fbpx

The Most Common Norwegian Surnames

Common Norwegian family names

Here is the story of Norway’s most common family names and how they have evolved through recent centuries.

If you have a passing interest in Norway or Scandinavia then you have probably wondered about their distinctive surnames. In recent centuries, these family names have carved out an interesting story in the world of etymology.

Norwegian surnames often comprise of place names or a geographical features of the landscape, while others were a direct result of their father's first name. As a result of this, surnames like Larsen, Hansen and Gundersen are now commonplace in modern day Norway.

An old Norwegian family portrait
Family portrait from 1910. Photo: Fylkesarkivet i Sogn og Fjordane (CC 2.0)

Terminology of family names

But before we get in into the history of the naming rituals and traditions, let’s take a look at some key words in this field.

Etymology: the study of a word’s origin and a word's changeable state trough history.

Occupational: names derived from the occupation or job of an ancestor.

Patronymic: a name passed down from either the father or ancestor.

Toponymic: a place name, often taken from a geographical feature.

A little history

Tracing your family ancestry in Norway is a relatively straightforward affair, that is until you get to the pivotal year of 1923. This was the year a law was introduced stating that families should have just one surname.

Before 1923, family names were often formed from place names, toponyms, and were also commonly derived from farm names.

Read more: Popular Baby Names in Norway

Names also included names comprised of geographical features. The most common of these surnames were Bakke/Bakken – which means hill or rise, Berg/Berge – meaning Mountain or hill, Dahl/Dal – which translates as valley, Haugen\Haugan – hill or mound and Moen – meadow/pasture.

The Meland family of Oppstryn, Norway, circa 1910
The Meland family of Oppstryn, Norway, circa 1910

Family names in Norway

Before 1923, the country’s most common male surnames were those that ended in “–son“ or “–sen” meaning “son of”. This is where tracing your family roots gets a little difficult. For instance, if you go back more than two or three generations, problems quickly arise.

This is one reason why outlining my family tree stalled somewhat a number of years ago. That is not to say it isn’t possible to build your Norwegian branch of your family tree, only that it can be more time consuming because of such difficulties.

My surname is Gundersen, which literally means “son of Gunder”. Taking your father’s first name opens up a much broader pool of names, those that cahnged with each generation.

Female family names operate in the same way: “–dotter” or “–datter” meaning “daughter of”. For example, if your father was called “Johan” then your surname might become “Johansdotter” – “Johan’s daughter”.

The statistics: Most popular Norwegian surnames

In a recent survey published by Statistics Norway, 22.4% of Norway’s population had a name ending “–sen”. But new children born in the same year only 18.4% of them had “–sen” as a suffix.

There are rarely sudden shifts in the lists compiled, generally then fluctuate steadily. The 20 most common surnames in that list from 2015, are mostly ending in “–sen”, patronymic names. Only the toponymic names Berg, Dahl, Haugen and Hagen, derived from the landscape, buck the trend.

1.  Hansen (53,011)
2.  Johansen (50,088)
3.  Olsen (49,303)
4.  Larsen (37,869)
5.  Andersen (37,025)
6.  Pedersen (35,145)
7.  Nilsen (34,734)
8.  Kristiansen (23,397)
9.  Jensen (22,879)
10. Karlsen (21,234)
11. Johnsen (20,650)
12. Pettersen (20,101)
13. Eriksen (19,136)
14. Berg (18,080)
15. Haugen (14 346)
16. Hagen (14,073)
17.  Johannessen (13,286)
18. Andreassen (12,100)
19. Jacobsen (11,906)
20. Dahl (11,503)

————-

21. Jørgensen (11,426)

————-

28. Gundersen (10,232)

The name Jørgensen was the first name in the list to contain one of the three special characters – Æ, Ø and Å – from the Norwegian alphabet. And out of personal interest, I discovered that Gundersen—my own surname—came in at number 28 in the list. That surprised me a little, as I had expected it to be higher.

Copenhagen canal in Denmark
Copenhagen, Denmark

Denmark

Norway is not alone in their patronymic naming history, two Scandinavian neighbours, Denmark and Sweden, also use this type of naming. Denmark’s surnames are mostly patronymic.

Just like Norway, Denmark also use a suffix “–sen” in family names. So a Danish family name like Christensen translates as “son of Christen”. Other forms include surnames that are occupational – names taken from the job roles of ancestors in villages or farmsteads. For example, “Schmidt” – smith or “Fisker” – fisher.

Looking at the 20 most common surnames in Denmark in 2012, all but one is a patronymic name. The odd one out in the list is the occupational name “Møller” meaning miller. The top five most common family names are listed below:

No.  Surname  Count
1. Nielsen (255,138)
2. Jensen (254,675)
3. Hansen (213,339)
4. Pedersen (161,074)
5. Andersen (157,753)

<2016. Source: dst.nk>

Sweden

The most common surnames in Sweden are also patronymic. Norway’s next door neighbour abolished this type of practice a little earlier, in 1901. The change in the law ensured a single family name was passed from generation to generation, just like Norway.

Sweden flag map

Swedish names also use suffix son – “sson”. A recent list of the most common surnames in Sweden reveals only one name that is not patronymic in the top 20. The name Lindberg came in at the 17th most popular family name, a name derived from landscape and translates as lime tree – mountain in English.

The top five most common family names are listed below:

No.  Surname  Count
1.  Andersson (251,621)
2.  Johansson (251,495)
3.  Karlsson (223,151)
4.  Nilsson (171,360)
5.  Eriksson (147,514)

<2012. Source: scb.se>

Ibsen

The great Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen, has a surname that is instantly recognisable. But, did you know that it is actually a name of Danish origin? Again, it is a surname with a suffix “–sen” and with the addition of “Ib–“ it means “son of Ib”.

The playwright’s literary exploits have ensured his surname’s recognisability. The name Ib is derived from the name Jacob, just a shortened version. So next time you read an Ibsen text or watch an Ibsen play just think – son of Jacob.

Norway Weekly Email Newsletter

You might like

About the Author: Mathew Paul Gundersen

Mathew is an English – part Norwegian – guy living in Oslo, where he is a master's student in Ibsen Studies at the University of Oslo. In June 2019, he graduated with a bachelor degree in English Literature from the University of Buckingham. Mathew is also a writer, an English teacher, media specialist and general Norway enthusiast. His Great Grandfather was Norwegian and this is what brought about an initial move to Norway and Stavanger in 2016. Mathew's personal blog can be found here: godfoten.wordpress.com.

28 Comments

  1. I am related to Berit Kullander on my mother’s side. Barth is also on my mother’s side. Christophersen on my father’s side. So the further back I go the more Nowegian I am. Must do that DNA test …lol

  2. I was wondering if you would know what my last name means in English, I’ve seen it in Sweden as well it’s Frøsaker.

  3. I really enjoyed your article here! Great reading! Thanks! Hope to pursue more concerning my last name. It could either be Patronymic or Toponymic, suspect the latter as I’ve been to Kristiansand to see the steps of my 5th grandfather’s farm house. Thanks again for the great article!

  4. How does the last name Saltvick ( Saltwick) play into these parameters. It seems to be fairly rare. Other than direct family members, I do not find it anywhere. . Thank you

  5. What about Sorensen my grand Parents we’re both from Norway one was upper Norway and one was bottom Norway Tromso and Christian sorry about the spelling and my married name is Anderson and his parents were from Oslo

  6. So disappointed neither family name is on the list! The names are Melberg, which we believe to be from a farm in the Stavanger area, and Lund, which I thought was like Smith or Jones … but I guess it isn’t!!!

  7. I believe my grandfather’s name was Ole Knutson, but when he came to America, there were so many with that name, he changed the last name to Gjerde.

  8. My salvation in researching my Norwegian genealogy was a remembered remark from my cousin that our great grandfather Embret Olson was also known as Embret Overby. Overby was the farm where he was born. It led to generations of church records for ancestors. My grandfather and his siblings adopted the family name of his father (Olson) when they emigrated but my grandfather returned to his Norwegian name to avoid confusion with other Ole Olsons in his neighborhood in Minnesota. His paternal grandfather’s name was Ole Amundson Bergerud, his maternal grandfather was Ole Amundson Rinden. Thank goodness for those farm names!

  9. My grandma had Antonson and Andreassen. Her birth father (Anders) died and her mother remarried to Anton. Or it was the other way round. In any case, she never had a matronymic name. She had brothers named both Hanson and Johnsrud. Her mom’s name was Margarethe Estendatter (daughter of Esten) Beskeland (the farm where she was born).

    Do you have an inkling of how many churches were around Trondheim? You try to look through them with their unreadable handwritten scrawls.

    I’ll just say they were all descendants of Harald Fairhair and let it go at that.

  10. My grandfather’s name was Melhuse…although I believe the e was added when he arrived here from Oslo, Norway…as a young man. So, is there another spelling for his name?

  11. Interesting. I’m an Eriksen in Norway and Linder in Sweden. I knew Linder had to do with a lime tree but found it an odd name for Swedish. Course all my ancestors prior were sons and daughters of.

  12. My Great Grandfather Andrew Olson Kneastang came to the U.S. from Ringerike in the 1860’s
    . When he arrived in the U.S. he used Olson as his last name. Does anyone know what Kneastang means?

  13. My wife and I are going up the west coast of Norway this summer by ship. We went to Norway about 15 years ago and found the landscape to be beautiful. At that time we went to the village of Orness where there is a beautiful church. If I can find the photograph I can send a copy next time I’m on this site.

  14. My husband’s family name is Lenhartzen and his parents were both born in Oslo. What is the origin of the suffix – zen?I assume it is some form of a patronymic name….son of Lenhart?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *