Philip Newton (pne) wrote,
Philip Newton

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Surnames in Greenland

I wonder what the history of surnames in Greenland is.

Inuit in Canada had numerical “surnames” (disc numbers) assigned at one point in the 1940s; then, later (starting in 1969), they were given the opportunity to choose their own surnames. So this was comparatively recent.

The surnames that I come across appear to be Inuktitut words; for example, see Wikipedia’s List of Canadian Inuit. You have the occasional name such as “Curley” but by and large, that list is dominated by names along the lines of “Aglukkaq” and “Okalik”.

In Greenland, though, surnames are a whole ’nother kettle of fish: the PDF on naming available from Statistics Greenland says that the top 5 surnames, accounting for about 1/8 of all Greenlanders, are Petersen, Olsen, Jensen, Nielsen, and Hansen. In fact, all of the top 50 surnames look European/Danish to me; I don’t see a single Greenlandic-language one amongst the lot. And most of them end in -sen.

So I wonder how that came about.

Did the priests give everyone a Christian name (at time 1), and then at one point (time 2), everyone got a patronymic as a surname which was then rendered immutable? For example, if Aputsiaq got called Lars and his son Minik got called Kristian at time 1, then when time 2 came, would Minik officially be called “Kristian Larsen”, with the surname being in origin a patronymic?

And if they’re not patronymics, then where do they come from? Danish government officials giving Kalaallit their own family names? And if they are patronymics, how come “Møller” is #7?

Also, I find it interesting that “Petersen” is the most common surname (accounting for 1 in 26 Greenlanders), yet “Peter” is not the most common given name. (At least, not the most common first given name; if all given names are taken into account, it is the most common one.)

Would be interesting to read the history of that.

(Another fun bit from that document: apparently, popular Danish-origin names get Greenlandic suffixes tacked on to them, so you have not only “Hans” but also “Hanse(e)raq” and “Hansi(n)nguaq”. The second, I believe, being something like “Hänschen” in German: the -nnguaq suffix is not just “fake, toy, make-believe, imitation” as in Canada but also, apparently, “small, cute”.)

Tags: greenlandic, names

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