What’s in a name?

Photo: Lars Wanberg. Arne Brekke with his bygdebøk collection in the background

Your Norwegian surname can reveal hundreds or even thousands of years of knowledge and history

Larrie Wanberg

Feature Editor

Everyone has a name and every family has a heritage dating back generations upon generations.

How many, though, know the true meaning of their name, where it originated and how the identity of their name may have been altered or misinterpreted over time – often time and time again in history.

Personal names, like DNA in the genes, carry culturally-rich information about family genealogy. The “place” where the name first is recorded in history is important if one wants to trace a family tree to its deepest roots in heritage. The challenge for the family historian is to trace a family place name back as far as possible. In some cases the path can lead hundreds or thousands of years if one can solve the obstacles of how names change and have mortality like the humans that carry a given name. For many, this knowledge of their family identity is valued for the meaning it has for current family members and future generations.

For the average person with a Norwegian name, gaining new knowledge about their “place name” with new tools to make the search easier is intriguing. With modern search tools on the Web, the challenge can be like a treasure hunt with a “map and compass” to take you there.

Although the process is not a simple journey as using GPS to get to a destination, new resources – both online and onsite in a library with Internet access – can offer a learner of any age the beginning references and guides that serve as a “compass” to keep one on track and get one to where they want to go. Using library references as resources is much like utilizing a “help” desk on one’s computer – some obstacles are common and easily overcome, but as issues become more complex, a higher level of expertise is needed to “make things right.” For the most complicated, a level of advanced knowledge and scholarship is required.

At the University of North Dakota (UND), the Special Collections division of the Chester Fritz Library is amassing the largest collection of Bygdebøker anywhere, with the added value of being accessible from anyone, anywhere at any time.

Bygdebøker are histories of Norwegian farms and families compiled by local committees or groups in designated parishes and municipalities. The books are detailed accounts that generally describe the local history, the main farms in the area, and offer information about most Norwegians who have lived there since the dawn of recorded history, those who have emigrated, and those living there today.

With 1,400 volumes that are listed in Special Collections, anyone can access the cataloged books to know what is available, and can request copies of a specific farm genealogy at minimum costs. The specific location of a particular farm is needed because the same name often appears in several places.

The Arne G. Brekke Bygdebok Collection is named after the lifework of Professor Arne Brekke, now 85 and retired, who is still active as founder of Brekke Tours Scandinavia, a well-known travel and tour agency in Grand Forks. Over 57 years of helping people connect to their roots, he has promoted more than 200,000 travelers to visit and reconnect with their ancestry in Scandinavia.

While teaching languages at UND and organizing tours to Norway for over a half century, he has become literally a sole expert in interpreting Norwegian Place Names in America. University staff recently asked him what fields of knowledge are necessary to trace names accurately and how students today can prepare for study of historical linguistics to carry on this specialization.

On Tuesday, March 8th, Dr. Brekke will present an answer about interpreting Norwegian place names to the Minnkota Genealogy Society in East Grand Forks, explaining how family names well-known in the community have been changed over time, sometimes to the point of cutting off American families from an understanding of their Norwegian heritage.

His digital presentation utilizes a Map and Compass Guide to highlight the scope of the challenging question proposed to him by library staff at UND. His presentation uses a compass graphic as an organizing framework to illustrate the meaning of Norwegian Place Names, as categorized below:

The four cardinal points: 1. Habitation Names, 2. Altered Names, 3. Relationship Names, and 4. Human Geography/Geology;

The eight subcategories; Farm and Community Names; Folk Etymology and Reconstructed Names; Adjacent Locations and Topography Names; Geology and Physical Geography Names, plus;

The four areas of historical linguistic scholarship (in the inner circle of compass for comparative language studies); Norwegian Fluency, History of Norwegian Language, Old Norse, and Germanic Indo-European Languages.

The Compass graphic shows the relationships of fields and how they fit together for integrating or navigating a journey into genealogy that traces Norwegian Place Names. Each category in the illustration is defined and more fully described in a slide that follows. For more in-depth information on place names, check out http://bygdebok.library.und.edu. Or for a short video on Dr. Brekke by filmmaker Lars Wanberg, see www.wanbergmediaarts.com.

An additional feature in this presentation at the Genealogy Society is an illustrated map that pinpoints with a map pin where the Norwegian Place Name, which is used in an illustration for name interpretation, derives from the landscape. When possible, a current photo of the “place” is shown briefly before the map transitions to another slide.

This Map and Compass Guide for tracing Norwegian Place Names is intended for future showing at meetings and progressively as an online presentation, like a Webinar, that can be imbedded in a Web page and

accessed by anyone at anytime.

Grand Forks, with its density of families carrying Norwegian genes as consumers of learning and its concentrated resources for new knowledge, is becoming the center for studying Norwegian heritage, reconnecting with one’s Norwegian roots, and tracing family histories back to where the name originated.

This article originally appeared in the April 5, 2013 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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Larrie Wanberg

Larrie Wanberg, 1920–2021, contributed features to The Norwegian American for many years, drawing on eight decades of life experience highlighted by three career recognitions: as a researcher through a Fulbright Scholarship to Norway in 1957; as a health care provider in behavioral science through a 27-year military career and awarded upon retirement in 1981 the highest non-combat medal, the Legion of Merit medal; as an educator, through a 50-year career in college education, culminating in the 2010 Public Scholar award at the UND Center for Community Engagement. Wanberg passed away in May, 2021.