Understanding surnames and given names can help you find and identify your ancestors in genealogical records.
In Finnish genealogical research, researching people with a common surname is not always productive because people often changed their surnames when they moved or for other reasons.
In the beginning of the 1900s as Finnish nationalism grew, many Swedish and other foreign sounding names were changed to Finnish names. For example Forsman became Koskimies and Widbom became Pajula. These could be direct translations, partial translations, or completely different names.
A law requiring permanent surnames for all Finnish citizens was passed in 1920.
Before record keeping began, most people had only one name, such as Johan. As the population increased, it became necessary to distinguish between individuals with the same name. The problem was usually solved by adding descriptive information. Johan became Johan the smith, Johan the son of Matts, or Johan from a given farm. At first, such "surnames" applied only to one person and not to the whole family. After a few generations, these names sometimes became hereditary and were used from father to son. Before the twentieth century, women in Finland generally did not assume the husband’s surname at marriage.
Eastern and western Finland have different naming traditions. Both naming customs date back to the earliest written sources. There was frequent overlap of these practices in both areas.
Finnish birth records did not generally list a surname for newborn infants, but instead, listed a first name. In creating a surname standard for the International Genealogical Index, the Family History Library assigns the surnames strictly by whether a parish is classified as a patronymic parish (western) or a set surname parish (eastern). Without knowing which way a parish was classified, it is best to try all known possible variations, such as patronymic, farm names, and fixed surnames, when searching the International Genealogical Index.
All Finns had patronymic names. If they also had a farm name or a family surname, the patronymic name may or may not have been written out. The same person may have used a patronymic name in one record and a farm or family surname in another record.
Following is a brief description of various types of Finnish surnames according to geographic (east-west) distributions:
Western Finland (Ahvenanmaa, Häme, Kymi, Turku-Pori, Uusimaa, and Vaasa Counties with the exception of certain parishes). Surnames changed from generation to generation according to the Scandinavian patronymic naming customs used in Sweden.
Eastern Finland (Kuopio, Lappi, Mikkeli, Oulu, and Viipuri Counties with the exception of certain parishes). Surnames did not change from generation to generation.
Surnames in Western Finland
Two types of surnames were common in western Finland: patronymic and farm names. A farm name could be used in additional to a patronymic name.
Patronymic Surnames. Patronymic surnames were common throughout Finland, but most people in western Finland used only a patronymic surname.
Patronymic surnames are based on the father’s given name. Swedish patronymics end with -son (son) or -dotter (daughter). For instance, Lars, son of Anders, was named Lars Andersson, and Maria, daughter of Anders, was named Maria Andersdotter.
Although church records used the Swedish form of the names, Finnish genealogists often convert them to their Finnish equivalents. Patronymic names in Finnish end with -poika (son) or -tytär (daughter). For example Lars Andersson is Lauri Antinpoika and Maria Andersdotter is Maria Antintytär in Finnish.
In cases of illegitimacy, a child’s surname might be based on the mother’s given name. For example, Henrik Mariasson would be the son of a Maria.
In the late nineteenth century, patronymic surnames became fixed. In other words, they no longer changed with each generation. As names became fixed, brothers could take different surnames. One may have taken his own patronymic name, while another may have taken his father’s patronymic name. For example, brothers named Sven and Pär could be listed with different surnames. If their father was Lars Andersson, one son might be listed as Sven Andersson (from his father’s patronymic) and the other son as Pär Larsen (from his own patronymic).
Farm Names. Farm names were often used like surnames, but they referred to a person’s place of residence. Thus a person called Juho (Johan) Koskiniemi lived at a place called Koskiniemi. If he moved, he would use the name of the new farm as a surname. During the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, farm names often became fixed family surnames.
Surnames in Eastern Finland
Family Names. The surnames used in eastern Finland are family surnames, which means that they were used in a family from generation to generation. They represent some of the earliest family surnames of Europe and most of them indicate relationship or common origin, although this cannot always be proved because of few sources.
Family surnames have certain types of endings: -nen or -ainen/-äinen. For example, Huuskonen and Liimatainen are family surnames. In earlier records, these names were found with other endings, such as Huuskoin and Liimatain. Early records also used a feminine variation: -tar. For example, Huuskotar and Liimatar both have the feminine ending.
Nature. Other types of surnames used in eastern Finland refer to nature. Such surnames include Kurki (crane), Orava (squirrel), and Repo (fox).
Farm Names. Farm names were also used in eastern Finland. Here they developed into permanent family surnames and did not change as a family moved. These names often end in -la/-lä or -lainen/-läinen. Examples of these names include Heikkilä (Heikki’s farm) and Haapalainen (place of aspens).
When a soldier enlisted in the army, he was given a new surname. This name stayed with him as long as he served in the military. Often a certain name was associated with the soldier’s cottage, and each new soldier assigned to that cottage received the same name. Soldier names pertained only to the soldier himself and not to his family or descendants. After the mid-nineteenth century, however, these names frequently became permanent family surnames.
The Swedish military used soldier names to distinguish persons with common patronymic names, such as Johansson and Mattsson. The soldier names were usually short, descriptive, and derived from Swedish: examples are Stål (steel), Glad (happy), Kämpe (fighter), Dufva (dove). However, in the mid-1800s Finnish language soldier names also became popular; examples are Kuula (canon ball, bullet), Luoti (bullet), Saari (island).
Other Types of Surnames
Besides using patronymic names, both the nobility and clergy used additional, inherited surnames. Nobility surnames are unique family surnames, generally given at the time of ennoblement. The clergy often assumed surnames with the Latinized ending -ius, such as Alcenius and Rothovius.
In the 1800s artisans and urban tradesmen began to use their occupations as surnames in either their Finnish or Swedish versions. Examples of these names are Nikkari or Snickare (carpenter) and Mylläri or Möllare (miller). They also took Swedish compound names, such as Söderqvist, Sjöberg, and Lindholm.
An authoritative reference book about given names and surnames is:
Vilkuna, Kustaa. Suomalainen nimikirja (Finnish Name Book). Helsinki: Otava, 1984. (FHL book 948.97 G2s v.6)
You can find more sources about names in the Locality Search of the Family History Library Catalog under:
FINLAND - NAMES, PERSONAL