Names of ethnicities and ethnicities in names
This Page propose some information about Latvian family names that were coined from the names of ethnicities. To some extent this information characterizes the ethnic fabrics of the society in Latvia's rural regions and also the relations of the ethnicities. It is supposed you have already visited the special Page on the meaning of the word ethnicity to learn how this word is used on this Site. You might also read the Page about the naming process of Latvians, in case you had not yet.
The figures in brackets ( ) after the names below mean the number of the occurrences of the appropriate name in the telephone directory (TD) for Riga city 1995.
The self-name of Latvians sounds latvieši, in singular latvietis. This word is used for family name as it stands. The family name Latvietis is rather rare, however (1). It is easy to suppose that during the naming process a Latvian living among other Latvians could not discover anything specific in his ethnicity to choose it for his family name. I imagine that the first holders of this name lived in a microsociety consisting mainly of people of other ethnicities or had some reasons to stress their ethnic origin, but quite possibly they changed their initial name to Latvietis later in the 20th century.
It would be of interest to know if the words used in the neighboring languages for the naming of Latvians were used to construct the family names in the neighboring countries, which allowed to suppose that the ancestors of the holders of these names were Latvians that migrated to the appropriate countries.
The online telephone directory of modern time Estonia gives no person with the name Lätlane i.e. Latvian, but I think it could happen that Estonians used another name for their neighbors Latvians at the time of the naming, may be the name Lätt or Lätti, and such names really exist in Estonia. In any case, I am quite sure that in reality Latvians migrated to and settled in the part of Vidzeme [Livland] that was inhabited by Estonians.
24 persons with the name Latvis were found in the online telephone directory of Lithuania. Latvis means Latvian in the Lithuanian language, but the same word is also used in Latvian as a synonym of the word latvietis with a bit more poetical meaning, and therefore no wonder that the name Latvis could be found in the TD of Riga (2).
In Germany 6 persons of the name Lette - Latvian have telephone numbers, according to my CD with the telephone directory of Germany. Though I could imagine quite easy that some Latvian peasants were transported to a German state and acquired there the name Lette, it is more likely the holders of this name were previous inhabitants of a town Lette, or another method for creating the name was used. Actually there are at least 2 towns named Lette in Germany now. Quite possibly this place name was derived of the word lette which in Middle High German means clay /Duden/, and I do not believe that the ethnonim Lette could be used for this purpose. The same TD also informs about 6 holders of the name Lettenberger and 6 of the name Lettenthaler. These names evidently were derived from the real place names Lettenberg and Lettental that could be easily translated as Latvian hill and Latvian valley, but, it seems, such translations have nothing to do with the real etymology of the names.
Similar etymological guesses can be derived from the names Lettenbauer (118 occurrences in the TD), and the names Lettemeier, Lettenmeier, Lettenmaier and Lettenmayer (all together 133 occurrences). The word bauer means peasant and the word maier of different spellings also means peasant but a more well-situated one - a farm host, or a farm tenant, or a farm manager etc. I really hope that some of the holders of these name are the descendants of peasants of Latvian origin, but it is much more likely that their ancestors lived in the vicinities of a town Lette or in a region called Lette, though I have never heard of such a region, however.
In Russian the word for a Latvian is latyš, and the name Latyš or especially Latyšev is not rare at all. However it is important to know that in some dialects of Russian latyš means a person who speaks mumbling or burring, so almost all of the holders of the name Latyšev are descendants of a mumbling person. Only in exceptional cases they could have Latvian ancestors. Of course, a Latvian living among Russians could be nicknamed Latyš i.e. a Latvian, but this nickname not very likely could turn to a family name, because Latvians in most cases had already acquired their family names when they acquired rights to move in Russia proper, and when the naming was started on there.
The word for a Russian in Latvian is krievs. It stems from the name of an ancient Slavic tribe Kriviči. The word krievs was rather widely used for creating of family names in various forms Krievs (39), Krieviņš (68), Krievāns (18).
No doubt, some of the holders of this name descend from real Russians. For example, E. Krieviņš in his memoirs /Krieviņš/ described an ancestor, who in the time of serfdom was brought from Russia proper by the owner of a local manor. Later, when the serfdom was abolished, the former serf acquired the name Krievs, and some of his descendants added the diminutive ending to the name and became Krieviņš, but others still remained Krievs.
I think, however, that a good amount of the first holders of this name were retired soldiers. In the time of the naming (1820s-1830s) the first recruited soldiers began to return home after 25 years of the military service and quite possibly caused some kind of sensation. The Latvian peasants in their everyday speech said that the recruits were taken to Russians, that they have returned from Russians. The retired soldiers wore military uniform, told a lot of stories about their battles and adventures in Russia, spoke Latvian with difficulties, stylishly inserting Russian words in their speech. For all these reasons they could quite easy be nicknamed krievs, that is a Russian. As it frequently happened to nicknames, this nickname could be also adopted for a hereditary family name.
The farms named Krieviņi or Krievi existed in various regions of the region of Latvia. It is easy to suppose that in these farms once really lived people that migrated from Russia provinces, but, of course, to the moment of the naming the hosts of the farm could be changed several times. The same is also true for the farms that were named after Vots, who were called krieviņi, in Kurzeme [Kurland] province. More about them you can read in the special Page.
The Latvian name for a German is vācietis, and it was derived from the name of a region in Sweden (yes, in Sweden), according to the most accepted hypothesis. This word is used for family name without any changes Vācietis (20). The number of the holders seems not so great, which means that not so many people were nicknamed Vācietis at the time of the naming.
The self-name of Germans is Deutsch, and the word was used to coin a name for Latvians - Deičs or Deičmanis. It should be mentioned, however, that both names are quite usual for Jews also.
I do not think that Latvian peasants were well informed about diverse German states and their inhabitants such as Preussen, Sachsen or Schwaben. These ethnonimes produced some popular German family names, but I can hardly imagine that a Latvian peasant was ever nicknamed Schwabe etc. I suppose that the Latvian names Prūsis (34), Sakss (9) or Zakss (10), Švābs or Švābe (10) etc. were simply borrowed from German name thesaurus, for example, a pagasts scribe who was busy with naming of peasants these scribes then as a rule were Germans by ethnicity distributed German names without much asking for agreement of their future holders. And, of course, real Germans with such names could migrate to the Baltic provinces and settle there and mix up with Latvians.
The word prūsis was used in Latvian also for the cockroach, which allowed additional possibilities of creating the names, but this possibility was not frequently used, I think. One could also imagine that certain real Prussians migrated to Kurzeme [Kurland] that was a neighboring country to Prussia some time ago, or a Kurzeme's Latvian had some adventures in Prussia that could cause the nickname Prussian - Prūsis. These could be the reasons why this name now is more popular than others of this kind.
I think that the Latvian name Igaunis (36), that means an Estonian in the Latvian language, mainly was acquired by real Estonian serfs, who migrated to Vidzeme [Livland] province at the end of the 18th century or at the beginning of the 19th century.
The word igaunis stems from the name of an ancient region in the area of contemporary Estonia. In the Russian language of the 19th century (and earlier) Estonians were called čudj. There are some publications that claim that the Latvian family name Čudars (18) was made of this ethnonim. I have not heard, however, that this ethnonim was ever used in Latvian.
Migrants from Kaunas province into Kurzeme [Kurland] could be named Leitis that was the ethnonim for Lithuanians in the Latvian language of the 19th century. There were 41 individual named Leitis mentioned in the TD for Riga 1995.
It seems that at the beginning of the 19th century there were relatively many Lithuanians in Kurzeme province at the time when the local peasants were named. Evidently these Lithuanians were moved from Kaunas province by manor owners in the time of serfdom, were settled there, and acquired freedom a good time before the fellow Lithuanians in the native province. The next migration wave of Lithuanians to Kurzeme occurred after the serfdom was abolished in Kaunas province, what happened in 1861. At that time there were less chances to find a good job in Kaunas province than in Kurzeme.
Easy to suppose that the Lithuanians, who moved to Kurzeme after or before 1861, were not the best educated and the well-situated ones, and, of course, they did not know the language and local Latvian customs. The local Latvians felt themselves superior over them, and in the time being the word leitis got some offensive sense in the Latvian language and was used as a mild curse word for the people who seemed not very quick-minded. For this reason later an agreement was reached in the 1920s that the word leitis would not be used in Latvia in the official language and in the printed sources. It was agreed to use the word lietuvietis for a Lithuanian in the Latvian language. This word sounds as derived of the name of the country Lietuva. Only in scientific publications and in the name of the Lithuanian language leišu valoda the word leitis was still allowed. Now in the modern Latvian language the word leitis is practically forgotten and is seldom encountered. Maybe in some regions near the Lithuania border it is still used in the everyday speech, I do not know, but even there it should sound old-fashioned.
It is easy to suppose that the people with the name Lietuvietis, or Lietavietis (10) are former Leitis, who changed their names in prewar Latvia, when the name change became possible and was relatively easy, but, of course, any person could change his/her name to Lietuvietis, if it was desired. It should be only remembered that the word lietuvietis did not exist when the naming in Latvia was going on.
A Pole in Latvian sounds polis which is quite a popular name Polis (64). I think that the ancestors of the holders of this name mostly were Poles. The Poles could migrate in Baltic provinces from Kaunas province, where mainly Lithuanians lived, as well as from Latgale region, and therefore one can suppose that the main part of the people named Polis came from the southern areas of the region of Latvia.
It should be mentioned that the name for Jews in Latvian language of the 19th century was žīds, that in reality has the same origin as the word Jew of the English language. At the end of the 18th century the analogous word of the Russian language žid was prohibited in the official texts as being offensive. It was replaced by the word jevrej that is derived from the word Hebrew. After the WW2 the word žīds was considered offensive also in the Latvian language and the word ebrejs is used now.
The name Žīds existed for the peasants in the region of Latvia. I think, however, that the main part of the holders of this name stems from Kurzeme [Kurland], where Jews were rather common in the time of the naming. Quite possible that a Latvian could be nicknamed a Jew (žīds) for some characteristic features that were ascribed to Jews by surrounding people.
The Address book for Riga 1932 informs about 4 holders of this name, and about 3 holders of the name Židiņš, but in the modern time telephone directory (1995) nobody of them is registered, though there are 2 holders of the name Žīdelis. This name seems to be derived grammatically of the word žīds with suffix of scornful meaning in Latvian language. At the same time this suffix is widely used in Lithuanian for coining of person family names, so it is quite possible that the holders of this name or their ancestors had migrated from Lithuania.
The Latvian family name Čigāns (10), that means a Gypsy, quite likely arose of the nickname of a person may be for his appearance or because of his behavior standards that should be similar to those imputed to Gypsies.
The ethnonim of Swedes zviedrs was widely used for creating of Latvian names in various forms - Zviedrs (47), Zviedriņš (2), Zvidriņš (4), Zviedrītis (1), Zvidrs (4).
At the time of the naming no significant Swedish population existed in the region of Latvia, but they lived there some 100 years before, and some farms were named after them. I guess that almost all holders of these names should have come from these farms, which does not obligatory mean they were of Swedish ethnic origin.
The family names Šveide (11) or Švēde (8) seem to be coined from the German variant of the ethnonim Schwede.
The usage of the ethnonims for Finns in the Latvian names is a bit more complicated. In the time of the naming a Finn was called in Latvian pinnis, and really the name Pinnis (24) exists. I wonder, however, how the Latvian peasants got informed about the very existence of Finns, because they never inhabited the region of Latvia. One of the solutions I could propose is that the retired recruits, who served in Finlands territory, were the information source and maybe somebody of them were nicknamed Pinnis. I do not know also how could it happen that this word was used in some place names, for example, Piņņu kalni (hills of Finns).
The modern word for Finns is soms, and the appropriate name Soms (26) also exists. I do not know the exact time when the change of these ethnonims occurred, but it did not happen in the 19th century, so the holders of the name Soms could not be named after Finns during the naming process. It is possible that some holders of the name Pinnis changed it to Soms or to another name, because the female form of the name Pinnis Pinne does not sound very beautiful - it means acne. To tell the truth, the grammatically correct female form of the name Soms Soma means bag, and is not something very preferable as a name for a lady, and for this reason the form Some is usually used for the female form of the word. Another explanation, why the name Soms is relatively popular, could be that its holders come from the eastern regions of Latvia and acquired their name from dialect form soms of the word sams (sheat fish) that has the same spelling as the ethnonim, though the real pronunciation is a bit different. The fact, that in the Latgale region there are rather many holders of the name Soms, supports this explanation. By the way, the name Sams (11) is also known.
The Finno-Ugrian tribe Livs (Livonians) was one of the local tribes the Latvian ethnicity was cooked of, and in the time of the naming they still existed as a separate ethnicity and some of them could be named after their ethnonim lībietis Lībietis (11). The same ethnonim gave name to not seldom farms and later to their inhabitants (not obligatory descendants of Livs). The family name Līvs (3) also exists which sounds closer to the self-name of this tribe.
Another enigmatic name is the name Turks (18) that sounds identical with the ethnonim turks - Turk. The only way I could propose how Latvian peasants could acquire this name, is again the retired soldiers. In 1828-1829 the Russia Empire had a war with Turkey, and the recruits who returned home could be named Turks for their stories about adventures in this war. If this is true, only the Latvians of Kurzeme could acquire this name, because the naming of the population in Vidzeme was completed in 1826 but in Kurzeme in 1835. By the way, there is also a place named Turki.
© Bruno Martuzāns. 2002