Iceland’s population has been relatively isolated since the island was first settled by the Vikings and their (mainly Irish and Scottish) slaves in the 9th century. Consequently, the majority of modern Iceland’s 320,000 inhabitants are inter-related. The question for prospective couples has always been, just how closely? A new smartphone app can now discreetly provide the answer.
Nearly every Icelander knows of someone who has accidentally fallen for a not-so-distant cousin, and the frequency of such genetic faux pas isn’t helped by Iceland’s family naming convention. The language and customs of Iceland have remained a last bastion of Old Norse heritage and the country still retains the old Scandinavian patronymic system of surnames, which reflect the immediate father of a child and not their historic family lineage. For example, if a man named Grim Thorbergsson has a son named Erik, Erik’s surname will not be Thorbergsson, but Grimsson. Similarly if Grim Thorbergsson has a daughter named Gudrun, her surname will be Grimsdottir. Vestiges of this patronymic naming system are still very common in England, as they are around the world, in surnames like Stevenson.
With their lineages effectively hidden, modern Icelanders flocked to sign up for free access to the Íslendingabók (Book of Icelanders) website, launched in 2010 by genetic research company deCODE and software entrepreneur Friðrik Skúlason. The Book of Icelanders traces all known family connections between Icelanders from the time of the first settlement to the present day and registers the genealogical information in a database. As well as being a genealogy research tool allowing users to uncover their exact lines of descent and view full information on anyone with whom they share common ancestry, the site has become a popular resource for young native Icelanders anxious not to inadvertently date close family relatives.
Now, the Book of Icelanders is available in a mobile format thanks to a new smartphone app, ÍslendingaApp SES, made by Icelandic developers Sad Engineer Studios. The app, which won a competition launched by the website owners, can cross-refer the genealogy of two Android smartphone users and warn them with a discreet ‘incest alarm’ if a potentially embarrassing family reunion is about to happen. It is a modern upgrade to the traditional Icelandic pre-courtship question: “Hverra manna ert þú?” (Who are your people?).