Estonian names keep on puzzling through the centuries

  • 2002-03-07
  • Aleksei Gunter
To conclude our three-part series of features about names in the Baltic states, Aleksei Gunter finds that modern borrowings just don't work in Estonia.

One of the most interesting - and tricky - things about Estonian first names is you often have to guess if it's male or female. They all look and sound alike. The situation today is even more chaotic, with names that are an unpredictable concoction of Finno-Ugric and other traditions.

The Finno-Ugric language family lists a dozen languages spoken in Central Europe, Scandinavia, and parts of Russia and Siberia. The most widely spoken are Hungarian (14 million speakers), Finnish (5 million speakers), Mordvin - used in parts of the Urals - and Estonian (around 900,000 speakers each).

Estonian is not related to the other two languages of the Baltic states - Latvian and Lithuanian - which both belong to the Indo-European family, but are a branch of Baltic languages on their own.

According to the Registry Office of the Ministry of Interior, parents are known to regularly invent some pretty strange names. One employee began making his own collection three years ago, and monthly updates are now published on the Internet.

For Estonian ears, the strangest boys' names in recent years have been Ronan, Christopher and Gerhander, while girls have to suffer the altogether less straightforward Griseldis, Eglyd and Andrea-Garlet.

In 2002, some of the most popular names given to babies have been Sten and Nikita for boys, and Laura, Sandra and Valeria for girls.

The name Laura has been the top choice for girls for a couple of months now. This makes it a true, modern pan-Baltic name popular in Lithuania and Latvia as well, a name that has only recently seeped into the region from Western Europe and North America. Isn't that a sign of globalization?

According to Peeter Tall, a researcher at the Estonian Language Institute, the main reasons for preferring this name over that changed in Estonia long ago.

"People take into account the names of local and international celebrities or famous relatives," said Tall.

Illiterate parents

Yet old pagan Estonian names like Lembit, Meelis, Sulev and Olev are becoming popular again.

Tall thinks the use of foreign letters in an Estonian name is a confirmation of what he brands parents' illiteracy. "Names such as Cathlyn, spelled with 'y' and a diacritical 'a' coming after 'c' look awful. They're hard to pronounce correctly," he said, adding that parents should always think twice before coming up with a foreign name for their child.

Estonian grammar allows the usage of the letters c, q, w, x and y only when writing foreign names or expressions.

According to Keele Web, an online project at the Open Estonia Foundation dedicated to language issues, in 1995 people living in Estonia had about 52,000 different first names, including double names like Maarja-Liis, and about 138,000 family names.

Unbelievably, there are only 5,509 first-name entries in the database that have been used more than six times. All the other names are considered virtually unique.

The trend of giving children original names started before the restoration of independence in 1991. There are 156 Daisies, 24 Johns, 19 Michaels and 790 Richards in the database, which unfortunately has not been updated since 1995.

It's interesting to follow the popularity of different versions of basically one and the same name. Let's take Thomas, for instance. There are 6,611 men named Toomas and 73 called Thomas. Other version are Tomas (57), Tom (63), Tommy (14) and Tomi (10). The latter is a "Finnish-ized" version of the name.


But how does a bearer of an original name feel about it? We asked Tex Vertmann, a press advisor for the Estonian government.

Vertmann said his parents used to spend the best moments of their life together at the cinema, watching all kinds of foreign movies that had either been left behind by the Germans or bought by the Soviet Union from the U.S.

Among these were the Italian film "Return to Sorrento" and "Waterloo Bridge" with its famous waltz. But Vertmann's parents just adored "Sun Valley Serenade," in which the famous Glenn Miller conducted his orchestra.

The name of one of Miller's band players, the tenor-sax, was Tex Beneke. Vertmann remembered the parents also liked the Miller song "Chattanooga Choo-Choo," which begins with the line "Hello Tex!" That's how Vertmann got his very original name in the times of "deep socialism."

"Maybe because of my name I also like old musicals, jazz and swing," said Vertmann, adding that he appreciates his name because it's short, original and easily remembered.

Vertmann, 27, has also had a number of misunderstandings because of his name.

"Police officers and bank clerks sometimes think Tex Vertmann is a company name," he said.

According to a science magazine issued by the Estonian Language Institute, when Estonians were christened in the 13th century, the Catholic church didn't immediately make them take Christian names.

These became dominant only at the end of the 15th century. Usually the parents chose a name, but godparents and relatives could give advice. These traditions varied depending upon the region.


A newborn child could receive two names, one Christian and one pagan, and their use varied depending on the occasion. For example, a mother-in-law never called a daughter-in-law by her Christian name.

Ulo Valk, a folklore researcher at Tartu University, wrote that the practice to name the firstborn child after its grandfather or grandmother is most probably part of a pre-Christian tradition known all over Eurasia. The archaic international custom bears evidence to the worship of ancestors and the belief that a human being is reborn into another life.

A child was believed to be as good as its ancestor. So it was better to remember dead relatives and hold them in reverence, otherwise the child could die, the ancient Estonians believed.

"Like many other peoples, the Estonians believed that by naming the child after another person, his or her qualities, inclinations and temperament would also be transferred to the child," explains Valk.