There’s nobody here called Hreggviður

14 January 2011

Icelanders just don’t have names like the rest of us. It’s as simple as that, and, yes, this can result in the occasional headache. One of the criticisms of Frozen Out so far, and note bene, it’s not in any bookshops for another week, is those weird, unfamiliar Icelandic names. People get confused by the strangeness of Gunnhildur, Bjarni, Skúli, Bára, Vilhjálmur, Bjössi, Fjóla and all the rest of of them. On top of that, there are remarkably few surnames as Icelanders generally have a patronymic, or, less commonly, a matronymic, in which a person carries the first name of his or her father of mother, essentially as an identifier.
Jónas Snorrason. Jónas, the son of Snorri. Margrét Egilsdóttir. Margrét the daughter of Egill. Simple, really.
The problem, I believe, is partly that the majority of names are so unfamiliar to our western ears. We’re used to largely Biblical names, while Scandinavians still hold on to the old Norse names that sound both exotic and slightly uncomfortable to our ears with their pagan, Viking overtones.
In writing Frozen Out (Frozen Assets in the US), I actually took great pains to keep the names from being too complex or awkward. Most of the time I have been careful to avoid the more awkward names. Names of people that call for the ð letter have been carefully avoided wherever possible.
Þ isn’t such a headache, as it can safely be replaced with th, but ð is a different kettle of fish. Þ is a softish th (as in bath), while ð is a harder th (as in bathe) that’s a pig to replicate for us English speakers. There’s no Þórður Guðnason in Frozen Out, primarily because I felt uncomfortable giving these names that roll off the tongue an unaccustomed clunky intonation by using d instead of ð. There’s nobody here called Gunnfriður Hreggviðsdóttir, as much as I would have liked to use such magnificent names. Gunnfridur Hreggvidsdóttir sounds wrong to my ears, as does Thórdur Gudnason.
That’s not all. Icelanders generally have a name and a patronymic, but that name is generally shortened into an everyday version in ways that sound awkward to ears used to English. My rotund heroine goes by the name of Gunnhildur, shortened in everyday usage to Gunna, although she could just as easily have been Gudda, or even Hildur. There’s plenty of choice there and it’s more scatty and imaginative than the way English speakers shorten a first name based on that name’s first syllable. An Icelandic first name can be shortened using the last syllable. An English Christine becomes Chris. An Icelandic Kristín becomes Stína. Kristján could as easily metamorphose into Stjáni as Kiddi. Óskar becomes Skari. Confused?
Probably. Then there’s the bizarre nicknames. Some people are known exclusively by the place the come from, such as Sigga á Bakka, Sigga from a farm called Bakki. Or their job or hobby, Hesta-Rúnar, horse-Rúnar, Mundi Postur, Mundi the Postman, Gunna Lögga, Gunna the Cop – similar to a Welsh undertaker known as Evans the Death. Or by a parent’s nickname – Jón Ingu, Inga’s Jón, in which Inga could either be Jón’s wife or mother, depending. This even gets extended to a third generation – Gunni Adda Jóh could be someone called Gunnar, whose father could be Arnar the son of Jóhann, known as Addi Jóh. Still confused? You should be.
But if you get confused by the worst eccentricities of the names of the characters in Frozen Out, rest assured that I have already done everything in my power to keep these in check and that it could easily all have been so much more complex. But it’s all part of the local colour and that’s what we read fiction set in strange foreign places for, isn’t it? Precisely because it doesn’t take place in Tunbridge Wells.

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