Roald Dahl was born in Wales to Norwegian parents, hence the Norwegian name. I always saw him as British, which he was. But they were the days that I wouldn’t recognise a Norwegian name if it banged me on the head. I am no expert now but I am a little more tuned into names and name origins. It’s the immigrant thing. You meet so many people from everywhere. You have to explain your name on a regular basis as well as coming up with all sorts of crazy word plays in your mind to try to remember their names. No different to London I guess but more intense. And I pay a lot more attention now than I used to because 90% of names are unfamiliar to me as opposed to the inversion of that.
My husband and I had a funny conversation yesterday about one of his work colleagues, Karstein. Now, Karsten is a well known Norwegian name, famous in the world of kids entertainment through a series of books about Karsten og Petra, a mischievous pair of ca. 5 year olds who have talking soft toys. But Karsten is not Karstein, obviously. We went back and forth about proper pronunciation of Karstein until I asked, quite pragmatically I thought, “Well, how does he pronounce it?!” The response that came with the incredulous look was “I don’t know! I met him 4 years ago. How on earth would I remember that!”.
You see I have a thing about names. I think it is nice to call someone by their proper name, not an approximation, not something that sounds vaguely similar. If that’s what their parents wanted, they would have options on the birth certificate.’Given name: Niamh or if you can’t manage that, Niam, or Niff or Nia or whatever you think yourself’. It would be great for creating multiple personalities or dodging the taxman perhaps but still, I would prefer the one name with universal coverage myself.
For years the Irish have been smirking at the creative pronunciations that foreigners have for Irish names like Niamh, Siobháin, Caoimhe, Tadhg. It is incredibly hard to know what sound you need to spit out and what letter you need to mutter or ignore in pronouncing these names unless you have learned the native Irish language.
I have a lot more sympathy for the vague approximations now. For a long time I was stuck on the Norwegian names Ragnhild and Håkon. There are beautiful Norwegian names that roll off the tongue like Vilde and Vemund. And then there are the names that look easy and familiar but it’s hard to readjust your set after years of English language pronunciation. I mean how hard is it to say Jonathan. Actually try saying it in Norwegian, the J is silent, the ON sounds like it’s groaning as someone sits on it and the THAN is short, clipped like you are really annoyed with it. See what I mean…?
Born in London to Irish/German, our kids have fairly neutral names. Our daughter is called Nora because I always loved the name and I did a good job selling it in to my husband when she was born. I knew this name as being an old Irish name, more common in my parents and grandparents generation. We had a neighbour called Nora when I was growing up, old, very cranky and scary to my young mind at the time but I liked her name.
And then we moved here to where Nora was the most popular girls name in 2012. People I met assumed I had a Norwegian connection when they heard her name. I didn’t. Although I may have if we go back to the Vikings but the family tree is definitely not that tall. I had read A Doll’s House many years ago, that was about it.
Last week I had a meeting with someone from NAV, which is the Norwegian Labour and Welfare government agency. I was going to meet Helge at 1 o’clock. For privacy reasons, it is common practice with NAV that they don’t come to a public waiting area and say your name. They just come out and say ‘1 o’clock meeting’ and wait for someone to reveal themselves. There were about 20 people waiting, for various different reasons I am sure. A man came out and said ‘1 o’clock meeting’, in Norwegian of course. Everyone did a great job of ignoring him and he said it again. I didn’t respond because, you may have guessed it, I expected a female. Then it dawned on me, maybe she is really a he called Helge. I jumped up and went to him and yes, he was indeed. Helge is a well known old Norse male name but I had not come across it before. I was mistaking it for Helga which is the female variant. I could have been waiting there for a very long time for a girl named Helge.
Once again, going with “It’s possible that I know something here but it could also be probable that I don’t” is a good way to go when still in the absorbing and adjusting stage of life in a new country.