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About the origin of some Karelian place-names

toponymy, to·pon'o·my, n. [Gr. topos, a place, and onoma, a name.] The place names of a country or district.

- The Webster Dictionary

The giving of names to the local landscape parts began a long time ago. The linguists say that in the names of some lakes, rivers, mountains and forests they can "hear" Saami words - the Saami tribe inhabited Karelia a long time before Korela, Vesi and Suomi came here. Most of the toponyms are related to the activities of those tribes - hunting, fishing; animal names are also rather frequent. After the Saami left, Karelians, who finally settled on this land, inherited some of the names, and they made some on their own. Most of the toponyms in the Ladoga area are Karelian, although the Russian population often gave places they knew, new names that sounded like the original ones. Especially the substitution of Karelian and Saami names by Russian ones became frequent with the coming of Soviet reign to Karelian lands. Many newcoming settlers were unadapted to the strange "Finnish" names, and often new names were given spontaneously. Thus "Helmijarvi" became the "Third Lake", "Taimalampi" became the "Bright Lake", "Rautakangas" - "Uchkhoz" and "Liikolampi" - "kozhzavod". The history of every toponym is extremely interesting, for the names of the larger geografical objects always cause discussions with plenty of suggested possibilities. For example, "Ladoga" - where did this name come from? A Swedish researcher Per Persson in 1616 in his book about Russia "Regni Muschovitici Sciographia" made the first attempt to solve this puzzle. He suggested that Ladoga was so named in honor of the Swedish king Magnus Ladulos. However, a study of Russian chronicles proves this theory incorrect. It is known that Magnus Ladulos reigned in 1275-1290 A.D. The chronicles, on the other hand, contain the following entry dated 1228 A.D.: "And Häme came with war to the Ladoga lake and the news of this came to Novgorod on Salvation day". It is obvious then, that Ladoga received its present name before Ladulos. What theories do we have then about the origin of the toponym?

Sometimes when words were used in toponyms, two letters swapped places. If this was the case here, then Ladoga could originally be "Aldoga", and then we have at least three possible hypotheses:

1. Origin from the word "Ladya" (boat) in Russian, "Aldiya" (aldija) in Lithuanian. From the ancient times Ladoga had been a well-known waterway - from the Baltic Sea into the Finnish Gulf, then down the Neva river and via the southern part of Ladoga the vikings got to the Volkhov river and from there - to Novgorod; later this way was also used by Hanseatic merchants that traded with Nogorod. Another way from Ladoga lead via the Vuoksi river to Vyborg. The northern Karelian way also had some significance - it lead to the Gulf of Botnia and to the White Sea. This way started on the Northern shores of Ladoga via small rivers, through the Pyhäyarvi and Orivesi lakes to the Pielisyarvi lake. Here the way split: the Western branch through the Ouluyarvi and the Oulu river lead to the Gulf of Botnia; the Eastern branch - to the Leksozero lake, then through a drag to the Kimasozero lake, and from there via the Kemi river to the White Sea. Boats, "ladya's" in old Russian, were used everywhere - in trade, fishing, war campaigns.
(Even in this description of waterways Karelian, Russian and Karelian-Russian toponyms occur - "yarvi" (jarvi), which means "lake" in Karelian, often constituted the second half of a lake's name; Russian inhabitants often substituted it with the Russian equivalent, "ozero" (lake), leaving the first half unchanged.)
2. Usage of Karelian word "aalto" - "wave", producing "Aaltokas" - "Wavy". Indeed, Ladoga - the largest lake in Europe - was well-known for its rough temper, and many ships and boats crashed on the rocky islands and shores of Ladoga.
3. A dialect Russian word "alod" meant "open lake, a vast field of water". And the size of Ladoga, the largest lake in Europe, really speaks for itself - Ladoga stretches from south to north for 207 km. and its widest part at 61 degress northern latitude is 130 km. The area of the lake is over 18 000 km.2 and the volume of water in it is approximately 900 km.3.

And what about Sortavala? There are many versions concerning the origin of the name of this city, which throughout its history had repeatedly been dominated by Sweden, Russia and Finland. The other, less known name for Sortavala - Serdobol - was used often during the period when the city was a part of the Grand Duchy of Finland within the Russian empire. However, the Karelian name still remains an unsolved mystery, and we can only make guesses and suggestions about its origin. Let us consider several possibilities:

1. Origin from the initial Sortanvalta, derived from karelian words "sorta" - "demon, devil" (sorta being adapted from the Russian word "chiort" (demon, devil)) and "valta" - "power". Such a combination - "Demon's Power" - could represent the high level of religiosity and superstition of Karelian population, which shared the beliefs of Ancient Russia.
2. This one version is based on a supposedly carved writing on a rock, "Chiort, vali (valiai)!" (Demon, be gone!) in the local manner.
3. A version about the first half of the name being the word "Sortua" - "to perish". Indeed, during the brutal Swedish attacks at Karelian territories many people died defending their homes.
4. A suggestion that the word "Sortaa", which means "to opress, to afflict", constituted the first half of the name. The opression could be related to different factors, perhaps, opression on the part of Swedes.
5. Karelian word "Sordo" - "cattle pasture" - could be the basis of the first half of the name. Sortavala area, or pogost at the time, always had many pastures, and cattle farming was one of the usual businesses of Karelians.
6. The name of the city could also originate from a person's name Sortava.
7. The word "Sorttawa" - "splitting, dissecting" - could reflect the city's geography, for Sortavala is split in two by a small gulf. On the other hand, the Nikolskaya church has been on the Riekkalansaari island since the ancient times, the pogost being partly on the island and partly on the mainland. The splitting could represent the strait that separated the island and the mainland parts of the Sortavala (Sortavala-Nikolski) pogost.
8. Finally, the most probable possibility - an adaptation of the Russian name of the city - Serdobol. It is easy to see how the local population could transform "Serdobol" into "Sortavala" (or vice versa), when the alternating "owners" of the Ladoga Karelia constantly changed local names to the ones that were more pleasing/understandable to their hearing: Serdobol - Sordabolski (Sordabolschi) - Sårdawala - Sordowala - Sortavala. This theory, however, should not be considered to be the correct one for sure, for the question, which name came first - Serdobol or Sortavala - still remains unanswered.

As for Heliulia (Helylä) - there is an opinion that the name means "a place where they nurture". This version still needs some verification or disapproval from Finnish topologysts. The ending of the name is also very characteristic of Karelian toponyms (Myllykylä, Lahdenkylä). The names of some lakes and small settlements (usually endings of village names) include the term upper (raised, mountainous) - "ylä" (a truncated form of Karelian-Veps ylähäine; Finnish ylä). According to another, more likely version, the word "Heliu" (Hely) means "ringing, jingling" in Karelian/Finnish - the Tohma river, which flows through the village, has some waterfalls upstream, and their noise could be the reason for such possible naming.

It is also very interesting to study documents, census books and geographical maps of the pogost. Thus, in "The Vodskaya Patina area Taxbook, year 1500 A.D." we see "Popov bereg" (Priest's shore) on the Riekkalansaari, not far from the Nikolskaya church. In 1590, when the Swedes came, in the List of taxed houses and abandonments, compiled by the Swedes, this place is recorded (translated) as"Papilan randa" ("Priest's shore" in Karelian), and in 1618 a Swedish land revision book calls this place "Popowo Beresie" ("Priest's shore"). Another interesting example is provided by the Kiryavalahti village, presently known as the "Sortavala Composers' Resort". On a Russian map from 1772 this village is marked as "Iormak" - by the last name of the Iormakka dynasty, which was rather famous in the Sortavala area/pogost. On a Swedish map from 1648 and in the 1590 document this village is called "Orialax" ("Orialahti"); afterwards on maps from 1721 (Russian), 1825 (Russian), 1900 (Finnish) it is called Kirjavalahti/Kirjavalax, and on a Russian map from 174* we find a somewhat distorted name - Kirepala (which was also placed very unaccurately). Thus, very often because of frequent shifting of people, responsible for geographical and census accuracy, place-names often changed. This tendency was marked even by academic V.M. Severgin, who had published in Saint Petersburg in 1805 his book "A Review of the Russian Finland", written on the basis of the materials of an expedition in August-September of 1804 on the following route: Petersburg-Vyborg-Serdobol-Liaskelia-Impilahti-Serdobol-Ruskeala-Vyborg-the capital: "...Their [local finnish-karelian population] backwardness is so big that sometimes their river, according to the villages, near which it flows, has three or four names."

When the Swedes conducted a census and a revision of villages on the recently occupied territories, often they first wrote down the names just as they had been told, and later adapted them how they wished. Thus, in the Land revision book from 1618 we see such names as "Rekala derefnä" ("derefnä" is a slightly distorted Russian word "derevnia" - village), "Kymelä derefnä", "Kynkylä derefnä", "Oserof derefnä", "Janalux derefnä". Later the word "derefnä" (village) was replaced by a Swedish word "by" (village) - "Reckala by", "Kymelä by", "Kynkylä by", "Hälylä by", "Anila by".

Finally, the last example of local toponymy is the names of islands according to the name of their owner. In Sortavala pogost already in 1500 there was a place called "Bogdan-ostrov" (Bogdan-island in Russian), which in the land revision book from 1631 is given the name "Bogdan Saari" ("Bogdan Island" in Karelian). In the List of taxed houses and abandonments from 1590 there is a place called "Mickulan Saari" ("Michael's/Nikolai's Island" in Karelian) which is also mentioned in 1631 as "Mickiclan Saari" (Mickiclan Island). And, finally, a place marked on a Swedish map from 1648 as "Kassentinoff ostroff" (Konstantine's island) - all these are examples of how personal names of supposedly owners of the island/village were used in the name of the place.

This page was created using some materials from these books:
1. "The puzzles of Karelian toponymy". Kert, Mamontova, Petrozavodsk, 1976.
2. "The history of Karelia in the 16-17th centuries in documents". Petrozavodsk, Joensuu, 1987.