Nicknames in medieval Estonia

In our previous post, we surveyed the percentage of diminutive and hypocoristic forms in the Dictionary’s dataset sorted according to modern countries, and one stand-out surprise was Estonia: Over 40% of our citations are nicknames of some form! Why is it that diminutives and hypocoristics were so popular in medieval Estonia?

Well, we aren’t exactly in a position to answer the why, but we can look at the what — what are the types of nickname patterns that we see, do they differ between men and women, can we say anything interesting about these patterns vs. those in nearby countries? That’s what we will explore in this post.

First, the feminine names: Only two of the nicknames belong to women, and both come from a Middle Low German contexts. The first is, in the vocabulary we introduced, a hypocoristic, formed by taking a name and truncating it to make a pet form. The example is Barbar, from Barbara. This same diminutive also shows up in Latvia, again in MLG contexts. The second is a diminutive, formed by adding the Low German diminutive suffix -ke, to the root name Anne, to result in the form Anneke. As with Barbar, Anneke also shows up in Latvia at roughly the same time.

This leaves over 600 diminutive forms left, of which nearly 10% — 53 — are Hans, a German hypocoristic of Johannes, one of the standard Latin forms of John, and if we add variants such as Hannes, Han, Hanß, etc., the number rises significantly. From about the middle of the 12th C on, John quickly became far and away the most popular man’s name throughout Europe. In German dialects, Hans, Hanns, Hannes, etc., were often as much more popular than Johannes or Johan than these names were than the next most popular.

So, one answer to the ‘why’ is: Because Low German was a standard documentary language in late medieval Estonia, and the most popular masculine name in late medieval Low German contexts was a diminutive, so that is why there are so many diminutives in medieval Estonia. (This, however, doesn’t address the other why question, which is why the nickname forms were more common than full forms!)

Hans makes up just under 10% of the masculine nicknames; a large percentage of the remainder are covered by just a handful of other names: Cord, Kord, Kort, a Low German hypocoristic of Conrad; Hintze, Hennyng, Hennynck, Heine, from Henry; Cleys, Clauwes, Claues, Claes, Cleys, Clawes, and numerous other hypocoristics of Nicholas; Ludike and Ludeke, from Louis; and Wynyke, a diminutive of any of various names beginning with wini ‘friend’. Other less common names also give rise to hypocoristics, such as Bastian, from Sebastian; Brosius, from Ambrose; and Aßmuß from Erasmus.

So much for the ordinary, every day nicknames, your Estonian Tom, Dick, and Harry, if you will. Let’s explore some of the unusual ones!

  • Nicknames of Constantine: Coest, Kosst.
  • Nicknames of Habakukk: Habbo, Köke, Kock.
  • Nickname of Hubert: Hoppe.
  • Nicknames of Jacob: Jaeck, Jack, Jacho, Kowpy, koup.
  • Nickname of Joachim: Jachi.
  • Nicknames of Joseph: Jessa, Seppo.

One thing of note is that many of these unusual hypocoristics derive from Biblical names.

We’ll close by looking at one name which, across Europe, is one of the most prolific spawner of nicknames: Theodoric. In Estonia alone, the name rivals John in popularity, and we have seventeen different nickname forms — most of which are diminutives of hypocoristics: Tideke, Tideken, Tideman, Tidike, Tijdeke, Tijdeman, Tijdike, Tile, Tous, Tydedeynk, Tydek, Tydeke, Tydeken, Tydeman, Tydike, Tydiken, Tyman.

This will not be the last time we see Theodoric when exploring this month’s topic!

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3 Comments

Filed under dictionary entries, monthly topic

3 responses to “Nicknames in medieval Estonia

  1. John Sawyer

    So if the dimunutive Hans is more common that the original Johannes, when do you declare that the local form of Johannes is actually Hans in its own right and thus it ceases to be a nickname. (Although I would say the definition of nickname I know is more one of a use name as opposed to a baptismal name but you covered that you are not using that definition.)

    • There’s a distinction to be made there between the origin of the name-as-abstract and the name-as-used. Most of these people named Hans were probably known that since birth, and it would not have been seen as a nickname of that person. But this doesn’t change the fact that in the abstract, the name Hans arose as a hypocoristic of Johannes.

      We can’t say anything about the individual uses of names as attached to particular people, only generalities about the names, so we’re looking at the ultimate origins, not the individual origins.

  2. Pingback: Protestant names: New Testament influences on men’s names (part 1) | Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources

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