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MY ICELAND: The Phone Book

People from, you know, other countries, countries where they do proper family names and call each other Mr and Mrs and suchlike, are usually pretty aghast when they see our phone book.

The Icelandic phone book lists everyone by their first names. Then comes your last name, then your address, then your occupation [to set you apart you from all the other Jón Jónssons, what else] and finally your phone number[s].

Everyone is listed by their first names in the phone book because here we call everyone by their first names. We don’t do Mr or Mrs. Not even when we’re small. Your teacher is Gunna. Your friend’s dad is Jón. Your president is Óli. Your Prime Minister is Geir. Your friendly local pop star is Björk. And so on.

Most of you will already know that, in addition to the jovial first-name basis, we operate on a system of patronyms, meaning that you take your father’s first name and simply add the suffix –son [if you’re a boy] or –dóttir [if you’re a girl]. Björk Guðmundsdóttir is the daughter of Guðmundur. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson is the son of Grímur. And so on.

That said, we do have a few family names floating around, that infiltrated the culture for various reasons. Names like Laxness, Gudjohnsen, Pedersen, Clausen, Mathiesen … come to think of it, a lot of –sens. Thanks to our Danish colonial masters, no doubt.

Our phone book contains a lot of useful information, as well. Apart from regular stuff like emergency phone numbers, etc. we also have useful information about things like the tallest mountains and waterfalls in the world, the longest rivers in Iceland, the solar system [YOU ARE HERE] and all the national flags in the world, not to mention EXTREMELY useful information about what to do in case of natural disasters: volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, flooding, mud slides, snow avalanches and earthquakes. Plus this year’s book has a cartoon on every page [it’s actually a full story] by Niceland’s not-so-nice Hugleikur Dagsson, who is renowned for his really dark comic strips. Seriously, you could spend hours just reading the phone book here in Niceland.

The phone book

It totally rocks.

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  • Michelle in NZ September 19, 2008, 12:18 pm

    I so appreciate the simplicity of this naming method. And I have just found, and very much appreciate your blog. I live on top of an earthquake fault line, is a few hours travel north to get to the volcanic mountains with their ski fields and boiling hot mud pools down on the attempts (by the geology) at plains

    I’ll stay living in earthquake country, is what I grew up with and cope with, and don’t notice most quakes,

    Huggles and care, Mickle and her Zebby-cat.

  • PeterRRRRRR September 19, 2008, 12:36 pm

    Speaking of phone books, I recall visiting Kodiak, Alaska USA a few years ago. Very small town, quite isolated, and quite spectacular. And the phone book has three sections. The first had names, address, and phone number listed alphabetically. The second listed address, name, and phone number, listed by street name and number. And the third section had phone number, name, address, listed in numbered sequence. So you could look up who lived at 100 Main Street, or who’s phone number was 123-4567. Very strange.

  • Valerie in San Diego September 19, 2008, 2:53 pm

    They should sell copies of it on the Internet… it’d probably make enormous amounts of revenue for the phone company! Heck, with that endorsement, I’d buy it.

    I remember being very startled when I was about 12 and we moved from a small town in Michigan to San Diego, with a population over a million. “This is the PHONEBOOK? Are you sure it’s not the DICTIONARY?” I didn’t think paperback books could even be made so large.

  • meloukhia September 19, 2008, 3:32 pm

    Our phonebook has reverse lookup, which is actually incredibly useful when you want to look someone up by their phone number. But we don’t have a first name listing. To me that actually makes much more sense, since I live in a small community and I know a lot of people by first name, but not by their last names. I should petition the phonebook people!

  • Karen September 19, 2008, 3:58 pm

    If I could read Icelandic, I could spend hours reading the phone book, I’m sure.

    I don’t really mind not being able to take pictures in the National Museum, and being forced to buy the catalogue of the exhibits instead (good cause, more information then I’d get out of my own photos) but I surely wish they’d print an English version of the catalogue!

    *sigh* And I am far too old to learn an new language…

  • Valerie September 19, 2008, 4:03 pm

    I found out about this system the hard way- at a restaurant after a concert in London I was playing with a singer called Thora ***** dottir, I introduced her parents to some other friends as Mr and Mrs ******dottir. They corrected me very nicely! But it felt very weird to me not to be able to work out what their last names were- and in fact does that mean her parents wouldn’t have the same last name either? Do all women keep their maiden names? It’s totally fascinating!

  • tk September 19, 2008, 5:45 pm

    I loved the Icelandic phone book. I plan to bring one back next time I’m there. Is the natural disasters page still in English? It was actually very funnily written.

    The cemetery was another fascinating place for names. You could follow family histories pretty easily through the names.

    (Karen: you’re never too old to learn a language. The University of Iceland has a wonderful summer course, mainly for students, but open to everyone.)

  • PhilippeP September 19, 2008, 5:54 pm

    Well I did use your phonebook but to find a company, wich is easier 🙂
    …but when I drove to the adress mentionned, the company was not there and no one had heard of it 🙂

    And I did search for my ‘icelandic’ name when I was back , you should call me Filippus Lúðvígsson from now on 🙂

  • Jessie September 19, 2008, 7:50 pm

    I love this. It’s so much more personal and seemingly friendlier. I also think it’s great that women keep their names when they marry. When I was last there, a friend of mine looked up my name, and there were two at the time in all of Iceland (though maybe different spellings?); he knew one of them! Small world.

  • CarolQ September 20, 2008, 4:02 am

    Terrific! I just got back from my trip (one day on Royal Princess) in Reykjavik and now I get home and find out about the phone book! I told you I was coming, you didnt tell me about the Icelandic phone book – guess I’ll have to come back next year!!
    BTW – your country is just beautiful, we saw Gullfoss Falls and the original Glacier.

  • Carolyn September 20, 2008, 1:02 pm

    I guess you work out someone’s surname by asking them. The Nicelandic way sounds pretty nice to me.

    I’d sit down and read the phone book too, if could read Nicelandic.

  • andrea September 20, 2008, 3:02 pm

    That’s my kind of phone book. And the accents make it all look so decorative. Question: what is that first ‘d’-like letter in Gudmundur?

  • Sigga September 20, 2008, 6:16 pm

    In Aus I used to be called Siggy Jonsson, Siggy cos no one could pronounce Sigríður and Jonsson cos dad was Jon´s son – my friends never really understood why I hated this name – my femaleness had been totally removed. Once I got to uni people started calling me Sigga – so much nicer, and at work the whole miss,ms thing drove me crazy so I was always just Sigga. Loved that! Then I went to Germany and suddenly became Frau Jonsson (suddenly I had become my mother!). Now finally I am me.

  • Alda September 21, 2008, 12:44 pm

    Hi everzone! Thanks for zour comments … just wrote a lengthz response before the operation was cancelled … am on a timed internet thingz at the hotel. I see, though, that naming conventions in Niceland will have to be the subject of a separate post … hope I can address zour questions then!

  • Cheeky Spouse September 22, 2008, 9:24 am

    I’ve ‘read’ the Icelandic phone book – it’s just fascinating!
    Here in the UK our phone books have become so small. So many people are now ex-directory – I think we’re all getting fed up with cold callers trying to sell us something that we don’t want!

  • maja September 26, 2008, 7:40 am

    My dad’s name in australia is Jon (Bjorn) Jonsson (Sigga from above’s brother) although his real name is Jon Bjorn Magnusson. People here always get some amusement from the Jon Jonsson thing.

    The photos that pop up every time you load the iceland weather report page are magnificent, I must say. Sometimes I refresh just to see another photo.

  • Irene Astdis July 28, 2009, 5:30 pm

    I want an Icelandic phone book:) I love Iceland and can’t wait to visit my home country<3

  • Karol W. November 25, 2009, 2:34 am

    Alda, I have visited your lovely country twice and checked the phone directory while there. You have a unique but awkward system if you ask me. I think Mongolians and Indonesians have a similar one.

    How do you find the Jon that you are looking for, if there are many Jons in the book? How do you keep your genealogy under control if there is no last name to look to?

    Greetings from Toronto, where I think you lived for some time.

  • Tommy November 25, 2009, 8:14 am

    Dear Alda,
    You speak the truth when you wrote that a person could spend hours just reading the phone book in Niceland.

    The truth is that I have spent some major time learning to read the Niceland phone book. For the most part, Alda, I had to figure it out on my own. Amazing. WOW. I can manage.. somewhat

    With that said, I agree with Maja…for I also refresh the page just to see another wonderful photo 🙂
    Bless,Bless

  • alda November 25, 2009, 10:04 am

    Karol – the Jóns are listed by their first, middle and last names, then their profession, and then their address. So you really can’t go wrong.

    As for the surnames – it’s not that hard to keep track of people when the population is only 300,000. 🙂

  • Richard " rauði" Marin April 19, 2010, 5:14 pm

    I am working on my Icelandic genealogy and am stumped with a name that I have found. His name is Þórður Kárasson and lived about 0885. Shouldn’t his name be spelled Kárason? And what would his father’s first name be?

  • Gerald Curle April 13, 2011, 11:44 pm

    I am trying to reach Gunnar Hilmarsson of 16 Flatahraun, 22o Hafnarfjordur, Iceland who is a relative of mine who I have lost contact with since 1991. My name is Gerald Curle of Carberry Manitoba Canada.
    Any info would be greatly appreciated.

  • Tom Bell August 14, 2011, 4:00 am

    Am trying to finfdSuava from Fifasund who was at Armadale school Australia about 1980. Would like to hear from him