jon's son, who lives on the Bakke farm. The Bakke can be
considered an address.
As society modernized and the state became more involved in people's
affairs, this system became a problem. So, in the late 1800s the
government asked people to voluntarily take a fixed surname and for
women to drop the -datter in favour of -sen and, when married, to take
their husband's surname. It was made compulsory in 1923. Most people
used patronymic surnames when they settled the issue of a surname.
An interesting observation. Iceland, which was settled by Norwegians,
still retains the old patronymic system. It may seem strange to us, but
people refer to each other by first name and even the telephone books
are listed by first names.