Fred Puss (University of Tartu)

Estonian Surname Database: Problems and Solutions

Databases have become a natural part of any research. Much of the work which was done with several limitations before the digital age can be done now within seconds. In Estonian humanities, large databases (digital or pre-digital) have been used for research for over 80 years. At first the most common usage was in historical demographics. The first digital public historical database was made by history professor Aadu Must in 1995 – database of Estonian surnames given in 1823-1835. It was followed five years later by his database of Estonianizing surnames in 1919-1940. Both of those still play an important role in research work of historians, onomasticians and hobby historians. However, they do not cover the whole range of Estonian surnames and lack some possibilities for proper research.

Estonian surnames are in a unique position in the world. Firstly, because in most cases they can be traced back to their beginning and secondly, most of the beginnings can be documented.

There are six main layers of surnames born in Estonia:
1) Before general name giving (until 1809/1822) – ca 5,000 unique names
2) General name giving (1807/1822-1835) – ca 31,000 unique names
3) Soldiers, name changes until 1919 – estimated 3,000 unique names
4) General name giving in Petseri county and territory behind Narva River (1921-1922) – ca 7,500 names
5) Estonianizing of surnames (1919-1942) – ca 16,300 names
6) Minor processes of giving surnames (Ruhnu island, surnameless people, etc.) – ca 500 names
In total ca 63,300 names. The complete lists of surnames from any time also include immigrant names (names born outside of Estonia).

This seems to be an excellent basis for a database. The solution seems to be to make a list of all the names born in each layer and refer to the layer. Notwithstanding this, the development of the Estonian language and surnames makes the assignment rather exhausting.

  • People often had parallel surnames – one in church books and the other in tax records. Sometimes the parallel names are etymologically the same, but only with a small spelling difference (Kass versus Kassi) which could vary from record to record.
  • Sometimes names were translated if the person moved from one language territory to another (from Latvian to Estonian) or climbed on the social ladder (from Estonian to German).
  • Dialects of the Estonian language greatly influenced the birth of surnames. Later dialect characteristics were often omitted from surnames.
  • Old spelling was used in the Estonian language for over half a century after the new spelling was first introduced in 1843. Many surnames have still preserved the old spelling and those are now considered different surnames (Karu versus Karro) and are pronounced differently.
  • Until the 1930s it was quite regular for surnames to adopt spelling changes not connected to the change from old to new spelling but based on the writer’s standpoint (Asi versus Ais). Moreover, those changes were impermanent and frequently reversed.

The paper discusses the perspectives of finding solutions to those problems. As can be seen from the first attempts made by professor Aadu Must over quarter of a century ago, one flat solution is insufficient although it works with majority of the cases for a competent researcher.