Researching Scandinavia: Understanding Patronymics

When I first learned about Scandinavian genealogical records and the variety and wealth of information that they contained, I wished I had a Scandinavian branch on my family tree.

I was ecstatic when I discovered I actually did have one, but my enthusiasm waned when it became a 30-year brick wall. Technology brought that wall tumbling down and I jumped in, despite the fact that I don’t speak any Scandinavian languages.

I’ve met a number of genealogists who also have Scandinavian ancestors in their own family trees, but have never made any attempt to research them because they think it will be too hard.

Hence, my decision to write a few posts to help readers understand the patronymic naming system (which seems to boggle the minds of many, but it is really pretty simple to understand) and the system of records available that will make your family tree blossom.

First, which countries make up the region known as Scandinavia? Answer: Denmark, Norway and Sweden. There are arguments about whether Finland is part of the region, but Finns are an ethnically different group and they do not identify themselves as Scandinavians.

As I write about Scandinavian records, I personally have delved deep into Danish and Swedish records so can speak to those quite easily. I have only dabbled in Norwegian records while on the hunt for my mtDNA common ancestor, but Norway’s records are similar to the others.

Before one attempts to step into Scandinavian research, it is imperative that the concept of patronymics is understood. If not, you will be chasing all the wrong families.


Patronymics is a Greek word that simply means the father’s name, i.e. PATRO (or PATER “father”) and NYM (or name).

In Scandinavia, children’s surnames were simply their father’s first name plus the word SON or DAUGHTER added to it.

Henry Davidson was Henry, the son of David.
Susannah Michaelsdaughter was Susannah, the daughter of Michael.

The part that confuses people is that the father’s last name follows the same pattern. Therefore, Henry Davidson might be the son of David, but David is the son of John, so he is called David Johnson.

Likewise, Susannah Michaelsdaughter is the daughter of Michael, but he might be the son of Andrew, so is called Michael Andrewson.

This sounds confusing, doesn’t it? It’s not! Suppose you have the pedigree chart below. It’s a great visual aid, will make this process easy to understand. Just an aside – This is just a quick hand drawn chart, which hubby (my official scanner) thinks looks askew, but it works for my purpose!

The yellow highlighted names show the patronymic changes. I only went back to grandparents on this chart, but highlighted part of those four surnames in red. Those names provide the given name of the parents in the next generation back.

We don’t yet know what surname the earlier generations will have, but the given names of the next generation of fathers are John, Stephen, Stephen and Paul.

The pedigree chart also makes it easy to see that although Susan and John both have fathers named Stephen, that doesn’t mean that they are related.

In U.S. research finding two Stephensons that close in a family tree might make us wonder if related Stephensons married into the family. Not so in the patronymic system.

Does this help? Are you feeling comfortable with how the patronymics system works? A later post will talk about how you use this information to trace back generations, but for now, you just need to understand the method used to name everyone.

There is one more part to understanding patronymics. Eventually, there came a time when there were too many men named John who was the son of John. Something had to be done to differentiate among two or three or more people in the village who met this criteria.

What was the solution? Well, names more like our typical surnames were added to the patronymic. With two John Johnsons in town, one might receive an additional name of Brown because he lived in a brown house, while the other man lived in a white one. John Johnson then became known as John Johnson Brown.

From that point on, until Scandinavian surnames became stabilized in the late 19th century and passed down intact from generation to generation, it will be necessary to keep an eye out for records using EITHER John Johnson or John Johnson Brown.

Another example of a new surname popping up in the family for the first time is military service. If 2 or 3 John Johnsons were too much to handle in a small village, imagine a dozen John Johnsons in one army regiment. Those men might have returned home and continued to use their new surnames – Brown, Rivers, Short, etc. – or not! Again, it will be necessary to watch for both versions of a person’s name.

Tomorrow is Friday and the Family History Finds will post, so the next lesson on Scandinavian records will be on Saturday.

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