New dates about the origin of the place name Tartu

Keywords: town names, Estonia, toponymy, etymology, research history, folkloristics

The paper attempts 1) to reflect and supplement the research history of the name origin of Tartu town (Latin Tharbatu, German Dorpat), 2) to find additional justifications for some previous etymologies, 3) to propose a competing hypothesis, and 4) to study possible connections with toponyms known from folklore. The article draws attention to the local historian and writer August Wilhelm Hupel’s role, albeit modest, in explaining the origin of the name Tartu. The Finno-Ugrist Paul Ariste’s hypothesis, which is still considered the most plausible, according to which a toponym *Tarvatto is derived from the general word tarvas ‘European bison’ (< ‘aurochs’) and means their location, is detailed, and additional reasons are given for objections which have somewhat reduced the probability of validity. A competing hypothesis is put forward, which decisively rejects the view of Heinrich Neus and Eduard Roos that Tharbatu means something unnecessary, and emphasizes the opposite. If the name of the town should be related to the name of Tarvetu, the supposed founder of the Tartu fortress, the original name of the fortress would have been *Tarßõtto. At the end of the article, some folk songs which were recorded in the 19th century and include the place names Tarvetu, Tarretu and others are reconsidered. They are the same origin as the name of Tartu. The time axis of TharbatuTartu is documented to be over 800 years old, but in reality it can be much longer. As an echo of the distant past, it is fairly difficult to unambiguously justify the origin of a toponym.


Enn Ernits (b. 1945), PhD and DVM, Associate Professor Emeritus of the Estonian University of Life Sciences (Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwaldi 1a, 51014 Tartu),