A unique term for malt

Keywords: etymology, Estonian, Votic, Old Russian loanword

In Estonian and Votic malt is called linnas, mostly used in the plural form linnased. The term is general in the dialects of both languages. Literary Estonian knows the word since the 17th century. The origin of the word stem is unclear. It cannot be rooted in a genuine Estonian-Votic material as there are no words of a similar stem in either language. Nor are there credible cognates in other Finnic languages. This is why attention has been turned to possible loan relationships.

In medieval times Estonia and Livonia were in active trade with Riga, Novgorod and Pskov. Foreign wholesale traders also visited local villages, mainly buying grain, but also malt, which is well preserved when dried. There being no common terms for malt in the contacting languages the merchants could resort to a descriptive approach. One important aspect in defining the variety of malt is colour. Old Esto­nians used to make malt from barley, which when dried at a relatively low temperature resulted in highly valued pale malt.

Of contact languages, the Estonian-Votic word for malt has semantic associations with Old Russian. The Russian verb линять means, on the one hand, ‘fade, bleach, lighten’ and, on the other hand, ‘moult, slough, scale, shed off hair’, in dialects also ‘vanish; diminish etc’.. Adjectives of the same stem such as линявый, линущий, полинявший etc., which refer to a pale or faded colour, have also been recorded from the Pskov dialect spoken in an area adjacent to Estonians. Consequently, the loan source of linnas can well be the Old Russian verb линять or an adjective derived thereof.


Vilja Oja (b. 1945), PhD, Institute of the Estonian Language, Senior Lexicographer (Roosi­krantsi 6, 10119 Tallinn),