It happened to us again. Asked to explain where we lived in the US, the anxiety of telling them, "Estonia" crept in the back of our minds. I have been there, others have too -- one old acquaintance has actually done business there on behalf of big pharma -- and yet, I must confess, I feel like I am pulling their leg every time I say it, because to Americans "Estonia" sounds like a made-up place name.
Not that they know much about other places. We are frequently asked what language is spoken there, to which we reach for the common sentence, "Estonian, it's like Finnish." But the truth is, unless you are from Minnesota or North Dakota, you probably have no idea that Finnish is different from Swedish. The real nerds will acknowledge that they know Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian are related. That's true, except Hungarian is quite distantly related to the Finnic languages. So don't try using Hungarian in Estonia.
Maybe proponents of renaming Estonia "Estland" in the English context were right to some extent. There's nothing bad about "Estonia", but for some reason it sounds uncomfortable to English-speaking ears. As a weird thought, maybe it's because English, under its Latinate skin, is a rich Germanic language, a language of Jutes and Angles and Norsemen who did not defecate but skīta, who did not "consume" but etan, and who preferred a good fukka to "intercourse."
To our English ears, "lands" sound familiar -- a known quantity. Greenland, Iceland, Ireland, Scotland, Holland -- these are places we intuit more easily, even if we don't have a drop of English blood in our veins. Placenames that end in "ia" -- Bulgaria, Slovenia, Albania -- these are rendered in the Latin-based form, a language brought over by the Norman aristocracy that has become the manner of all sophisticated speech for most discourse, yet at the same time lacks the intimacy of the Anglo-Saxon and Norse vocabulary.
The distance in how we understand and react to language may have its root in those handful of politicized centuries where French-speaking Normans and English-speaking inhabitants of Great Britain slowly created a new tongue. "Lands" were places of antiquity that the common people knew. "___ias" were far-off provinces that only the upper classes concerned themselves with. Or maybe I am just full of crap. What do you think?