One interesting part of becoming a parent is deciding on a name for your child. There are countless books written on the subject and many hurt feelings to endure as you are told that the jumble of consonants and vowels so dear to your heart are pure rubbish.
With our daughter Anna, we chose a name that was in both our families, but had symbolic importance for Epp because it was her great-grandmother's name. However, we did hear from some that 'Anna' could be too Slavic in touch, and might set off 'Russian alarms' among ethnic Estonians who have a highly efficient way of telling tribes apart. This is funny, because Anna is perhaps one of the most timeless names in the other nordic countries.
Bigotry aside, I understand why some Estonians might be pained by Russian names. I mean there is a prominent Russian politician whose last name is written in the Roman alphabet as Yastrzhembsky. And don't get me started on Tartu-born actor and theater director Andres Dvin-jan-i-nov. If there ever was a candidate for a renewed names campaign it is he. But, back to the point, the greater irony is that we were being told that a name born by an Estonian woman born more than 100 years ago was 'un-Estonian.'
How Estonian is it?
That got me thinking about what exactly is an Estonian name. The obvious answers are 'Kalev' and 'Linda' -- the main characters from Kalevipoeg. But we received a family tree from an Estonian cousin in England that traced my wife's family back to the early 18th century, and there were no Kalevs nor Lindas nor Vambolas nor Lembits in that tree. Instead, there were a lot of Estonianized versions of Germanic names, among the most common were Mihkel, Martin, Mart, Tõnu, and Tiidrik for boys, and names like Els, Ann, and Marri for girls.
When people first encounter vowel-laden Estonian personal names, they find them odd. Imagine two brothers, one named Aap and the other Priit! The reality is that this is how Estonians of yore interpreted named like 'Abel' which became Aapeli and then just Aap, or Friedrich, which somehow morphed into 'Priit'. The Estonians were not alone in this regard. In Finland, they heard 'Fredrik' and turned it into 'Veeti'. One can imagine how an Estonian villager heard the name 'Dietrich' and couldn't pronounce it but managed to mangle it into 'Tiit'.
That brings us to the debate over foreign loans. Estonia, like other countries, has been borrowing names for centuries, but some Estonian purists will still point out that Toivo and Aino are Finnish names, as if Estonia was somehow not Finnic itself. Estonians also like to shorten all names by taking the first syllable and adding an 's'. If you name is Peeter, you become 'Pets'. If your name is Pirgit, you become 'Pirks', and if you are like my brother-in-law Toivo, you are known to the world as 'Toits'.
For those of you interested in learning more about the history of Estonian personal names, you an read this excellent Estonica page here.
Occasionally it seems that names come and go with generations. For example, there are plenty of aging great grandmothers in Estonia named Salme, Laine, and Aino, but among the newborns of Tartu or Tallinn or Toila, there is hardly one of these to be found. My sister-in-law considered naming her daughter -- who received the Hungarian-flavored name of Ilona on her birthday -- Aino, after her grandmother, but the idea was dropped. Who would want to give a old person's name to a sweet cherubic child?
But again, age plays a role. We were told by an older acquaintance that 'Anna' reminded her of her mother-in-law, who also was of Epp's great-grandmother's generation, and therefore she did not have a fondness for the name. Even worse was when we named Marta. Our friend Signe told us that Marta was an old woman's name and said it aloud with a look of pure disgust. "Pff. Marta. Pff."
Yet the reality is that most of these aging Martas and Annas are now long deceased, their nasty turns as school teachers and mothers-in-law only remembered by gray-haired grannies and people like Signe. It seems that once the dust has settled on your grave, it's ok to resuscitate your name for future generations. So expect a flurry of Johanneses and Ainos in about 10 years! I am already running into Martas on the playground here.
One funny story is of our Flemmish friend and his Swedish-Estonian wife who named their children Aime and Raivo. It seems that the 'traditional' Estonian names of the 1940s that have been cast aside by current child-bearing generations in Estonia have been preserved in the Estonian diaspora. When I think of Raivo, I think of Onu Raivo. It is quite cool to know there is a little Raivo out there somewhere, perhaps slightly irritating his older sister Aime.
Finally, one addendum to the saga of Estonian names is the family name. Many Estonian families had German names before the 1930s. Epp's maiden name was Saluveer, but her great-grandfather was Johannes Schwarzberg. What is interesting is that before the adoption of German names in the 19th century, some Estonians had talu nimed -- farm names. So Mats Lenk might have been Uustalu Mats before his name was Germanized. I am told that older generations still use these farm names to refer to one another.
In the 1930s, approximately 210,000 Estonians chose new names for themselves. They settled on cute animals, like Orav (squirrel) and Jänes (bunny), or sturdy trees like Tamm (oak) or Mänd (pine). I have read stories that these days some Estonian Russians also choose new names to help them succeed in the marketplace, or maybe because having a last name like Yastrzhembsky really is too burdensome in a country where people have names like Mart Laar.
I wonder what would happen if there was a new names campaign. Would Estonians still name themselves after trees and animals or would they opt for something for modern? Jaanus Skype? Elo Selver? Tarmo Säästumarket? Piret Wifi? Kristjan Mobiil? What would you choose if you could start all over again? The whole idea of a names campaign is interesting, but sometimes I think it would be cool if everyone could go back to using their farm names.