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Please begin with an informative title:

Stop me if you've heard this one, as it's been all over the news. I'll sum up your average report on the net:

"In an example of European socialism-totalitarianism run amock, Iceland won't even let a girl have her own name! Poor Blaer just wants to be known as Blaer, but for no good reason, the government won't let her do that! The government tells everyone what to name their children out of some absurd misguided attempt to force tradition on people who don't want it and to tell people how to live their lives!"

And of course, it's nonsense. Oh, there's some truth there, but it's been so distorted - and in part, deliberately so -that it's totally buried.

Let's dig it up.


You must enter an Intro for your Diary Entry between 300 and 1150 characters long (that's approximately 50-175 words without any html or formatting markup).

First off, by writing this, I mean no disrespect to Blær. That's Blær with an "Æ", not an "AE". Come on media outlets, what gives? You have no issue writing "café" or "El Niño" or "60°" or other characters that aren't on your keyboard, but you nearly never bother to do Icelandic characters. What's so damned alien about them? Several used to be in English (unlike, say, Ñ).

But back to the issue at hand.

Iceland is hardly alone in the government having some role in the naming process. Many other countries have similar systems. In Iceland, there is a committee called the mannanafnanefnd (the "persons' names committee"), which approves or denies new entries to the mannanafnaskrá (the "persons' names registry"). This is online and readily browsible, and everything the committee does is in public.

The process of naming a child in Iceland is this. The parents pick out a name. Whatever name they want. If it's already in the Mannanafnaskrá - great! It's all done. If it's not in the Mannanafnaskrá, they submit it to the Mannanafnanefnd who reviews it at their next meeting. The submission includes the desired spelling, any historical information about it, and how it is to be declined. The committee reviews the submission. Overwhelmingly, proposals are approved. So overwhelmingly, naming a child is simply picking whatever name you want for them.

The committee has three criteria: the historical connection of the name to Iceland, preventing names that are "abusive" to children, and preserving the Icelandic language.

The first criteria is almost essentially ignored nowadays. Want some examples? let's just pick from the "E" section. Elvis, Emerald, Emmanúel, Estefan, Ebonney, Erin. Sound Icelandic to you? Really, this criteria nowadays mainly functions as a way to argue for the approval of names even if they fail one of the other two categories! And there are many historic names which are not allowed because of the third criteria.

The second criterion is something alien to Americans but based on a philosophical difference that makes damned good sense: Children are NOT their parents "property". They're individual human beings with inherent human rights. For example, it's illegal to spank children in Iceland. Why is it that you get arrested in the US for taking a cane or paddle and hitting another adult with it, but you can do it at regular intervals to a helpless little child, and even have some people get mad at you if you don't? The same applies here. A child can't pick their name, but they sure as heck deserve the right to be protected from some jerk parent who wants to name their kid "PoopooFace" or whatnot. At least that's the general attitude here, one which I strongly support. This criteria is moderately enforced, but is sometimes criticized in that there are some ancient names in the registry from ancient times which can readily be viewed as insulting.

The third criterion is probably the most enforced, and is also something alien to most Americans: linguistic preservation. Let's start with this: if you took all of the Icelanders who ever lived, throughout history, combined, and put them in New York City at once, they'd still be outnumbered over 10:1 by New Yorkers. The entire country at present has about the population of Santa Ana, California. There are no other places in the world where significant Icelandic is spoken. Iceland has a higher rate of fluency in English than America. Very few products are labeled in Icelandic, very little media (say, movies or high budget TV) is in Icelandic, little on the net is in Icelandic, etc. The amount of pressure to absorb English into the language is huge while the population to resist it is small. To preserve this language - the best preserved of all the Nordic languages -takes serious active effort (including the willing participation of the Icelandic population).

Icelandic is a gendered language (three genders) and has an extremely elaborate declension system. Even people's names decline. For example, if you do something from me, it's "frá Karen", but if it's to me, it's "til Karenar". Yes, not only do imported names like Karen decline, even many foreign place names! For example, I would say "Þetta er Kalifornía" ("This is California"), but "Þetta er frá Kaliforníu" ("This is from California").

Declining the better known foreign places and words? Yep! As I mentioned, Icelandic is extremely protective, or at least often tries to be. For fun, go to Wikipedia sometime and look up modern technical terms which are not named after a person or based readily on existing words or people's names - things like "photon", "autism", "transistor", "amygdala", etc. Then look on the corresponding article links for different languages on the left to see what the word is in each of dozens of languages. In almost all languages it's extremely similar to the English... almost always except in Icelandic and a smattering of others, where it's something completely different. Photon is "ljóseind" (light-unit). Autism is "einhverfa" (singular-disappearence). Transistor is "smári" (clover). Amygdala is mandla (almond). Etc. Try it out. Now, again, the language isn't always as well protected in practice as one would hope, but even there it seemingly does much better than most other languages (compare an online Icelandic newspaper with a Danish one and see how many link titles you recognize the names of, for example).

So what does this all have to do with names? Well, for one, they need to use the Icelandic alphabet. Which really should be a non-controversial given. I mean, do we have to let every symbol ever conceived into names? And have them enterable into computers and handled properly? There's nothing unusually demanding about having the name be spellable with your own alphabet.

The next is declensions. The name has to decline, and it has to decline in a way that makes sense. Declensions aren't just for show; things get confusing when they're not there because the language expects them. Different verbs and phrases can have different meanings when used with different declensions!

Also, here is where gender comes in. It is a core aspect of the language. Most declension patterns - including that used by the noun "blær" - are obviously, visibly, one gender (in blær's case, the -r, -,-,-s that comes after certain vowels or clusters is always masculine). You refer to a blær (breeze or atmosphere) as "he", not "it", when talking about it. But it's more than that. Personal pronouns have to agree too. In English this only affects third person, but in Icelandic, it affects all persons. Adjectives too have to agree. If a (masculine) blær was cold, you'd say kaldur (cold-masculine) to describe it. And on and on it goes.

It's one thing to list rules, but let's try to give you a sense of how it feels in English. Mismatching nouns with their descriptive terms is like saying a "flock of lawyers" or a "wastepaper cylinder". It's understandable, but it just feels wrong. It's not in accordance with how you're supposed to talk. And even if you use all masculine terms with a masculine noun, her patronymic still ends in -dottír! That'd be like saying "He is Mrs. Smith". Again, it sounds wrong because it's just not how the language works.

Now, one can, for reasons related to gender politics, deliberately set out to break the gendered aspect of a language with genderqueering it to the point that nobody knows how to respond. But this is a historic part of the language, and I for one don't want to see the language deliberately undermined.

One could take a different route and decide, "okay, blær can also be feminine now". That we're going to change this word and make up a new declension for it. Okay, so now people are not only supposed to learn the new declension for her, but we're going so far as to say that all software that has to deal with declensions has now to determine from context or other data whether it's the normal Blær, or just this one particular girl. And of course, it's a deliberate change to the language. A lot of the time, such a made up declension will end up being no declension at all! Just a steady undermining of the Icelandic case system. I've never seen her referred to in the news no matter what the case as anything other than "Blær", although I haven't seen her referred to in eignarfall yet.

Now, all of that said, there are issues, both in general and with this particular case.

As mentioned, there are a number of names in there for historic reasons or otherwise that are, quite frankly, insulting. Blær can also point to historic precident, in that she could document one real-world female Blær. There was also a woman named Blær in a book by Iceland's nobel laureate, Halldór Laxnes (pretty much anything by Laxnes automatically gains some respect). Clearly the girl does not feel insulted by her name. And from a more fundamental basis, it's one thing to have the list to protect children from their parents giving them insulting names, but since the same list is also applied to adults, it makes it harder to defend in that context.

I've not, however, seen a defense from Blær on the basis of linguistic preservation. Using a masculine noun for a feminine name in Icelandic for a person who's not deliberately trying to genderqueer things is just asking for problems. But maybe she has some defense along these lines as well.

So anyway, I just wanted to make clear a few points:

1) Most of the foreign reporting on this case is just awful. 2) The law and the committee are not just some pointless exercise in totalitarianism, but are actually there to serve legitimate purposes. 3) There are grounds to criticize them, but it's only something that a person who knows the background and issues at hand should do, not just someone reflexively applying the American system onto another culture. 4) Blær may actually have a case; we'll see. But it's still a complicated issue.

Finally, a footnote: should it be a surprise to anyone that the first agency to break this "look at this evil totalitarian European government picking on a little girl" story was.... Fox News?

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