Who or what was Jörru?

Keywords: lexical history, etymology, language contacts, Low German loanwords, C. Kelch, J. G. Herder, old written Estonian, Estonian folk song

In 1695 Christian Kelch, the then pastor of Järva-Jaani, published his chronicle “Liefländische Historia”, which also contained an Estonian folk song titled “Jörru, jörru”, with German translation. This was the first Estonian folk song to appear in print; owing to Johann Gottfried von Herder it became known even more widely. Despite repeated analysis of the text, the meaning of jörru has remained a mystery to this day. In Herder’s “Volkslieder” there is a note explainig Jörru as the male name Georg. This interpretation has been predominant, although it contradicts Kelch’s original explanation of Jörru being a young man’s word of address for his beloved girl. Possibly Herder did not find the text in Kelch’s chronicle but in a Königsberg news­paper, where the song had been published in 1764 without Kelch’s comment. Kelch, however, had a good reason to explicate the meaning of Jörru, as he wanted to refute an earlier claim that Jörru refers to Jerusalem and the song as a whole expresses the longing of a people for their former homeland. The article hypothesizes that jörru is the Middle Low German gör ‘girl’. In the local variant of Low German it was normal that before a front vowel g would be pronounced as j; another expected change is ö > õ. The word-final vowel u is a diminutive suffix. The lengthening of the r-sound can be accounted for by diminutive gemination. In addition to the etymology for jörru the meanings of some other archaic words and expressions occurring in the song are specified.


Külli Prillop (b. 1974), PhD, University of Tartu, Institute of Estonian and General Linguistics, Researcher of Estonian Phonology (Jakobi 2, 51005 Tartu),