Norse patronymics - please don't invent them if you don't know how

+6 votes
I keep seeing these early medieval (and ancient) Scandinavian profiles that make up patronymics like "Snaersson" that are basically English-language attempts to make up a patronymic by adding the English possessive "s" to the nominative of the name. On top of the basic problem that a lot of this stuff is flat-out allegorical mythology, this is not how Old Norse works. It's a different language from English, and the morphology is different. I don't really see what value there is in adding patronymics in the first place, but maybe people should refrain from doing it unless they actually know something about the language. It's one thing if you saw it in a primary source, but it's really not necessary to just make one up because you think it should have a patronymic.

I think maybe also people ought to use a little common sense with this stuff too. If the guy is Snow, son of Glacier, and his son is the king of Elfland, these aren't real people.
WikiTree profile: Þorri Snæsson
in Policy and Style by Anonymous Buckner G2G6 Mach 5 (51.9k points)

Snow, son of Glacier, and his son is the king of Elfland.” I know your frustration, Ben, but I had to laugh at this.

So, if here is no patronymic in any source, what does one name an historical figure? Similar to all those kings of Scotland before there was a Scotland, and that being used as a name: “of Scotland.”  But, I suppose there has to be some name to give folks, or we’d have too many unknowns in the tree. Well, more than we have now, which is way too much.

WikiTree requires an LNAB in order to file the profile.  Once a profile has been created, we don't delete them, so we need to document what it is that makes the legendary or fake or a fraud.  If you have a fake person named John Smith, you can still keep his LNAB of Smith.  But if the fake person allegedly lived in a time when people used patronymics, if anything, what do you use  for an LNAB.  A person who never existed cannot have parents, spouses or children, so what is the patronymic of a person who could never have had a parent?  The solution we have tended to use is the patronymic of the person who would have been his parent if the legend were true.  So if you've got a profile for Snow, and in legend his father is Glacier, then you follow the naming pattern of the time.  If he were allegedly medieval Welsh nobility, he would be Snow ap Glacier with ap Glacier as the LNAB.  But this is essentially a work around.  WE DON'T CREATE MYTHS AND LEGENDS IN PERSON PROFILES.  We have the marvelous system of Free-Space profiles, and if you come across a legend you would like to see on WikiTree that isn't already here, create a free-space profile.  You can link it to real profiles it affects, but it doesn't show up in ways that might confuse people into thinking it's real.
I can't imagine any situation where it would be right to attempt to "invent" an LNAB, irrespective of the inventor's knowledge (or lack thereof) about construction/formation/whatever of patronymics.  It has been solidly drummed into me that our policy is that the correct LNAB for such situations is "Unknown".
I agree but the common sense was needed several  years ago! As you know this profile and others have only come to the forefront because someone is working on them. (she's away this weekend so may not see this post)

The profiles as they are , are a mess, the 'early ' ones cover totally mythological beings but later link to very real people (and then have a saga warning !?). We don't delete, so they need sorting.

The variant names have resulted in many previous duplicates. This one has 6 but  I was astounded to see one such personage in this 'set'  had ( from memory) 19 project managers suggesting many merges  

 There  are still  what seem to me obvious duplicates  because of variant names and guestimated dates (myths can't have real dates but they eventually link onto real people like King Cnut)  I believe (and really I shouldn't answer for someone else) that the aim is to produce as coherent a mythological pedigree as possible using one source, a saga. This doesn't appear to be easy when merges are rejected on grounds of different dates or slight name differences.

If you have some expertise in the area, I'm sure it would be welcome.
Helen, surely you jest!  That is, when you suggest any possibility that I might have expertise in this area … I don't have anything that could pass for expertise in ANY area of genealogy!!!  In fact, I am not even pre-1700 certified, although many times people have expressed shock that I'm not and encouraged me to get it.  I always explain that until I feel competent to work on post-1700 profiles, I am not about to seek ability to work on the oh-so-much-more-important earlier ones.
Hi Gaile, was really meaning Ben for his expertise!  I'm just astounded at the muddle and the difficulty in trying to sort it out. I have no expertise in this area either ...except I can see why duplicates happened, I found it really difficult to find King Cnuts profile .. since nowhere does it use the name Cnut  which I grew up using... (
Much of what you can apply to people who did not use surnames.

I have seen similar things with old Mexican surnames published on some other genealogy websites. People create these elaborate compound surnames, when in fact these names never appear in the extant records, thus were not used.

I guess if the correct pnym was a great mystery, that would be one thing, but Snæsson is still a pretty regular patronymic in modern Icelandic.

4 Answers

+5 votes
Unknown is only correct when the person had an LNAB as we think of it in contemporary Western civilization and we simply don't know it.  People who never in their lives had an LNAB as we would think of it are not "unknown."  We have had discussions about this with respect to enslaved persons in the USA and elsewhere.  

We also have a preference that we have an LNAB "in the language the person himself or herself would have used."  But in very old situations we don't know what the language would have been, or at least what their name would have been in that language.  

In many east Asian countries, the family name does not come last, but first, so the LNAB is really a FNAB.  But our western-oriented system turns it around and puts the name they would have placed first, last.

For some European royalty we use their "house" as their LNAB.  There are many variations of what we do to accomodate profiles of people who never had an LNAB  as we think of it.
by Jack Day G2G6 Pilot (362k points)
whoops, shouldn't be here, moved to after original question
I couldn't agree more about 'unknown lnab' being an artificial construct in many cases.

Personally, I find that rigid adherence to patronymic naming for Norwegian/Norse profiles can both obscure and obfuscate quite a bit of knowledge - a person known extensively in documents by the name of where he lived is not unknown, even if his father's name is; neither is a viking with a famous moniker and no known parentage.
The LNAB is actually Kvenland here. The chimerical "Snaersson" was just added as a CLN, hence my puzzlement as to the necessity of it.

If someone for some reason wanted to pretend that this was a real person and attempt to guess at a date, it would probably be in the Proto Norse period, but the primary sources are certainly ON contexts.
+3 votes
With regards to language: everything written about historical people in Norway tends to have names in modern Norwegian, with either bokmål -sen patronymics or nynorsk -son patronymics where applicable, so I feel comfortable continuing in that philosophy.

(And even if you should try to be hardcore authentic, odds are you still wouldn't have the name a person truly used: if you look at a 17th century written source, it will probably be in Danish if it's a formal document, while the person himself would have thought of his name a little differently.)

For me, it's more important that a profile is readily identifiable than that it has the exact precise most perfect choice of Scandinavian name formatting.

And, of course, it helps if it's a real person :)
by Rakelle Teschner G2G6 Mach 3 (36.4k points)
Wouldn't it be Snøsen?
That'd be taking it a bit far, I think :D I suppose one might argue that Danish-style spelling is inappropriate before the Kalmar union? :D
RT, in all of the responses in this thread, I think your passing statement above, “’s more important that a profile is readily identifiable...” resonates with me. When I go to look up an historical figure, I have two options on WikiTree. 1) Search making guesses as to what he/she would have been called according to WT standards as opposed to what I’ll find on Wikipedia or the common usage in history books. (Note Helen's looking for “Cnut” above). Or 2) Finding an easier named descendant and working my way backwards. The naming standards inhibit my searches, at least until I get it drilled into my memory what someone is called on WT!

þorri Snæsson is the standard form you'd find in any academic context. Obviously, spelling in primary sources is pretty variable, but Old Norse normalization is widely agreed upon these days.

+5 votes

TL;DR - OK where the father is known, otherwise not OK; time spent on saga genealogies better spent elsewhere.

Speaking to this in terms of general practice, patronymics are often "added" to people who are not known to have used it specifically in their lifetime.  This is only OK in the very specific circumstances where it is known with certainty what the name of the father was.  Thus, if you have a (primary) source that says that "Sven i Kjärr" was the son of "Anders i Kjärr", then it's perfectly fine to refer to Sven as Sven Andersson.  I would say that this is fine for the historical period - for example King Erik Eriksson of Denmark is referred to as such (albeit in Latin) in 1135 ("...Fvndacio prebende canonicalis per Ericum regem Erici regis filium. In nomine sancte & indiuidue trinitatis Ericus. erici filius...", c.f. SDHK 180 where Erik Eriksson of Denmark establishes a benefice at Lund).

However, if the same documents state that "before Sven lived at Kjärr, then it was occupied by Olof..." then there's no proof that Sven is the son of Olof.  It's possible but by no means certain.  Consequently, "Sven i Kjärr" should not be given the patronymic "Olofsson".  This can lead to a lot of down-stream assumptions: because a profile or record states that Anders' patronymic was Olofsson, then Anders must be the son of Olof i Kjärr.  For which there is no evidence.  In other words, never assign a patronymic to a person unless you're 100% sure of the relationship.

An example of exactly this situation came up yesterday in a discussion on G2G here where a Joan i Angestad has been assumed by the creators of no less than three profiles to have been the son of a Magnus.  On closer inspection of the available material, this is by no means certain.  Even more problematically, Joan had also been given an additional surname of "Blix" - with source documentation that never calls him anything but "Joan i Angestad" (on the same assumption that he was the son of a Måns Blix - family names were not hereditary at the time).  The best I can think of in a situations such as this is to give him the LNAB of "Unknown" and a nickname of "i Angestad" as the farm he lived on is what defines him in the available documentation.

I must admit that I'm very confused about profiles dating from before, say, 900 CE in Scandinavia.  It appears that a lot of time and effort is dedicated to making spiffy, nice profiles for people who never existed.  Although there may be an historical kernel to the sagas, do recall first, that they were written no less than about 2 to 3 centuries after the events happened.  Secondly, just because it was written down doesn't mean it's accurate (oral tradition or not), and assuming that books of what is largely myths and legends have any form of detailed genealogical accuracy is like asking, say, an academic historian specialising in the Plantagenet period to recount an accurate genealogy of the Anglo-Saxon families (including cadet branches).  It'd be a muddled mess at best, and disaster at worst. Thirdly, none of the information can be corroborated by outside sources until we get down to the period around 1000-1100 CE, with (I think?) Adam of Bremen being one of the earliest non-Scandinavians taking an interest, and mentioning (for Sweden) Eric the Victorious and his son Olof  (Eriksson) "Skötkonung."  For Denmark, I would accept Gorm the Old as the "end of the line", and the Norwegian kings are such a mess that I wouldn't know where to begin, but it would, for certain, not be before 900-1000 CE in any case. With all the profiles that need lovin' wouldn't it be better to spend the time on actual people that we know existed?

Rant over! :) 

by Matt Engdahl G2G6 Mach 1 (13.3k points)
edited by Matt Engdahl
+9 votes
Home after a wonderful weekend! Personally I think that if we were being sensible, we'd delete all these profiles then if someone wanted to they could recreate them as myth and do it properly. That isn't going to happen. So we can leave them here contributing to making the entire project look ridiculous or we can at least merge them, place them in a structure of some kind, and then take a decision about what to do with them. I'm happy to work on this for a while but have encountered many demands that I provide more evidence for dates, more sources for myths no professional genealogist will touch. A further request for proper LNABs just adds to the difficulty of getting the work done. At the moment I'm using Ynglinga Saga which indeed dates after 1200. However Snorri cites Ynglinga-tal which I believe was composed around 880. It's here, it's in a mess, I'd just like to sort it out.
by C. Mackinnon G2G6 Pilot (271k points)
CK, you’ve touched on one of my fears, that WikiTree look ridiculous. However, if nonmembers could see what hard work you and many others do here, I think they’d look at WT differently, and not “just another genealogy website where I can post my unsourced ‘research ‘“.

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