Names are not as local as you might think

April 22, 2012 - 05:00

Njål might sound like an ancient Norwegian name to native Norwegian speakers, but the name has an Irish background. The same is true for other "Norwegian" names.

When it comes to names, Scandinavia and the British Isles have both influenced each other. Not surprisingly, the Nordic name Harald is the source of the English name Harold, according to Professor Gulbrand Alhaug.

All names have an origin, although it is not always easy for researchers to agree on where the name first came into use, or what it actually means.

The name Njål, for example, has been known in Norway since the 10th century AD and has its roots in the name Niall, which is of Irish origin.

But there is controversy over what the name actually means. Some believe the name means giant, others think it means passionate, while a third group thinks it means cloud (as in sky).

Thus says Gulbrand Alhaug, a professor of Nordic Languages at the University of Tromsø.

Kjartan, naval warrior

To Norwegians, the name "Kjartan" may sound as Norwegian as "Njål", but it only came into use in Norway from 1850. It has Irish origins.

According to the Laksdølasaga, Kjartan Olavvson was named after the Irish king Myrkjartan, a name that comes from the word "muircheartach," which means naval warrior. Another explanation for the name is that it comes from the Irish name Certán.

Synnøve is another Norwegian name with its origins in Old English: Sunngifu (which today is Sunniva). "Sunn" means "sun" in English, and "-gifu" means "gift."

There is also the legend of the Irish Princess Sunniva, who escaped from a forced marriage in Ireland and was stranded on the island of Selje in Nordfjord. She died there in a cave, and King Olav Tryggvason is said to have found her there. She was later named to sainthood.


Contact between the Nordic Vikings and Englishmen also led to mutual influences on each other's language. Mildrid can be found in the 14th century in its Old Norse form, Mildri> r. But it was probably borrowed from the Old English Mildthryth, which means mild plus power.

The English name Earl has it roots in the title that is associated with nobility (an Earl), and means Earl or Count.  Earl is the same as the Nordic name Jarl, which means chief or chieftain. Harold is an English form of Harald, and Ivor is an English form of Ivar.

Howard probably has its origins in Old Norse, and is similar to the Norwegian name Håvard. Ronald is also a Scottish-English name that corresponds to the Nordic Ragnvald. Perhaps Ragnvald was lent from Scandinavia to Scotland early on, and it is therefore possible that Ragnvald is actually the origin for the name Ronald.

Herry and Merry

While the trend today is for Norwegian parents to choose English names for their children, this is nothing new.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Norwegians tended to spell English names the way they sounded to the Norwegian ear. So Michael could become Maikel, Harry could be Herry, Mary could be Merry, Frank might be Frenk, and Gladys could be Gledis.

Another variant is for the English name to be pronounced in Norwegian exactly as it is written in English.  An example of this is Steve. "Especially in northern Norway, I have heard the name Steve pronounced Ste-ve (Stayh-vayh in English)," said Alhaug.

"The latest development is to add a silent 'h' to the end of the name, which is another English influence," he says. "The names Sarah, Hannah and Noah are all examples of this. The silent 'h' is a modern phenomenon in Norway, the Norwegians never say 'h' at the end of their words."

University of Tromsø – The Arctic University of Norway is the northernmost university of the world. Read more


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