Which is it – Viro or Eesti?

The question has gripped both nationalities for almost a century – which is the correct term for the Republic of Estonia? Is it Viro or Eesti? Virolaiset or eestiläiset?

With the permission of the Estonian Mother Tongue Society and the author of the article, Riho Grünthäl, I will publish some fragments of an article that talks about the topic. The article is called “Lauri Kettunen – the representative of the Estonian language in Finland.” You can read the whole article here:


Lauri Kettunen – the representative of
the Estonian language in Finland

Note: The purpose of this article is to reveal Lauri Kettunen’s attitude towards Estonia and the Estonian language after his return from Tartu to Helsinki in the 1920s and 1930s. Because of his certain and relentless views he was constantly in conflict with the Finnish and Estonian language scholars of the time.

Keywords: Lauri Kettunen, the history of the Estonian language, the Estonian language in Finland, the tribal movement

The shelves of research libraries, research bibliographies and electronic databases confirm that the professor of the languages of the Baltic Sea at the universities of Tartu and Helsinki, Lauri Kettunen, was an exceptional scholar. His interests were much more wider than the scientists at the time and even later. If you take into consideration that the material he collected is indispensable to the research of the languages of the Baltic Sea, it is surprising that his life work has been mentioned so rarely.

E.A. Tunkelo

One of the culminations of Kettunen’s debate was the argument with E. A. Tunkelo, the long-time editor in chief of Virittäjä in 1929. The result was the resignation of Kettunen from Virittäjä. The debate was about the topic, which has also been argued about later – is it right to use the name Eesti or Viro in the Finnish language.

You can read Kettunen’s opinion about in the textbook, which came out in 1926, which presented the differences in the Finnish and Estonian languages. So it was a few years before the public debate. Kettunen was certain and relentless about his opinion that the only correct term is Eesti.

As he published extensive research about the ethnonyms of Viro and Vironmaa, Tunkelo (1929) probably didn’t expect such a stormy response to the article. But he had picked a topic which was awkward, the question of calling Finnish southern neighbors Eesti or Viro awakened strong emotions. After the collision of Kettunen and Tunkelo, there wasn’t any hope of solving the debate calmly[1].

Tunkelo’s article is long and comprehensive, an historical and semantic overview about the names used describing Viro and Vironmaa. He had researched a large number of historical sources, which had documented the history of Estonia and Virumaa since the 16th century. Because the control over the land constantly changed during the centuries, the political borders changed also. Tunkelo demonstrates in chronological order how the name Viro was used during the Swedish occupation in Finnish texts and how the meaning of Eestimaa and Liivimaa changed during the Russian occupation. They had both become a name of the province.

Tunkelo’s main point was that in the Finnish language, the name Viro meant the area of “Viron herttuakuntta” during the Swedish era in the 17th century (Tunkelo 1929a: 114-116). It covered the area of ethnographic Estonia at the time. The Republic of Estonia later came into existence in the same geographic area, known as Viro in the Finnish language. The last examples of the use of the word Viro are from when Estonia was already independent. Tunkelo cites Kettunen’s Estonian textbook, where Kettunen uses the word Viro meaning “Virumaa.” Vironmaa is as old as Viro in Tunkelo’s view and he feels that it confirms that Viro could have been used to describe a larger area before the Swedish time (Tunkelo 1929: 124).

Tunkelo’s conclusion was that the use of the word Viro in Finnish to describe “Estonia” is as logical as using the word vaimo to mean “woman,” or of the Estonian word valu (pain) to mean valo (light) in Finnish.

For Kettunen (1929: 278), Tunkelo’s article meant that for historical reasons, the aims of the tribal movements were being cancelled. In his references, he brings attention to the fact that the more important newspapers in Finland – Helsingin Sanomat and Uusi Suomi – had not been using the name Eesti and even the official speakers use Viro rather than Eesti. Estonians were against the name Viro for the same reasons as the Finnish were against the Karelians using Ruotsi to describe Finland and ruotsalainen to describe Finnish people.


Heimoasia vaatii menestyäkseen sitä rakkautta, „joka ei omaansa etsi”, vaan on valmis myös jotakin omastaan toiselle uhraamaan. Lieneekö ennenaikaista puhua sellaisesta heimorakkaudesta?

(Kettunen 1929a: 278.)


Kettunen says that if they stopped using the name Viro and replaced it with the name Eesti, the Finns could satisfy the Estonian people’s wishes.

Tunkelo (1929b) had nothing left to do than to respond to Kettunen, calmly weighing every possible way to take a better look at the topic. He cites examples and background information. He talks about the older history of the tribal movement and quotes a scholar-poet A. Jännes (known as Arvid Genetz when talked about as a language scholar). Genetz was one of the first to experiment with ways to shorten the Estonian and Finnish language in the end of the 19th century:


Eesti mä oon ja eestiksi jään, kunnekka kalma mun peittävi pään.


The debate on languages of the tribal movement even touched on the topic of bringing words from the Estonian language to the Finnish language, because loans from the Finnish language do exist in Estonian. Even Genetz had come up with an idea to replace the words loaned from Indo-European languages (for example preili (lady), müts (hat) and vorst (sausage)) with words loaned from Finnish; and vice versa – replacing Finnish Indo-European loans (säkki (bag) or synti (sin)) with words from Estonian.

Tunkelo (1929b: 290) thinks that every language should loan as many words from other languages as needed. His decision is clear: if you’re talking about Eesti or Viro, there is a long list of reasons why you should use the latter. So the debate has ended for him.

  1. A. Saarimaa

Looking back, it’s no wonder that Kettunen returned to his contacts from his time in Estonia and published his writings in Estonian and in Estonian Literature after leaving Virittäjä. The latter published his article that had been refused in Virittäjä, about the use of the names Viro and Eesti in Finnish (Kettunen 1931b).

Kettunen’s dedication to his opinion was clear after he published an article called “Voittava ‘Eesti’” in a magazine called Suomalainen Suomi in 1939 (Kettunen 1939).

[1] The question of using Viro or Eesti has been debated several times during the last few decades. The reason usually is that Estonians call their country Eesti and their language the Estonian language. The natural debate on the topic of Viro or Eesti has been complicated even to the generations after Kettunen. The question upset a lecturer who had been teaching the Estonian language in the University of Helsinki for 25 years, Eeva Niinivaara. On her 85th birthday in 1986, along with Otto Aho, she confirmed that president Kekkonen had forced people to take the name Viro to use. Otto Aho was known for introducing and translating the tribal literature after the war. Eeva Niinivaara and Otto Aho were part of a small group who celebrated the independence day of Estonia in Finland during the 1950s until 1980s, when the tribal theme disappeared.

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