I am astonished to discover that the Estonian language possesses an extraordinary number of words for “witch”.
Nõid is the word I was taught as a child.
But they have other words such as loits, võlu, arbus, posija, lausuja, ennustaja, synaja, kaldun…
It’s enough to make you dizzy.
How does a tiny nation — one that is geographically about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined — manage to have such great diversity in dialects and words for things?
Estonia’s population today is roughly 1.3 million, of which about 300,000 are ethnic Russians.
My county — Montgomery County in Maryland –has about as many inhabitants as there are ethnic Estonians in Estonia, somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 million. We are an ethnically diverse county. Yet we don’t say witch in Silver Spring, and something entirely different in Poolesville or Olney. True, someone of Hispanic origin might say brujo or bruja. Someone from Taiwan or Ghana might use an entirely different word in their own language.
But in our common tongue, English, we all use the word witch when we want to describe someone who claims to use magic to achieve their ends, or perhaps dresses in a particular Halloween costume consisting of pointy hat and long black gown. Or who is a practitioner of Wicca.
The Free Dictionary offers this definition of witch from the American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, (Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.)
“1. A woman claiming or popularly believed to possess magical powers and practice sorcery.
2. A believer or follower of Wicca; a Wiccan.
3. A hag.
4. A woman considered to be spiteful or overbearing.
5. Informal A woman or girl considered bewitching.
6. One particularly skilled or competent at one’s craft: “A witch of a writer, [she] is capable of developing an intensity that verges on ferocity” (Peter S. Prescott).
v. witched, witch·ing, witch·es
1. To work or cast a spell on; bewitch.
2. To cause, bring, or effect by witchcraft.
To use a divining rod to find underground water or minerals; dowse.
[Middle English wicche, from Old English wicce, witch, and wicca, wizard, sorcerer; see weg- in Indo-European roots.]”
There are all sorts of theories concerning the roots of Old English wicce, from which we get witch. One is that it derives from Sanskrit uei, a flexible twig used in binding. Another claims it comes from one of several meanings for Sanskrit ueik; in this case, divination.
But the Estonian language does not originate from Sanskrit, or its ancestor, Proto-Indo-European, unlike most of the languages in Europe. Instead, it belongs to the Finno-Ugric family, of which the most widely known modern languages are Finnish, Hungarian and Estonian. This was pounded into our heads in Estonian school. We generally got blank stares when we tried to explain this to non-Estonian kids, or even to teachers. We first-generation Estonian-Americans were forced to accept the sober fact that our parents’ native language was weird.
Little did I suspect that Estonian is weirder than anything I could imagine. In this tiny nation, there are more than 40 words for witch, and likely more. Only a few are related to one another.
I found this out during a Google search. Someone at http://www.Estonica.com, a website about all sorts of information about you-know-where, went to the trouble of searching for all these words, plus words for witching and witchcraft, and created a map of Estonia’s counties showing where each of these words was used, with three colors indication which of Estonia’s three major dialects it sprang from.
The link for the witch-words and accompanying charts is:
Truly, witches must be deeply significant personages in Estonia, or were so in the past.
Leaving out the dozens of words for witchcraft and witchery included on the Estonica web site, we can begin our list with ammamees or hambamees, which literally means tooth-man, and continue to arp, ask, jalapoiss (literally leg-boy), kaalunaine (weighing-woman), kade (which means envious) to kaldun.
Then there are maanatark (earth-something or other-wise), norts, nõiakas, nõias, and the widely used nõid, as well as nõidlik, with nõid being pronounced the way a denizen of Brooklyn, NY would say “nerd”.
Continuing alphabetically, we find poltarak, porss, punk, rabi, ragan, rõugutaja, silmänuumija which comes from Setu county in southeastern Estonia, sorbik, sorp, sorpja, sort and sorts, these last two related to our English word sorcerer somehow, along with sortsikas.
Sumpja is another word from the Setu dialect, followed by suri, taigaline and the widespread tark, which means “wise”. Teadlane, which can also mean scientist (!), is used in a few areas, along with related teadmamees (knowing-man). Tontinimene (ghost-person) comes next, followed by Russian-sounding tsarovnik.
We also have tuusija, velets, vilpus, viuh-änd, vornik and finally võlu, another one that has a rather wider use.
And the list from Estonica.com doesn’t even include some of the words I mentioned at the beginning, like loits, arbus, posija, lausuja, ennustaja, and synaja, which I discovered in other rambles through Google. That makes a grand total of 46 words for witch, and I’ll bet there are more.
I can draw a few conclusions from this.
One is that witches and their works played an important role in Estonian society at some time in the past. This is understandable when you have people depending on the success of their harvests, their fishing catches and their herd animals as matters of life or death. There were both male and female witches in Estonia, while the dictionary definition above tends to view witches as mostly female.
Estonia was one of the very last places in Europe to be Christianized. Christianity has always lain thinly over a strong undercurrent of pagan belief, including, evidently, a belief in supernatural powers.
A BBC article published in August, 2011, states that: “When Estonians were recently asked whether religion played an important part in their life, only 20% said yes. It suggests the Baltic country is, statistically, the least religious country in the world.”
Another surmise I can make from this is that Estonians in the past were not a very mobile people, being tied to their land by the hard labors of summer, and the deep snows of winter. Before there were trains and cars and telephones, many Estonians stuck to their small communities and did not have much contact with other hamlets outside their immediate area. When Estonians were mainly serfs laboring on the vast manors of their German overlords, their opportunities for travel were severely limited.
As a result, each region may have developed its own slang names for that important man or woman who practiced healing and encouraged good crops to grow.
Estonia has been conquered and re-conquered repeatedly by some of its near-neighbors since the early 13th Century. The conquerors, Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Russia, have lent bits of their language to the Estonians. It may be that some of the witch-words I listed above derive from those languages.
And although northern Europeans have enlarged the lexicon of the Estonians, Estonians haven’t returned the favor. I can’t think of any Estonian-based words in English. Even our Estonian word saun isn’t known; the Finnish word sauna is the one that made it into English.
More’s the pity. What fun it would be to have 46 words for witch.