Law attempts to preserve traditions, wipe out weird names

  • 2005-04-06
  • By Aleksei Gunter
TALLINN - Dubbing one's child after a science-fiction character or an international celebrity has become almost impossible in Estonia due to the Law on Names that came into effect on March 31.

The motivation behind this law goes beyond governmental attempts to prevent schoolyard name-teasing. Lawmakers are aiming to make the Estonian name landscape more transparent, and also hope to ban everything uncommon to the national language and culture.

"The main goal of the law is to preserve Estonian name traditions, and create legal order with the use of given and family names," said Enel Pungas, head of the Interior Ministry's population affairs bureau, adding that the law would not interfere much with people's private lives and their rights to self-expression.

Rather, the legislation is based on practical principles, he said. It also regulates foreign names that are entered in Estonian documents.

The law further stipulates that a person can change his or her name only once, unless there is a significant reason for doing so. But it is illegal to change one's surname to one of the 239 widespread Estonian last names, such as Sepp, which is carried by 500 residents.

According to Kersti Hiedel, advisor to the Ministry of the Interior's population affairs bureau, this amendment resulted from the legislator's wish to diversify Estonian surnames.

The law also prohibits changing one's full name, or naming one's child after an Estonian or international celebrity, such as Lennart Meri or John Kennedy.

More specifically, the first name given to a newborn baby can consist of up to three stand-alone or two hyphenated words. Numbers and other non-verbal symbols are prohibited, which rules out naming one's son Carl XII. And it is now illegal to have a name with "improper" linguistic meaning in the Estonian language, such as Aita Leida Kuusepuu (Estonian for 'help find a Christmas tree').

Finally, the law restricts the use of "an unusual first name, which is not proper due to its complicated spelling or pronunciation, incompliant with general language use or general linguistic meaning."

Exceptions can be made, however, in accordance with parents' citizenship, cultural traditions or other "essential" reasons. In theory, this would allow non-Estonians residents to maintain their traditions.

"For Estonians, Janne is a girl's name, while in Finland it is a boy's name. If a Finn whose child was born in Estonia would like to name his son Janne, we should make such the exception foreseen by the law," said Hiedel.

The advisor added that possible disputes between officials and parents over name regulations would be settled within reasonable compromise.

A rating of the nation's most unusual and popular names, composed by the Ministry of Interior, includes girls' names Kustuta (Estonian for "delete"), Angry, Silli and others. Among the ultra-original boys' names are Lucifer, Mango, Amor and Eros.

Apart from the never-ending gender guessing game 's sometimes even Estonians themselves cannot say if a newly invented name belongs to a male or a female citizen 's it is the careless use of foreign spelling that annoys language purists.

Words and names with Estonian origin would not normally include letters such as 'c', 'y', 'w', and 'x'. Add the combination of uncommon letters such as 'th,' and the name Cathlyn, spelled with diacritical 'a', would make any Estonian linguist shudder.

Peeter Pall, an expert from the grammar division of the Estonian Language Institute and one of the authors of the law, said that the action was not meant to limit a parent's creative desire, but to define the state's regulation over names.

Pall said that Finland and Sweden have similar laws.

"The law does not ban certain letters in names. If a name exists in Estonian or within any other cultural tradition, it can be given to an Estonian child," said Pall.

For example, the name John would be acceptable while its Estonian transcription 'Dzhon' would not.

According to the Estonian Language Development Strategy 2004-2010, a framework document approved by the government in August 2004, the use of names in Estonia is characterized by openness and susceptibility to foreign influences, especially in the case of personal and business names. The strategy hopes to reach a sensible balance between the rights of an individual, and the expectations of society to weed out foreign influences.