How birds of the world get their Estonian names

By Dr Elle-Mari Talivee, Under and Tuglas Literature Centre of the Estonian Academy of Sciences

Eestikeelse postituse lugemiseks vajuta siia

In the newly established republic of Estonia in 1918 among immense political and societal reformation arose the idea of naming birds in Estonian. The plan stopped for two years, however, due to the War of Independence. It was not until 1921 when the idea was reborn (the Estonian Ornithological Society was founded then as well!). A committee to develop terminology in Estonian was established and a mere year later, in 1922, they had already published Nomenclator avium Estiae – a landmark work with bird names in Estonian. However, although this booklet gave names to local birds, the naming of foreign birds all over the world is still ongoing even today. In 1991, a special committee for naming birds, the Estonian Bird Names Committee, was established for that purpose.

Meeting of the Bird Naming’s committee in January 2019. From left to right: ornithologist
Olav Renno, Mall Hiiemäe, Liis Keerberg, Eerik Leibak, Elle-Mari Talivee

I have been a member of this committee for ten years now and, based on my experience, I can say that it is a rather exciting challenge. The purpose of this committee is to give each of the 11000 bird species in the world an Estonian name. Two-thirds of them already have them by now – have a look at our database: Estonian names for birds of the world.

Members of the committee have different backgrounds but are all united by an interest in birdwatching. It’s run by Eerik Leibak from The Estonian Fund for Nature, one of the restorers of the Estonian Ornithological Society/BirdLife Estonia in 1991 (when the Estonian Republic was restored). Liis Keerberg is an environmental lawyer and traditional folk musician. Mihkel Metslaid is an editor of Estonian. Mall Hiiemäe, one of the long-time members, is a folklorist, who has been researching birds in folk religion. I am personally interested in birds in literature. Before the coronavirus pandemic started, BirdLife Estonia held meetings in its office in Karl Ernst von Baer House in Tartu, where we would choose between different names that were proposed earlier by Eerik, argue about how they sounded linguistically, had a look at the photos, compared the names in different languages, and, of course, listened to bird sounds. Since then, we have had to replace the meetings with emails. By the way, translating the names directly from English, German or Spanish is often not a solution, because they are sometimes given by explorers who often drew inspiration from similar local birds in their homeland, while similarities or relations between them are mostly missing.

But why would we need to translate the common names to Estonian? After all, the bird species already have Latin names. Yet, it is not uncommon for the committee to receive requests: for example, there will be a nature documentary on television, and some of the species from Tasmania or a South American jungle would need a name, or an editor of some translated book is sometimes rather surprised to find out that a certain species does not yet have an Estonian name in the database. There must be a chance to reflect everything in the world in one´s mother tongue – this also helps to keep the language alive in the globalising world.

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