'Nelery' court saga enters third year, reaches Supreme Court

Soft toy emblazoned with a name that passed up all three levels of Estonia's court system, over a two-and-a-half year period.
Soft toy emblazoned with a name that passed up all three levels of Estonia's court system, over a two-and-a-half year period. Source: ERR

A Rakvere mother has been involved in disputes with the town's authorities for over two years now, on whether her child's first name can be registered as 'Nelery', as opposed to the commoner spelling of 'Neleri'. The furor has now made it to the highest court in the land.

Kadri Trilljärv, who became a mother two-and-a-half years ago, says she carefully chose the name for her daughter. The name is similar to her father's, and because there is a '-y' in both her grandmother and aunt's names, the family opted to spell Nelery with a '-y' too.

"When I googled the name, I found the name exists. I didn't see any problem in it," Kadri admitted.

The surprise was thus not small, Trilljärv says, when Rakvere city council refused to register the name, citing a spelling inconsistency. The argument that there is at least one person called Nelery inside Estonia - registered in the same town of 15,000 people, in fact - wasn't sufficient, the authorities said.

The only "official" Nelery was also registered with the Rakvere city government, 25 years ago, and that Nelery's parents didn't have any problems with the name. However, times have changed it appears.

Since 2010, a Names Act amendment states the manner of writing a name has to match the spelling rule, and there has to be at least one person in the world who has the name with this "foreign" spelling.

The interior ministry's population operations department manager, Enel Pungas, said that the law was changed because people start to name their children with very complicated names which were hard to both spell and pronounce.

"But in fact, it is not true that you can't have a '-y' in the name. The rule is that first it the name has to have Estonian letters. When there's a '-y' (which is absent from the Estonian alphabet - ed.) in the name, it will be ascertained if there is a person in the world with that name and that spelling, and if one is found, there's nothing wrong with putting that name in that way," Pungas said.

The "Nelery" court case has lasted for two years, and while the family has won their case at both the first (county) and second (circuit) court levels, the Rakvere authorities have refused to back down, and now the case has now made it to the Supreme court. At the end of January, the circuit court made a decision that the family has a right to name the child Nelery. But the court saga didn't end.

"I understand the emotional side of the story and I am really sorry, but it's not about specific people. The dispute has derived from adjusting the name law and it's important to take it to the Supreme Court," mayor of Rakvere, Triin Varek (Center), said.

"The name may sound reasonable and viable, but when we take the law as the basis, then new 'Estonian' names can be created, but not new 'foreign language' names," another official, Peeter Päll, said.

The '-y' in the spelling makes it a foreign language name, which doesn't have a corresponding pronunciation in Estonian. In familiar names, words and phrases, like "happy hour", for instance, this is acceptable since it is common in the corresponding language (in this case English).

Päll said that the solution offered by the circuit court that names should be based on the good practice of language use may not be a good solution because this practice is difficult to define. Thus, a situation may arise where one official rejects the name form but still manages to register it in another municipality.

In Päll's opinion, it would be reasonable to amend the Names Act, which would allow naming even where the namesake already exists in Estonia.

"If there is a precedent in Estonia, it seems unfair that some are born before the entry into force of the Names Act and the ones who are born after, are in an unequal position," Päll believes.

"When I turned to the court, I didn't have any hopes or expectations, I just disputed the act, whatever comes," Kadri Trilljärv said.

"The reason why I fight for thisis that there is already Nelery in Estonia. It does my head in, why she can have that name, but I can't," Trilljärv went on.

The Supreme Court will decide in March whether the city government's appeal will be heard or not. However, the two-and-a-half-year-old Nelery is officially for the time being called Neleri in the registers.

The Estonian alphabet generally uses the character 'ü' in homophones with the Finnish language (for instance in first syllable of the cardinal number 10 in its nominative case: "Kümme' in Estonian, and "kymmanen" in Finnish), while the sound nearest to the letter '-y' in English, at least in its pronunciation in words like 'happy', is in Estonian occupied by the letter '-i'. Other existing, primarily women's, Estonian names ending in '-y', however, include Annely (actually the first name of a sitting Reform MP - Annely Akkermann - ed.), Gerly, Merily and, simply, Ly.

What the costs might be to both sides in fighting the legal battle at all three levels of the Estonian court system has not been reported.


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Editor: Roberta Vaino, Andrew Whyte

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