Sixth United Nations Conference
on the Standardization of Geographical Names
New York, 25 August - 3 September 1992


[Résumé] [Resumen]


For the first time the Estonian delegation has the honour of participating in a United Nations conference on the standardization of geographical names. Although since the occupation of 1940, Estonia has had no opportunity to take part in international cooperation on these matters, information on the most important principles of the five previous conferences has come via Finland. The following report reviews the situation and recent developments in Estonia. Aspects of standardization, covered in "Toponymic Guidelines: Estonia" (E/CONF.85/L.76) are not repeated here.

It should be mentioned at once that since the 1920s the place-names of Estonia have officially been monolingual and almost totally in Estonian, written in the Roman alphabet. Exceptions are names in areas that have been settled by minorities (Swedes, Russians) and some names of cultural or historical value (e.g. Rocca al Mare). In the years of Soviet rule Russian was de facto considered the first official language. The toponyms of Estonia continued to be recognized in their Estonian form, but for Russian use these were transcribed into Cyrillic letters according to officially adopted rules. This led to inevitable distortions. There were no special Russian variants of the names (except for some names of undersea features on sea maps - those are to be revised). The practice of some foreign cartographic enterprises of "transliterating back" Estonian place names from the Cyrillic transcriptions has never been acceptable in Estonia. Nor is it acceptable to continue to use any of these distorted name forms as exonyms, e.g. "Sarema", "Khiouma" or "Khiuma" instead of the correct forms Saaremaa, Hiiumaa. One of the few exceptions in the transcription rules into Russian was the name of the capital Tallinn, which used to be transcribed with one final "n". However, the exception was abolished in 1988 and there is no reason for using "Tallin" as an exonym in lieu of the correct form Tallinn.


There are two major programmes that are linked with the standardization of geographical names.

(a) National mapping programmes

The National Land Board has started a mapping programme aimed at providing the wide public and authorities with large-scale topographic maps in Estonian (see "Toponymic guidelines"). The use of correct name forms is considered important and, therefore, names on all the maps prepared or licensed by the National Land Board are to be checked by onomasticians. A database of cartographic names, intended as a national database, is being formed at Eesti Maauuringud state enterprise. This is part of a wider project to cover all the information needed for the compilation of maps. Apart from names, other useful information about the named object is included.

The work on the database is coordinated with that of the basic map (1 : 20,000) and a map of 1 : 50,000. Names are registered from various sources and then compared. In field research ambiguous names are checked and new names collected. Use will also be made of the linguistic collection of toponyms at the Institute of Language and Literature.

(b) Administrative reform

In 1990 an administrative reform was started in Estonia. In the first stage, the terms of traditional administrative units were restored, so districts (rajoonid) became counties (maakonnad) and "village soviets" (külanõukogud) are gradually becoming parishes (vallad) as they acquire self-government. Historical names of counties have also been restored (see annex). The second phase of the reform will include the revision of the number and boundaries of parishes and compiling a new list of official village names based on tradition and popular usage.

It is obvious that these programmes would need a national names authority to coordinate the efforts of standardizing place names and to secure the observance of national interests and values in the process. It is hoped that in the first half of 1992 an advisory names committee will be set up in affiliation to a government institution responsible for the administrative reform.

Characteristic of the tendencies in recent years has been the movement to restore traditional names of streets, villages, etc. Many street names were imposed by the rulers in the post-war period to enforce new Communist ideology and Russian cultural expansion. Efforts to remove such names became part of the overall political movement towards liberty and independence and this has maintained public attention to names. Names are viewed as an integral part of the cultural heritage. The aim is to preserve as much as possible of the old valuable name-stock and to make the public aware of the importance of names protection.


The policy of the Estonian Orthological Committee on the use of foreign names has been one of curbing the use of exonyms. In 1983 the Committee compiled a list of names of countries and their capitals (excluding those using non-Roman script). In the list, the number of exonyms was further reduced, especially those that were considered purely orthographic adaptations. Recommendations included e.g. Stockholm (instead of "Stokholm"), Reykjavík (instead of "Reikjavik"), Madrid (instead of "Madriid"), Nicaragua (instead of "Nikaraagua"), Zimbabwe (instead of "Simbabve") etc. Furthermore, the Committee reinstated the principle accepted in 1976 that no nationally standardized name used in an Estonian text should be considered "a mistake".

On the whole, the recommendations of the Committee have been followed in the Estonian press and books of reference. Recent changes in names have been caused by political decisions. So names like Moldova, Kõrgõzstan, Côte d'Ivoire, Cabo Verde, Myanmar have come into use instead of "Moldaavia", "Kirgiisia", "Elevandiluurannik", "Roheneemesaared", "Birma".

On the other hand, it is not considered necessary to curb the use of many traditional exonyms, e.g., the names of most European countries or exonyms for places on neighbouring territories that give evidence of ancient contacts with these places. In accordance with Resolution V/13 of the Fifth Conference, exonyms will be written in the second place on maps issued in Estonia.

Romanization systems

The Estonian Orthological Committee has accepted the principle that if a language using non-Roman script has an internationally accepted romanization system, it should, after due consideration, be adopted for use in Estonian texts.

Chinese names have been written in the Chinese phonetic alphabet (Pinyin) already since the 1960s. The transfer was made easier by publishing a guide where correspondence of Chinese syllables in Russian and Roman (Pinyin) characters was shown.

The Bulgarian romanization system was recommended by the Committee in 1977 with slight modifications afterwards.

No decision has yet been made on the Estonian use of the international romanization system for Russian names although, the resolution 18 of the Fifth Conference has been made public and the use of this system is encouraged in contexts other than Estonian.

Greek names have been transcribed into Estonian texts according to rules established for the classical Greek language. The new international romanization system will probably be adopted but it will be necessary to determine the number of exonyms or else the names will be referred to in the classical form.

Estonia's own transcription rules have been adopted by the Orthological Committee in the 1970s for many of the former Soviet Union's languages (Ukrainian, Belorussian, Georgian, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Kazakh, Uzbek, Kirghiz, Tadjik, Turkmen). As these languages move to using Roman script the original spellings of the names will automatically be used in Estonian texts, as has been the case with the names of Moldova.


A representative from Estonia participated as an observer in the meeting of the Norden Division, held in Helsinki on 13 March 1992.

On 7 - 8 May 1992 Estonia played host to a regional meeting of the Baltic States on the standardization of geographical names, the first of its kind. The meeting was attended by linguists and cartographers from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and an observer from Finland. The participants discussed questions of mutual interest and informed one another of the situation in their respective countries. They appealed to their Governments to give adequate attention to the problems of standardizing geographical names. With regard to the Sixth United Nations Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names, the participants agreed that for effective regional cooperation a separate Baltic Division should be formed in the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names. A resolution on the matter was adopted.


1987 - 1992

Rural municipalities (parishes) are given without a generic term; other generic terms used: rajoon 'district', linn 'town', alev 'borough'; for the names of counties see also a note in the annex to the "Toponymic guidelines: Estonia" (E/CONF.85/L.76)

Old nameNew name
Haapsalu rajoonLäänemaa
Kingissepa (linn)Kuressaare (linn)
Kingissepa rajoonSaaremaa
Kohtla-Järve rajoonIda-Virumaa
Nuia (alev)Karksi-Nuia
Paide rajoonJärvamaa
Rakvere rajoonLääne-Virumaa
Tallinna Kalinini rajoon¹Tallinna Põhjarajoon
Tallinna Lenini rajoon¹Tallinna Lõunarajoon
Tallinna Mererajoon¹Tallinna Idarajoon
Tallinna Oktoobri rajoon¹Tallinna Läänerajoon
¹ - names of the city districts

[Original: United Nations document E/CONF.85/L.75]
[Published: Sixth United Nations Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names. Vol. II. Technical papers. New York, 25 August - 3 September 1992. United Nations. New York, 1997, pp. 31-33]


Le rapport passe en revue la situation actuelle et son évolution récente en Estonie. Depuis les années 20, les noms de lieux ont été officiellement monolingues et presque entièrement en estonien. Durant les années du régime soviétique, les toponymes ont continue d'être reconnus sous leur forme estonienne, en étant transcrits en lettres cyrilliques pour leur utilisation en russe.

La normalisation nationale des noms géographiques est liée à deux grands programmes: un programme de cartographie du Conseil national des terres et une réforme administrative. Un comité consultatif sur les noms est envisagé.

Le Comité orthologique estonien s'est efforcé de limiter l'emploi des exonymes, en établissant une liste recommandée des noms de pays et de leurs capitales (1983). Plusieurs systèmes internationaux de romanisation (chinois, bulgare) ont été adopté afin d'être utilisés en Estonie.

Une réunion régionale des Etats baltes sur la normalisation des noms géographiques s'est tenue à Tallinn les 7 et 8 mai 1992.


En el informe se examinan los hechos ocurridos recientemente en Estonia y la situación actual. Desde 1920 los nombres de lugares han sido oficialmente monolingües y se han designado casi exclusivamente en estonio. Durante los años del régimen soviético los topónimos siguieron reconociéndose en su forma estonia y se transcribián en caracteres cirílicos para utilizarlos en ruso.

La normalización nacional de los nombres geográficos está vinculada a dos programas principales: un programa de cartografía de la Junta Nacional de Tierras y una reforma administrativa. Se prevé la creación de un comité de asesoramiento sobre los nombres.

El Comité Ortológico de Estonia ha tratado de limitar el uso de exónimos mediante la compilación de una lista recomendada de nombres de países y sus capitales (1983). Se han adoptado varios sistemas internacionales de romanización (chino, búlgaro) para uso en Estonia.

Los días 7 y 8 de mayo de 1992 se celebró en Tallinn una reunión regional de los Estados bálticos sobre la normalización de los nombres geográficos.