“Demonological” root čert- and hiisi- in Russian toponymy of the Russian North and the Republic of Karelia


  • Елена Л. Березович Уральский федеральный университет
  • Анна A. Макарова Уральский федеральный университет
  • Ирма И. Муллонен Институт языка, литературы и истории Карельского научного центра РАH




toponymy, substrate, Russian language, Finnic languages, language contact


The paper presents a comparative study of “demonological” root čert- and hiisi- in the currently used Russian toponymy of the Russian North (Arkhangelsk, Vologda regions, the surrounding areas of Yaroslavl, Kostroma regions), and the Republic of Karelia. In the toponymy of Russian origin, the most frequent names are toponyms with the root čert- (80 % of “demonological” names), which continue Proto-Slavic *čьrt-. The places named using čert- have a number of common features: often these are places with a negative relief, usually filled with water (names of water objects dominate in this type); the economic exploitation of čert- places is either impossible or extremely difficult. The popularity of the root čert- in toponymy is also supported by the use of *čьrtež ‘cleared arable land’, and may be associated with the archaic tradition of the perception of a place in relation to the “spirit of the place”. There are certain factors which caused an increase of čert- toponyms: “landscape” (their number increases in the areas rich with swamps, rapid rivers, dense forests etc.); agricultural activity; a significant number of churches and monasteries. Factors mitigating the productivity of čert- toponyms are: hunting activity; the onomastic tradition of contact languages (e.g., low productivity of the corresponding word in Komi); linguistic taboos. In Finnic toponymy the corresponding root is hiisi-/hiite-, which can be traced back to *hiite. The popularity of the root in toponymy is connected with the semantics that originally included a “local” component. Hiisi was originally used for a pagan cemetery located on a hill, with a large conspicuous stone in the centre. Gradually the word came to mean a grove which developed on the site of the cemetery. With the spread of Christianity in the eastern dialects, the word acquired the meaning ‘devil’. The most likely source of the model in the substrate toponymy of the Russian North is the Karelian tradition. In the toponymy of Karelian Priladozhye, this root is used to denote primarily the highest mountains located near a settlement. About a quarter of the names with the root hiisi- in the substrate toponymy also denote mountains, most of them located in the west of the area, that is on the White Sea and in Obonezhye. This toponymic root referred to prominent heights  in the territory where villages often stood, as well as Orthodox chapels and churches. On the other hand, they are known as places connected with impure force. This toponymic root is evident in the Russian North with different phonology: Hiž- in the north-west, on the Onega-White Sea watershed; forms with the loss of the initial consonant (-, Id- et al.) in Eastern Obonezhye; Hid- mainly in the central area, especially on Onega; Hit- in the south. The coexistence of different variants in the same area (Hid and Hižestrov) reflected the fact that hiisi took the form hiide- (<* hiiδe-) in obliqiue cases. The whole area where the toponymic root occurs in the Russian North (from the White Sea, the Lake Onega and the White Lake in the west to Pinega in the east) largely corresponds to the territory of the eastward Karelian expansion in the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries.


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How to Cite

Березович, Е. Л., Макарова А. A., & Муллонен, И. И. (2015). “Demonological” root čert- and hiisi- in Russian toponymy of the Russian North and the Republic of Karelia. Linguistica, 55(1), 187–205. https://doi.org/10.4312/linguistica.55.1.187-205