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Patronyms and Patronymic Surnames
Historically, when people lived in clans or small villages, everyone had just one name:  a "call" name or what we would now describe as a "given" name.  One name was all they needed because everyone knew each other.  As population increased, it became necessary to distinguish between people with the same call name.

There are a number of ways individuals with the same surname could be distinguished.  One was by occupation, for example:  John, the baker, became, John BAKER.  Another was by location, for example:  Robert, of the woods, became Robert WOODS.  And another was to distinguish between them by the identity of their father, for example: John, son of William; or John, son of Robert; or more simply, John, William's son; or John, Robert's son.  These have come down to us as Williamson, Robertson, and all the other -son's and -sen's (in several European cultures and languages, not just English).  At some time — surprisingly late in some regions, especially Scandinavia — these occupational, locational, and patronymic names became fixed as relatively unchanging surnames, though phonetic spelling variations abound.

Denmark is one of the cultures using patronyms, and my own surname, MATTHIESEN, is an Anglicized Danish patronym (in Denmark, it was spelled with one "T").  Surnames became mandatory in Denmark in 1526, but only for the nobility.  Surname use gradually trickled down among the upper classes, but the masses resisted, largely because the patronymic naming system was so entrenched.  In 1771, surnames became mandatory in Slesvig-Holsten, Denmark.  In 1828, surnames became mandatory throughout Denmark, but the law was largely ignored.  Then, in 1856, the legal mandate to use a surname was strengthened, but still many people resisted.  Finally, in 1904, legislation forced the holdouts to give in.  Surnames were not commonly used in Sweden until ca. 1900 or in Norway until 1923, and they are still not commonly used in Iceland.

But before discussing the fixation of patronyms as surnames, it's important to understand how patronyms work.

In cultures using patronyms, a person's call name (John, Ann, Matthew, etc.) is followed by the name of their father, usually with a grammatical ending indicating the name is a patronym.  Using Danish patronyms as an example, here would be a series of fathers and sons, before the use of surnames began:
Father:  Søren Hansen
Son:  Niels_Sørensen
Grandson:  Hans_Nielsen
Great-grandson:  Lars Hansen
For daughters, the ending is -sdatter/-datter:
Father:  Søren Hansen
Daughter:  Agate Sørensdatter

Father:  Peter Andresen
Daughter:  Katrine Petersdatter

Father:  Niels Larsen
Daughter:  Christina Nielsdatter

While "-datter" is the typical ending for a Danish female patronym, there are regions where you will find that female patronyms follow the same pattern as males (i.e., with the -sen ending or, in some cases, with just the abbreviated "-s" ending).  For example:
Father:  Jes Larsen
Daughter:  Karen Jessen

Father:  Conrad Knudsen
Daughter:  Birthe Conrad

I can use my own Danish ancestry as an example showing when surname fixation took place, that is, the generation in which the child was not given a patronym based on the father's call name, but was, instead, given the father's patronym as a fixed SURNAME (distinguished here in ALL-CAPS).
Hinrich ?sen
Mathias Hinrichsen
Søren Mathiesen (c1784-1840)
Andreas MATHIESEN (1819-    )
Carsten MATHIESEN (1842-1904)
Andreas MATHIESEN / MATTHIESEN (1867-1921) — the immigrant in 1886
Arthur Carsten MATTHIESEN (1895-1967) — my paternal grandfather
As you can see, Mathias and Søren were each given a traditional patronym based on his father's call name.  If the tradition had been maintained, Søren's son, Andreas, would have been called "Andreas Sørensen," but we can see that, in this generation, Søren's patronym was fixed as a modern surname.  This surname adoption is actually rather earlier than most, and I can only presume it was because these were "city people" — a family of tailors.  People in rural areas tended to hold on to their naming traditions longer than urban dwellers.  As for the second "t," that was added in the U.S., I can only guess because the English patronyms of the same derivation (e.g., Matthewson, Mattheson) are spelled with two t's.

There are some important ramifications resulting from this process.  One is that people, today, whose surname is based on a patronym, may be totally unrelated to other people with the same surname.  Picture, if you will, that when most Danes adopted surnames in the mid to late 1800s, most adopted their father's patronym.  Two brothers, Mathias and Søren, now have all their descendants surnamed, respectively, MATHIESEN and SØRENSEN — yet these families are closely related.  In contrast, two unrelated men named Søren, on opposite sides of Denmark, now both have all their descendants surnamed SØRENSEN — yet they are not at all closely related.  It is for this reason that, as a Danish MATHIESEN, I feel no "sense of clan" with other Danish MATHIESENs, beyond my near relatives.  A "reunion" of MATHIESENs — in Denmark or in America — would simply bring together a lot of unrelated strangers, hence there isn't likely to be such a gathering.  For my family, it would make much more sense to have a reunion of "Danes from Visby," our home town in Denmark — where my great-great-grandfather's house still stands and is still lived in.

The other important ramification is that once you've worked back to the point where surnames disappear, it becomes essentially impossible to trace your ancestry any further using traditional methods, unless you happen to be descended from nobility or royalty.  What can be used beyond this point is DNA analysis, which opens up a whole new world of possibilities for researchers who have hit this wall.  However, one other ramification of patronymic surnames is that Y-chromosome DNA surname projects are meaningless for them because, as I mentioned above, so many individuals with the same surname are not related while many with different surnames are related.  The only logical way to organize Y-DNA projects for those with patronymic surnames is regionally, at the outset, and then genetically, after test results are known, as is the case in the Danish Demes Regional DNA Project.  But back to the subject of patronyms…

Not all cultures dropped the use of patronyms when surnames were adopted.  Some simply added the surname, and the patronym became what we would call a "middle" name.  Russians follow this custom and are more likely to call each other by their given name and patronym, than by their given name and surname.  Here is an example of four generations, from father to son to son to daughter:

Ivan Petrovich [or Petrov] ZOKOLOV
Mikhail Ivanovich [or Ivanov] ZOKOLOV
Ivan Mikhailovich [or Mikailov] ZOKOLOV
Anna Ivanova ZOKOLOV
The vast majority of Russian surnames were, however, themselves formed from patronyms; so, from a grammatical point of view, it's likely to appear someone has two patronyms, as in the example above where Zokolov also looks like it could be a patronym.  But the true status of the last name as a surname will be apparent because it will be passed (relatively) unchanged from generation to generation, while the patronym will keep changing.

Here are some examples of patronyms in different languages (the list is not exhaustive):

Language Ending(s) Examples
Danish -sen or -s (for a son or daughter)
-datter or -sdatter (for a daughter)
Southern Danes tended to use -sen/-s for daughters as well.
Lars Hansen
Søren Friedrichsen
Marte Sørensdatter
Swedish -sson (for a son)
(typically reduced to a single "s" for immigrants in the U.S.)
-dotter or -sdottir (for a daughter)
Hans Andersson
Niels Larsson
Sonya Svensdottir
Dutch -sen or -son or -zoon (for a son)
usually shortened to -se, -ze, or -s
-sdockter or -sdochter (for a daughter)
usually shortened to -sdr, sd, -se, or -s
Willem Jansse
Cornelis Dirkse
Jannetje Adrians
Russian -in, -yn, -ov, -ev, -vich, etc. (for a son)
-vicha, -a, -ova, -ovna, -ina, etc. (for a daughter)
The grammatical formation of Russian patronymics is actually
even more complicated than implied here, but you get the idea.
Anton Alekseev
Dmitri Borodin
Sofiya Alekseeva
Anastasiya Borodina
Polish -owicz (for a son)
-owna (for a daughter)
Janek Aronowicz
Kondrat Dawidowicz
Kornelia Dawidowna
Norman Fitz- ("son of")
Historically, FitzRoy has a special meaning as an Anglicized version of the French, Fils de Roi, which means "son of the King" and is applied to a King's bastard children.
Robert FitzAlan
James FitzScott
Henry FitzRoy,
  Duke of Richmond,
  bastard son of Henry VIII
Gaelic Mac- or Mc- or O'
O' is Irish; Mac is usually Scottish; Mc can be either.
John MacDonald
Daniel McCray
John O'Brian
English -son Thomas Johnson
Janet Stevenson
Welsh ap (for a son)
ferch/verch (for a daughter)
Gruffyd ap Rhys
Dafydd ap Llywelyn
Angharad ferch Maredudd
The Welsh were very late in adopting surnames, and many
of these are actually, though not at all obviously, patronyms.
These are some of the most common surnames in the U.S.
Jones = John's son
Davis = David's son
Williams = William's son
Roberts = Robert's son
Arabian ibn, bin (for son of)
bint (for daughter of)
May be used in succession to denote a line of ancestry
(e.g., Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Ali ibn Sultan).
Osama bin Laden
Bandar bin Sultan
Ahmad ibn Rushd
Mozah bint Nasser
There is, lastly, the question of how to enter patronyms in your genealogy software.  In my opinion, the patronym should be treated as a middle (given) name, not a surname.  For those individuals who have only a patronym and no surname, the best course, in my opinion, is to leave the surname field blank, just as I believe that is the best course to take when the surname is simply unknown.  [Please, never put the husband's surname in the wife's surname field just because you don't know the wife's maiden name!]

If you want to distinguish between people whose surname is simply unknown and those who had no surname, you need to use some consistent designation.  For example, the most common designation for someone whose surname is unknown is "LNU."  All but the most novice genealogists are aware that "LNU" is the standard acronym for, "Last Name Unknown."  As far as I know, there is no standard acronym for there being no surname, at all, but let me coin one here:  "SNU," for "Surname Not Used."  Anyone who knows what LNU means can likely surmise what SNU means.

In actual practice, instead of LNU or SNU, I use a line of five underscores to signify no surname is used and a line of four underscores plus a question mark to indicate the surname is simply unknown:

Surname Not Used (SNU):  _____
Surname Unknown (LNU):  __?__
But any system will do as long as you apply it consistently and it's intuitively obvious what you are doing.  TMG, The Master Genealogist software program (the gold standard for genealogy software), uses --?-- for an unknown surname (two hyphens, a question mark, then another two hyphens).

One advantage to not putting the patronym in the surname field is apparent when viewing an alphabetized index of your database because all those without surnames will be grouped together, in alphabetical order by their call names.  If you put the patronym in the surname field, not only will these individuals will be scattered throughout the index, it will not be apparent for whom the name is a patronym and for whom it is a surname, not unless you consistently enter patronyms in Initial Caps and surnames in ALL-CAPS, which is at least a viable alternative and one I strongly recommend if you insist on putting the patronym in the surname field.

© 1999-2009 Diana Gale Matthiesen

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