Cognitive ageing

Sticks and stones (2): How names work

A stranger in the village

When people migrate to Sweden, they are given the option of exchanging their current last name for one that sounds a little more Swedish. The process is administered by the Patent- och registreringsverket  – the Patent and Registration Office (PRV) – and of the many rules it enforces, an important one requires anyone wanting to adopt an existing Swedish surname to prove their descent from at least two generations of people with that name who lived in the past 100 years. This, of course, is not something most immigrants can do. Instead they must  come up with a new name, and then apply to the PRV for permission to use it.

To help with the process of inventing new Swedish sounding names,  the PRV offers detailed guidance. This must come as a relief to anyone going down this path, because  Section 12, paragraph 1 of the Names Act (1982) states that that any candidate name that “in composition, pronunciation or spelling has such a linguistic form that it is not appropriate as a surname in this country” will be summarily rejected.

Although you might wonder why anyone would possibly go to all the trouble, many newcomers to Sweden clearly feel it’s worth it, and large numbers of them submit to the process every year. This in turn has created a kind of natural experiment, because it allows the fortunes of immigrants who adopt these new Swedish-sounding surnames to be compared to those immigrants who choose to stick with their existing, foreign surnames. And when economists Mahmood Arai and Peter Skogman Thoursie ran the numbers from this experiment, they found that immigrants who adopted Swedish sounding names earned 12 to 44% more in salary than immigrants who didn’t (depending on how exactly the difference was calculated). (more…)