There are almost a quarter of a million place names in Estonia, and yet there are few of them, because new names are needed, for example, on the street or at a bus stop.
Who decides what the best name is and how can the place name be changed? Like humans, names are assigned to places. Administrative and settlement units as well as natural objects such as lakes, swamps and rivers have names, as well as public transport stops. The name of the cadastral unit is also a place name and must be unique within one village to avoid unnecessary confusion.
Although we do not think of place names in everyday life, we still come into contact with them all the time. It is place names that allow us to orient ourselves in the landscape and urban space. The police, ambulance and rescue services also orient themselves by place names. With the help of the place name, a food courier, a taxi driver and a friend who has traveled far and wide will also find their way. Thus, place names play a much more important role than they seem at first glance.
How are the names put?
Who decides what name one or another object will get? The answer is that both the local government, the government and the Minister of Public Administration. Local governments assign names to places located on their territory – streets, squares, public transport stops, parks and cadastral units. Most local governments have to name public transport stops, but in new developments, local governments must also put new street names.
The landowner can also have a say in determining the names. For example, the owner can initiate a change of the name of the cadastral unit by submitting an application to the local government. If the name proposed by the landowner is suitable and meets the requirements, the local government shall assign the desired name to the land unit.
The government assigns names to cities and municipalities, but this very often does not happen. The last example is the administrative reform that took place in 2017, as a result of which some completely new names appeared on the map, such as the names of Lääneranna, Põhja-Sakala, Mulgi, Järva, Põhja-Pärnumaa and Setomaa rural municipalities. Although naming is the sole responsibility of the government, the Place Names Council also plays an important role here, advising the government and the Minister of Public Administration on place names.
The Minister of Public Administration assigns names to villages, small towns, small towns and cities within rural municipalities. This is not often the case either. At the same time, there have been cases where it is desired to restore the former village names. The last such case originated in Põlva County, where they wanted to restore the village of Erastvere within its former borders. However, with the restoration of the former village name, the unique name of the village of Soodoma would disappear from the map, which is detrimental in terms of the diversity of place names. As a result, the Place Names Council proposed to Kanepi Parish that the section of the road from Tartu – Võru highway to the farms of the historic Sodom Popsiküla be turned into Sodom Tea. Kanepi parish agreed with the proposal and thus the peculiar place name will remain in the future as well.
The Minister of Public Administration may give consent to place names in foreign languages, but in this case shall rely on the opinion of the Place Names Council. What are place names in foreign languages in Estonia? Some parks have foreign names, such as the Sutthoff Park in Narva, the Cederhelm, Charlottental and Löwenruh parks in Tallinn.
How can I change the name?
Changing place names is not common. However, if the need arises, it is mostly because place names are not in accordance with the law. Recently, street names bearing the names of those who fought for the red power in Narva have offered a topic of discussion to experts and the press, and the process of changing them has begun.
A fairly extensive change of names took place after the administrative reform that took place in 2017, when a number of village names had to be changed, because otherwise several villages of the same name would have joined the municipalities. What’s wrong with that, we can ask. It would not be a big story if the places of the same name were located in Läänemaa and Võrumaa, for example. Several hundred kilometers are sometimes, and it’s just as easy to go wrong with the namesake. However, if places with the same name are located in the same municipality, this can cause some confusion.
Thus, when driving around Estonia, one can see several village names several times, but in different municipalities. According to the state register of place names, we have, for example, 12 Vanamõisa villages, ten Mäeküla, seven Mõisaküla and Tammiku villages, six times the name of Metsküla.
However, if there is a wish to change a place name that has been in use for a long time, the consent of the Minister of Public Administration must also be sought. For example, with the consent of the Minister of Public Administration, the city of Pärnu renamed Rüütli Square in Independence Square in 2018. Asking the Minister and the Place Names Council for an opinion is necessary in order to protect historical place names, but also to avoid name changes that are made during the current emotion.
Paris and Nuustaku
Although Paris seems far away, we may be surprised because our place-name landscape is unique and interesting enough. Thus, on the map of Estonia you can find the village of Paris, the village of Moldova, the village of Norway, the village of Sweden, the village of Finland and the village of Latvia, with the latter being even two in Estonia. Although it is said that Latvians do not have any islands, the name of a Latvian island in Põlva County is called Labassaarõ Marsh.
More peculiar names can be found. It is known that the African beach, Neidude Street and Pyotr Tchaikovsky Boulevard are located in Haapsalu. It is also not possible to look past the Swedish parallel names typical of Lääne County, such as Gambyn, Dirslätt and Birkas.
In Ida-Virumaa, however, there are Aa villages and Siidisuka and Outokumpu streets, hiking in Räpina municipality can reach the foot of Meeste Hill and in Rakvere you can walk in the Palermo district. When moving around Estonia, it is worth keeping your eyes open.
Place names in pop culture
Place names have given a lot of inspiration to musicians. For example, Raimond Valgre’s works include “Aegviidu Waltz”, “Narva Waltz”, “Pärnu Ballad”, “Sunday in Kadriorg” and many people’s favorite “Saaremaa Waltz”. Voldemar Kuslap has sung the famous “Waltz of Mustamäe” written by Heldur Karmo. Who among us would not have heard the hit of rapper Nublu and Gameboy Tetris from Narva “Für Oksana”, has also appeared in “Kloogaranna” from Nublu, where the city of Keila and places in Lääne-Harju municipality get attention. Kalamaja is written in music with the song “Kalamaja experience” of the hip-hop ensemble DVPH. Ott Lepland’s “Through Tallinn at Night” is written by Hendrik Sal-Saller. In their song “I am Tartu”, the ensemble Paha Polly also paid attention to Tallinn and, in fact, to Tartu.
The importance of place names and the sense of community can be seen more and more in the street picture, because almost every day you can meet people wearing a sweater bearing a place name.
Timo Torm, place name expert at the Ministry of Finance
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