Kendra Willson

Kendra Willson holds a PhD in Scandinavian languages and literatures from University of California at Berkeley in 2007.

She has held teaching and research positions at the University of Manitoba, University of California, Los Angeles, University of Helsinki, University of Turku, and University of New Mexico. Her teaching areas include Old Norse-Icelandic language and literature as well as Modern Icelandic and Swedish.

Kendra Willson’s research interests relate to the juncture between language and culture and cultural contacts in the history of the Nordic region. Her dissertation concerns nickname formation and use in Old and Modern Icelandic. Her current project focuses on the discourse of personal name law.

Another research project concerns historical language contact in the circum-Baltic region, including runes in Finland and Finno-Ugric elements in runic inscriptions. In addition, she has worked on aspects of grammaticalization, historical syntax and standardization in Icelandic, Finnish, and early Norse and on aspects of poetic translation into and out of Icelandic.

Research project: Control of personal names: identity and the state

Doctor Kendra Willson analyzes discourse surrounding legislation on personal names from a linguistic and ethnographic standpoint, focusing on how name law discussion relates to broader societal and attitudinal changes relating to ethnicity and migration, gender and family structure, and language. The geographical emphasis is on Northern Europe and the work seeks to place current debates in historical context.

Personal names are simultaneously linguistic artifacts, identifying labels used to keep track of citizens, and markers of identity on many levels. Historically, regulation of personal names is part of the consolidation of the state. While the state remains the main domain of name law, national policies which often have roots in Romantic ideas of the nation-state, have had to adjust to increased mobility, multilingualism and pluralism. Assimilationist policies have yielded to multiculturalism. Gender roles and normative family structures encoded in name practices have increasingly been questioned - for instance, how surnames are transmitted in families; whether a given name should indicate the sex of the bearer. A general trend toward liberalization reflects the above changes.

Personal freedom in name choice is viewed as a human rights issue, with reference to article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. However, gradual changes occur within a preexisting framework and are attended by anxiety and debate. Legal, scholarly and popular discourse reflect different facets of this discussion.

The material studied includes legal, scholarly, and popular writings. Methods are based in discourse analysis. The project incorporates linguistics, history, law and folkloristics.

 Dates of stay: 01 October 2018 - 31 July 2019