Finding your family in Norway

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An excerpt of a map showing Norway’s fylker and kommuner.

The Norwegian American

As winter weather has set in throughout most of the country and coronavirus restrictions continue to keep us at home, there has never been a better time to dive into family history. Most research can be done right from your own computer, and it is both an educational and entertaining way to pass the hours.

For Norwegian Americans, there are ex­tensive resources and archives available. So much information, though, might at first seem overwhelming.

And then there are all those place names. The letter combinations may seem strange to the uninitiated, and then how do you actually locate them on a map of Norway? Many of us find ourselves wishing that we knew more about Norwegian geography and history in general.

Fortunately, there is help from longtime supporter of The Norwegian American Deb Nelson Gourley and Astri My Astri Publishing in Waukon, Iowa.

We are pleased to partner with Deb to offer you some essential translation tips for understanding place names in Norway, with a detailed map and five-generation pedigree chart.

We urge you to start with talking to your living relatives now and then dive into your research with full functionality of the kits that Astri My Astri offers—I promise that you will find the most fascinating things.

Translation tips for historical Norwegian geographical and political place names
Exerpted from Arne Brekke, Ph.D., Place Name Research, University of Chicago, 1963. Reprinted from History of the Norwegian Settlements by Hjalmar Rued Holand ©2006, Copyright ©2009 by Deb Nelson Gourley, Astri My Astri Publishing

Over the years, there has been considerable confusion when it comes to the translation of Norwegian geographical terms, especially the political designations known as fylke and kommune. It has been common to use the word county for both fylke and kommune, although it is not a good translation for either. It is best to use the word fylke for district, and the word kommune for municipality.

As of Jan. 1, 2005, Norway had 18 fylker (plural) or administrative districts; 433 kommuner (plural) or municipalities; and one bykommune (Oslo). Example: Bergen is considered a kommune (municipality) within Hordaland fylke (district). [Note: The historical map of Norway was redrawn with the 2017-2020 reform, which reduced the number of administrative districts (fylker) to 11 and the municipalities (kommuner) to 356.]

In Norway, places with more than 200 inhabitants are called byer, or towns. Places with fewer than 200 inhabitants are called tettsteder, or population centers.

A fylke in Norway is a much larger and more significant political unit than a county in an American state.

Following are suggestions for American-English equivalents of Norwegian geographical terms:

  • Dal would usually translate valley, but when it includes the adjacent areas, such as Hallingdal, Gudbrandsdal or Valdres, one can talk about the Hallingdal, Gudbrandsdal and Valdres areas.
  • An area within a kommune served by an individual church, called a sokn or sogn, should be translated as parish.
  • A bygd is usually a rural settlement.
  • Fjord names are normally not translated, but compound fjord-name elements are usually spelled separately in English, as in “Oslo Fjord,” the “Sogne Fjord,” etc. Sometimes, when the other name element is obvious and meaningful, it can be translated as in Sørfjorden (South Fjord).
  • Areas including several fylker, such as Østlandet, Sørlandet, Vestlandet, Midt-Norge, and Nord-Norge, are best referred to as regions.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 25, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.