While technically considered a part of Scandinavia, Finland has a unique language and surname traditions all its own that set it apart from its neighbors in Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. In fact, Finland spent a long time as a part of Sweden. While it was its own nation from earliest recorded times to the Middle Ages, it was conquered by the Swedes in the 12th and 13th centuries A.D. as part of the overall Crusade movement. This brought Finland into the world of the Catholic Church. Finnish gradually became the language of the peasantry, while Swedish was used by the nobility and the church.
Finland was conquered by Russia in 1809, and declared itself independent in 1917, after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. This was the first time Finland had been an independent country in at least 700 years, yet the original Finnish language from those ancient, pre-Sweden times still survived. It is the language that was used to create Finnish surnames.
Like other European and Scandinavian countries, the most common type of surname in Finland was the patronymic, with a person taking on a surname based on the first name of their father. However, the Finnish language is very different from other European languages, including English, and those who emigrated from Finland often found that people of other nations simply couldn’t pronounce their surnames as they were meant to be pronounced in the native language. Since many people from Finland left the country during the Bolshevik revolution, having surnames that conformed to the local languages of the places they went was important to them, as they wanted safety for their families, and this meant being accepted in the nations they went to.
Upon leaving Finland, some Finnish immigrants abandoned their traditional surnames completely, while others changed them to Swedish versions. Others adapted their surnames to the local culture while still maintaining the Finnish distinction of their names, while others refused to change anything about their surname. That is why there is such a variety of Finnish surnames in the world today. It all depended on what those who left the country did with their surname in their new country.
The most common thing that was done was compromise, by keeping the basic part of the Finnish surname and shortening its suffix or prefix (which most Finnish surnames had in the home country). Doing this allowed people in the new country to pronounce the name, while preserving the name’s unmistakable Finnish identity. As an example, the Finnish surnames Makela, Makinen, and Makitalo dropped the suffixes and became Maki. Likewise, Finnish surnames Hautamaki, Niinimaki, and Katajamaki dropped the prefixes and became just Maki in other countries.
Most Finnish patronymic surnames ended in “nen” or “la,” or began with “Koski,” “Niemi,” or “Saari,” and these are still very common surnames, using these suffixes and prefixes, in Finland today (in fact, one-third of all people living in Finland today have surnames ending in “nen.” The names with these suffixes and prefixes may look and sound different in other countries, but are still recognizably Finnish.
The “nen” ending of a Finnish surname can mean “son of,” but is usually a descriptive of the place where a family lived. As examples, Makinen means “small hill,” and “Virtanen” means “small stream.” These names mean the family came from the stream or the hill.
Additionally, the “nen” originally came from the Eastern part of Finland, and was used in the earliest surnames there. However, it moved to the Western part of Finland in the 1800’s, around the time Finland became part of Russia, and now “nen” surnames are common in the entire country.
Not only are “nen” surnames incredibly common in Finland, the top four most common surnames in Finland are “nen” names. The top four are: Virtanen, Korhonen, Makinen, and Neiminens. Interestingly, Korhonen obscurely translates to “deaf old man,” so there must have been a lot of them in ancient Finland.
After the “nen” names, the next most common ones are those that end in “la.” “La” surnames are almost always place names, describing the place where a family lived or from where an individual originated, like Makela, which means “from a hill.” Occasionally, they may refer to someone’s occupation, like Seppala, which means “smith.”
The Finnish people lived off the land—most of them were farmers until modern times. Their close relationship with the land means there are a lot of nature-related Finnish surnames, too. Halla, for example, means “frost,” Nummi means “moor,” Niemi means “peninsula,” Kivi means “stone,” “Susi” means “wolf,” “Sikanen” means “little pigs, and Kanerva means “heather.”
While patronymic surnames were used in Finland for centuries, not every family adopted the practice, and the official adoption of hereditary surnames did not take place in Finland until the period between 1850 and 1921. In the early 20th century, many Finnish people who had taken on Swedish surnames changed them to the Finnish translation of those Swedish words, to better reflect their nationality and culture.
In the 1990’s, the laws in Finland changed to allow both men and women to choose their own surname at marriage, though eighty percent of Finnish women still take on their husband’s surname. Other couples now choose an entirely new surname in Finland upon marriage, to signify the new life they are starting together.
Other married couples do what people in other Western nations are doing—they hyphenate. Of course, depending on the meaning of the surnames of the husband and wife, hyphenating the new, married surname can produce some interesting combinations in the Finnish language. As an example, newlywed couples with the surnames Pulska and Orava, both common Finnish surnames, would have a new, hyphenated surname that literally translates to “fat squirrel.” The surnames of Nalkainen and Karhu combine when hyphenated to mean “hungry bear.” Those are some interesting new Finnish surnames.
Finnish surnames are unique among other European surnames, both in language and use. That is what makes them so fascinating.