Understanding Danish Names

Understanding Danish Names

When searching for Danish ancestors it is important to understand the Danish naming traditions. Today most Danish infants get either their father's or mother's family name or a combination of the two. However, that has not always been the case in Denmark.

Before demonstrating the naming traditions with an example from my own family, I must first introduce two Danish words:

Datter = daughter

Søn = son

From around the late 1700s, "søn" was spelled "sen", when used for last names.

A Typical Danish Family from the 1700s

Michel Andersen and Botilla Nielsdatter were maried in Ballum Parish in 1766.

Michel's parents' names were Anders Michelsen & Bodel Nielsdatter.

Botilla's parents' names were Niels Laustsen and Kirsten (her last name is unknown).

Michel and Botilla had 10 children:

  1. Anders Michelsen, named after his father's father. Born in 1767, survived to adulthood.
  2. Niels Michelsen, named after his mother's father. Born in 1769, died in 1772.
  3. Bodel Michelsdatter, named after her father's mother. Born in 1771, died in 1773.
  4. Kirsten Michelsdatter, named after her mother's mother. Born in 1771, survived to adulthood.
  5. Laust Michelsen, seemingly named after his great grandfather. Born in 1771, died in 1772.
  6. Niels Michelsen, named after his dead older brother. Born in 1774, died in 1774.
  7. Bodel Michelsdatter, named after her dead older sister. Born in 1775, died 1778.
  8. Niels Michelsen, named after his dead older brother. Born in 1778, survived to adulthood.
  9. Laust Michelsen, named after his dead older brother. Born in 1781, survived to adulthood.
  10. Bodel Michelsdatter, named after her dead older sister. Born in 1787, survived to adulthood.

Patronymics

The last names of all the male children in the family above were Michelsen (meaning the son of Michel) and of all their female children it was Michelsdatter (the daugther of Michel). In the 1800s, the "datter" ending was replaced by the "sen" ending, so that all children's patronymics ended in "sen" regardless of the gender of the child.

Patronymics were the most common kind of surname in Denmark until 1828, when a church order was sent out to limit the use of patronymics. However, the order was vague in its wording, so it had no real impact. Anyhow, in 1856 a law was passed, which "froze" all family names. In the countryside, the resistance towards the new law was extensive, so patronymics were still used until the late 1800s, but the tradition gradually faded away.

In 2006, a new naming law was passed, which allows the use of patronymics again. Patronymics will probably never dominate Danish surnames again, because many Danes choose to change their surnames into more unique names.

Right now, the most used surname in my family is Hansen, which is the third most common last name among all Danes. However, the number of Danes having that name has fallen by 8% from 2003 to 2009, and according to the Danish Bureau of Statistics the new naming law has had a clear influence on that trend.

Naming after grandparents

First names were given on the basis of a set of elaborate rules, which continued to exist into the beginning of the 1900s, at least in the countryside.

The first male child was normally named after his father's father, the second after his mother's father. The first female child was named after her father's mother and the second after the mother's mother. These rules were followed 100% in this family. The following children could then be named freely. In this case, it seems the 5th child was named after his great grandfather, but it could have been any name the parents liked.

Naming after the dead

Only five of the children survived to adulthood. When a child died the next child should be named after the dead one. The 2nd child Niels died in 1772 and his next brother was born in 1774 and was therefore named after him. Often, it was in fact the following child - and not only the following child of same gender - which was named after a dead sibling. This resulted in a lot of new names, like Nielsine and Hansine (the female versions of the male names Niels and Hans).

The rule of naming after the dead sometimes created variances in the sequence of which grandparent the child was named after, because the names of the dead preceded those of the living, meaning if the paternal grandfather was still alive, but the maternal was not, then the first born son could be named after his mother's father rather than his father's father. If you see a shift in the sequence, it could be a hint that the person being omitted from the sequence was still alive at the time the grandchild was born.

Nicknames

The most common first names among males were Jens, Hans, Peter and Niels and due to the naming traditions explained above, some men in a village had exactly the same names. As a result, some other means of distinction was needed.

Nicknames were therefore given to a lot of men and in some families these nicknames ended up as surnames in later generations - although sometimes in a slightly altered version. For instance my grandmother's last name was Juhl, which is derived from the word "hjuler" meaning wheeler. I have not found the wheeler, yet, but I am certain that somewhere along the line a wheeler used to exist. A man who moved to a new village could also be named after the place he came from. The names Hvistendal and Dræby are examples of that.

Literacy and spelling

Until the mid 1800s, the majority of the Danish population was illiterate, and therefore the spelling of names was not considered important to most people. A consequence of this is that names were spelled according to how the person writing it thought it should be spelled and therefore the same person's name could be spelled in various ways depending on the source. Here are some examples:

1) Kristian = Christian
2) Katrine = Kathrine = Catrine = Cathrine
3) Ane = Anne, and Johane = Johanne
4) Magrete = Magrethe = Margrete = Margrethe, and Malene = Marlene
5) Lene = Lena

These names illustrate some of the "rules" which did after all exist when spelling a name. "K" could be interchanged with "C(h)", as shown by the first 2 examples. Within names, "n" could be either double or single, as shown in example 3. Example 4 shows that "r" could be put in after "Ma" and also that "h" could be put in between "t" and "e" - example 2 shows that "h" could also be placed between "t" and "r". The last example shows that "e" and "a" at the end of names could be interchanged - this actually also goes for all the names in examples 2, 3 and 4, so there are many possible spellings, which you should be aware of when searching for your Danish roots.

As the population in general learned to read and write, a specific spelling was chosen. Each family might not have chosen the same spelling, which is why all of the above spellings are still used today - only it has become a matter of preference how it should be spelled and furthermore the pronunciation is often different based on the spelling.

The conclusion is that you cannot be sure that you and I are related, simply if you have an ancestor named Hansen, because a lot of unrelated Danes were - and still are - named Hansen.