Making Sense of Exonyms

So after puzzling through the various alphabets and orthographies, you have been able to establish what your ancestors’ names would have looked like back in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. This is a great first step towards tracking them back through the years.

Now you get to do the same for the places they lived! Sometimes this is easy, sometimes it is not. It will involve juggling not just alphabets and orthographies, but languages as well.

In the various records, the rural places where people lived are most commonly identified with two parts – the estate name, followed by the farm name. Many estate names became modern civil parish names, but smaller estates came under different civil parish jurisdictions in the early twentieth century. Therefore, it is important to identify not only the modern-day civil parish your ancestor is from, but what all of the estates in the area were, since they may not have been from the one that gave the name to the modern civil parish.

Estate names are usually German. In Russian-language records, they may have been given Russian names, but in my experience, the Russian records continue to utilize the German names. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule.

German estate names, compared to the modern Latvian ones, can take various forms. They could be nearly identical – compare Autz and Auce, Rujen and Rūjiena. A further step along, they could be almost identical, as long as there is an understanding of German and Latvian pronunciations, such as Wolmar and Valmiera, Zarnikau and Carnikava.

Then there are translated names, which require some familiarity with both languages – this can be seen most often with names prefaced by “New/Young”, “Old”, “Small”, “Big” – “Jaun” (“Neu”), “Vec” (“Alt”), “Maz” (“Klein”), “Liel” (“Groß”). It may only be this initial suffix which is translated, the rest of the name might be one language or the other. Other place names in this category would be ones such as Lemburg and Mālpils – both mean “clay castle”, but without knowing the translation, it would be difficult to connect them as one and the same.

While names fitting the above three categories are the majority that I have come across, there are some that have no resemblance to one another, either in meaning or in appearance. Without prior knowledge, how would one know that Friedrichstadt and Jaunjelgava are the same place? Or Wenden and Cēsis?

Thankfully, when it comes to finding out what places are now known by what names, resources exist. I find them excellent tools, and I hope that you will as well.

  • Wikipedia’s “List of German Exonyms for Places in Latvia” is a great place to start. Most larger places are mentioned here.
  • If the Wikipedia article does not have the place you’re looking for, check here next. While many entries are the same, there is some variation.
  • If you keep seeing an estate name, but haven’t been able to match it to anything, it could have been a smaller estate. Consult this map. An index is provided, but only references the grid number, which can cover quite a wide area, so it will take some hunting on the map to locate it. The advantage, of course, is that you can compare this map to a modern-day one to get a clearer picture of where precisely the estate was located.

Once you have established the name and location of the estate, the rest should be relatively straightforward. Even though estates typically had German names, individual farms on the estate typically had Latvian ones – and these names most often remained the same upon independence in the early twentieth century, and, in cases where the farms continue to exist, retain the same names today. The main exception to this is again the prefix situation described above – while the main portion of the name might be written in Latvian, the prefixes could be in German or Russian.

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