Historian: Estonians picked their last names from books or after animals

Institute of the Estonian Language lexicographer Fred Puss.
Institute of the Estonian Language lexicographer Fred Puss. Source: Annika Lepp

Historian Fred Puss visited the studios of Raadio 2 to talk about the historic background of Estonians' last names. Although peasants were initially given surnames by landlords, people were eventually able to choose their own last names.

The general rule was to choose a last name after the farm the person lived and worked on. If that was not an option, people often looked at objects close to them. That is how many people were named after animals or birds.

Landlords were a major factor in the selection of surnames. There were some that were good to their peasants, but there were also those that did not behave respectfully to their workers. "This was reflected in surname selection, as well," Puss said.

Worse names were usually given to single men, who had not gotten married and were economically less well off. Puss said bad-sounding names, such as Koer ("Dog"), Paks ("Fat"), Laisk ("Lazy") and Limukas ("Weak-willed"), disappeared since they were not given on to the next generations. Such surnames were usually given to servants. Farmers with a family earned themselves better names.

Although surname rules forbade the use of existing German names, there were those who still did it. "It was done often or people modified names a little. For example, the surname Takkenberg is reminiscent of German surname Stackelberg," Puss said.

For names to sound Estonian, linguists Julius Mägiste and Elamar Elisto created a indicative list, which consisted of some 15,000 names. "40 percent of the Estonianized names were taken from the book," Puss said and added that families held a meeting to decide their last name. It was possible to change German names and bad-sounding names.

Farmers and peasants began using surnames in the end of the 19th century. Puss sees an important link to the Estonian national awakening. "Although names were not Estonian, a last name still indicated a free person," the historian said.

There are many rare surnames in Estonia, which allows for the source of the name to be located. The surname Kõiv indicates that the person is from Võrumaa, since the word means "birch" in the Võru dialect.

It is unfortunately impossible to source more popular last names. For example, the surname Tamm ("Oak") spread across Estonia and there were very few regions, where the name was not used.

Statistics Estonia has a surname statistics application (link in Estonian), where data of Estonian names can be found.

Population registries in the National Archives of Estonia. Source: Fred Puss


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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste

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