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Finnish Genealogy: The Finnish Naming System

Leif Mether

It is important to know the development and use of Finnish family names when doing genealogical research in Finland or when one is only interested in finding their closest ancestors. There is a distinct Finnish naming system differing from the systems in the neighboring countries, not to mention the use in other European countries. The names brought to North America by Finnish migrants transformed in a certain manner because of the Finnish type of names. I am not going to explain the mechanisms of the transformation or the results of it, but I should say a knowledge of how names were used in Finland helps genealogists in North America understand how the Finnish names were remodeled and deformed.

It is important to know the division of Finland into two different cultural areas. One area is the eastern cultural area, the other is the western cultural area. The sharp border between the two areas is not visible only in family names, but also in buildings, methods of agriculture and many other ways. Finland has geographically always been in the borderland between east and west. In the east there was Novgorod, later called Russia, with the Eastern Orthodox Church. The influence of the strong church extended far inside Finland, not only to Karelia, but also further westwards to Savo. To the west of the cultural border was an area which was part of Sweden for more than 700 years. The prevailing way of thinking was closer to the western model, and the dominating faith was first the Roman Catholic, and later the Lutheran.

Eastern Finnish Name

An early naming system developed in the eastern cultural area, perhaps already during the 1200's. The system went through the whole period of Swedish supremacy in both Savo and Karelia. It was founded on the legal conditions of the tribes in the eastern parts of Finland, and not adopted from outside as with many later systems. It was likely founded on the inner hierarchy and the system of owning and using land property as well as the right of inheritance in different families and "clans". The names were probably signs of the clans. They were mainly formed out of given names of individuals, which may have been the patriarchs of the families. The names tied together families, and showed, for example, which individuals were permitted to hunt within a certain area. One important rule was the inheritance of the names. A son-in-law accepted by the family could get the name of his father-in-law. Women stayed within the family and kept their fathers' name, even if they were married. New names developed when clans were divided. A new name developed from the name of the patriarch, or, was based on the name of the place where the new clan lived.

A characteristic of the names are the endings -nen or -inen as in Kekkonen, Laukkanen, Koponen, Laitinen, and Hartikainen. The names of women usually had the ending -tar or -tär: Kekkotar, Laukatar, Kopotar, Laititar, and Hartikatar.Usually it is possible to linguistically derive an origin to a name. The origin is irrelevant for genealogical purposes because the names came into use before there were any written sources.

Western Finnish Names

The western cultural area was, as told above, closely connected to Sweden. Family names were not used in Sweden. People were identified by a combination of a given name and a father's name, a patronymic. A patronymic is formed by attaching an ending -son or -dotter to a given name (-poika and -tytär in Finnish; I use the Swedish forms because all sources in Finland are written in Swedish before the second half of 1800's). Thus "Olof Johansson" is "Olof, the son of Johan". In three generations there may be a chain Per Nilsson (grandfather) > Johan Persson (father) > Maria Johansdotter (daughter). Nilsson, Persson and Johansdotter are not family names but patronymics, not inheriting from one generation to the next one. When laws about family names were introduced in Finland and Sweden in the early 1900's, many individuals decided to make a patronymic to an inheriting family name. Thats why many of the Swedes today have family names ending in -son.

During the second half of the 1800's and the beginning of the 1900's a majority of people in the western parts of Finland accepted family names. Many started to use the farm name as a family name. The genealogist may sometimes have difficulties to distinguish a farm name from a family name in old records because a farm name may be used in the same manner as a family name. The difference between a family name and a farm name is that family names are inherited to younger generations, while farm names change when individuals move from one farm to another.

Farm names usually have an ending -la or -lä as in Anttila, Lukkarila and Takala. Many of the farm names originate in given names: Pekkala is a place where Pekka lives. It is usually impossible to find who gave his name to the farm. The name may have developed hundreds of years ago and the family may have moved away and been replaced by another family, while the original name of the farm has been in use all the time.

There are are also examples of farms which got the name from some family coming as settlers from the eastern cultural area. Someone with the name Taskinen moved from the Savo area to northern Ostrobothnia, and settled on a farm which got the name Taskila. The original family name was forgotten after a couple of generations because it was uncommon with family names in that area, because everyone used a given name plus a patronymic. Some generations later the farm is sold and the new owners start to use a family name in the beginning of 1900's. They now choose the name Taskinen. The family name has been passed over to a family without any kinship to the original Taskinen family 300 years earlier.

There are many variations of farm names, especially in Ostrobothnia, from where most of the Finns in North America descend. Names built up of two different parts as Koivuhakola, Tikanoja and Ojaharju are common. A separate group of names are the one where the first part of the name change and the second part is the same: Latvanikula, Alanikula; Ylänikula, Takanikula, Peränikula, Keskinikula, etc. There may have been a farm Nikula which was divided into several parts, then into smaller parts. There may be difficulties in proving a relationship between the inhabitants at the different Nikula farms, because the division may have been done during a period from which no written documents are found.

Soldier Names

A special type of names is called soldier names. In the kingdom of Sweden-Finland a system with soldiers kept up by farms were introduced in the 1600's. Sometimes the farmer himself was the soldier, sometimes it was his son or a farmhand, or a man hired for the duty. To separate all the men with similar names (given name + patronymic) a law stated that soldiers should have distinct additional names. A system was introduced where every place in the soldier's roll - the index of soldiers - got an easy-to-use name. The names were usually short and easy to pronounce, and could be of a certain type in certain companies. Examples of the names are Harnesk (armour), Vackcr (beautiful), Klinga (blade, sword), and Trumpet (trumpet). In the beginning the names were Swedish, but later Finnish names were used.

When a soldier retired he could take back his original family name or he could return to his given name plus patronymic. It was also possible for him to continue using the soldier's name, and the soldier's name then became an inherited family name for his descendants. His successor as soldier got the same name, because his name was connected to the roll, even if they were not related.


Craftsmen living and working in towns had to use family names. The names are usually Swedish and they are still in use by many families, even if they sometimes have been changed to more Finnish sounding names. Typical parts of the names are -berg (rock), -lund (grove), -qvist (branch), etc. Elgman, Lundberg, Roslund, Lindqvist and Forsvik may be family names adopted by craftsmen.

Educated People

Already in the 1600's educated people such as pastors started to use family names.

The pastors usually had a given name plus patronymic, but used in Latin as Henricus Petri (Henrik Pettersson). Educated people sometimes took a family name relating to a home town. It was not uncommon for people to change the family name. Perhaps the new name better told were he was working as a priest. The names were typically ending on -us, -ius, -ensis (from Latin) or -ander (from Greek). Kalajoki > Calamnius (joki = river = amnis in Latin), Wegelius (wegg = wall in old Swedish spelling; adopted from the river Seinäjoki in Ostrobothnia, seinä = wall), Kekkonen > Kekoni, Kettunen > Alopaeus (kettu = fox = alopex in Latin), Savisaari > Argillander (savi = clay = argilla in Latin), etc.

Name Changes

Family names in Finland adopted during the last 200-300 years were usually Swedish sounding (except for the names from the eastern area). In the end of the 1800's nationalistic thoughts arose and people started to change names to more Finnish-sounding names.

In 1906 a lot of name changes were made to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the birth of the statesman and philosopher J. V. Snellman. Some people translated their names to Finnish, while other made completely new name constructions.

Certain types of names were popular during certain time periods. One, can say that names where chosen according to fashion systems. Common Finnish names were also changed to uncommon names.


There are many different types of translated names. Some are direct translations, while other are ingenious inventions. Some examples: Hornborg > Sarvilinna (horn = sarvi = horn, borg = linna = castle), Helin > Urjanheimo (from the parish name Urjala), Stenius > Korpijaakko (old family tradition), Tengén > Tenkanen (back to the original family name), Wessman > Vesama (equally sounding), etc.

The Virtanen Type

Family names reminding of the old names of the eastern type were constructed. The first part of the names are usually from nature: Virtanen (virta = stream), Nieminen (niemi = point), Salonen (salo = waste, desert), and Suominen (Suomi = Finland). Many of them are nowadays common Finnish names. It is also clear that people using these names are usually not related. Most of the Virtanen type of names were adopted from 1900 to 1910.

Published in the The Finnish American Reporter, August 2000.

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