‘To say one’s name is to tell the family’s history’. Somali personal names in a Swedish-speaking context

By Maria Löfdahl & Lena Wenner

In: Ortnamnssällskapets i Uppsala årsskrift 2018


This study deals with Somali personal names and the encounter between the Swedish and Somali personal naming systems in a Swedish-speaking context. It is based on interview data collected using ethnographic methods. The Somali personal name system differs from the Swedish one in a number of ways. It does not use hereditary surnames, for example; instead of a hereditary family name, the father’s and grandfather’s names are added to the first (individual) name. So­malia has an oral tradition in which the narrative of ancestors’ names is central to cultural identity and, according to the informants, has both practical and sym­bolic value.

In Somalia, a variety of the Latin alphabet is used. Somali orthographic con­ventions are such that misunderstandings may arise between the Somali and Swedish conventions: for example, Ahmad is written Axmad in Somali. Some­times Somali-speaking name bearers change the spelling of their names in offi­cial or unofficial contexts, sometimes they do not. In the study it is argued that orthographic conventions are to be seen as endowed with a symbolism of iden­tity.

The study discusses how Swedish authorities deal with differences between Swedish and Somali names, and how the name bearers experience this encounter.

Since the 1980s, there have been Somali communities living in many different areas around the world. The Somali people live in a state of movement and flow which leads to a translocational positionality, rather than a sense of belonging to a single nation. This circumstance affects the naming system.