Svalbard Or Spitsbergen? Which Name Should You Use? (Explained!)

When you are reading up on the arctic island owned by Norway, you often see the words Svalbard and Spitsbergen used interchangeably. Some stick to only one way of writing it, while others tend to mix it up a little.

So, should you use Svalbard or Spitsbergen when talking about this island archipelago?

The best word to use from a Norwegians point of view is Svalbard, which has Nordic roots and is the official name. The word Spitsbergen is fine, but it is worth being aware that is is a name that the Russian government is trying to make popular for political reasons.

That’s the short summary of it. If you want to travel to Norway, the best word to use is Svalbard. This is also the same in Norwegian, so you are 100 % sure that everyone understands what you are talking about.

And as you can probably guess from the summary, there is a lot of political forces behind the naming of Svalbard. So let’s take a closer look at the different names, who are trying to push them, and which ones you should use.

Homes on Svalbard
Homes on Svalbard. Photo by Peter Vermeij, published with permission.

Svalbard used to be called Spitsbergen before Norway claimed it

The historic name of Svalbard used to be Spitsbergen, but the island group officially changed its name in 1920 when the Svalbard Treaty was signed. This treaty gave Norway right to rule on Svalbard, but also opened for all countries to use the island for their own benefit if they chooses to.

So before this treaty, the only name used in English for Svalbard was Spitsbergen. Spitsbergen originated from 1596 when Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz “discovered” the island group. We used the word “discovered” and not discovered because both Norse vikings as well as Russian trappers had previously discovered and lived on Svalbard.

However, after the treaty was signed in 1920, the official name changed to Svalbard even in English.

So why Svalbard?

The name Svalbard was found in Icelandic viking sagas that dated back to the 14th century, way before the island was named Spitsbergen. So Norway thinks that these Icelandic sagas are the original source of the island’s name, and chose that. Svalbard has also been the Norwegian word for the island since Norwegian became a language.

Many people claim that Norway forced in this name change to cement a debated idea that Norwegians were the first to discover the island.

However, many claim that Russian trappers lived on the island before the vikings found it. The truth is that no one knows, since historical sources from this time period are sketchy at best.

A glacier on Svalbard
A glacier on Svalbard. Photo published with permission.

Why Russian officials want to use the word Spitsbergen

There is a lot of political conflict over Svalbard, and some countries like Russia are not very happy with the Svalbard treaty any longer. And as always, economic values are the reason.

There have recently been found lots of valuable mineral deposits on the border outside Svalbard. Russian thinks that the Svalbard treaty should be changed to let them harvest these minerals, but the Norwegian want to keep the treaty like it is and not allow Russia to get these minerals.

So for this reason Russian officials have begun a misinformation project where they do things like trying to remove the word Svalbard from existence by not acknowledging that this is the name of the island. Some consider this to be a propaganda machine with the intent of undermining the importance of the Svalbard treaty, other simply think it if a type of historical protest.

No matter which word you chose, be aware that there is a clear political movement behind the words. You are either supporting Norwegian claims or supporting Russian claims based on which word you use, so take that into consideration.

And to end things, I would also like to just clarify that I’m Norwegian, so I’m biased towards using Svalbard. You are reading this on The Norway Guide after all, not The Russia Guide. Please make up your own opinion and do your own research if you want to learn more about this political issue.

Pyramiden at Svalbard
Pyramiden at Svalbard. Photo published with permission.

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