The name "Eesti", or Estonia, is thought to be derived from the word Aestii, the name given by the ancient Germanic peoples to the peoples living northeast of the Vistula River. The Roman historian Tacitus in 98 A.D. was the first to mention the "Aestii" people, and early Scandinavians called the land south of the Gulf of Finland "Eistland" ("Eistland" is also the current word in Icelandic for Estonia), and the people "eistr". Proto-Estonians (as well as other speakers of the Finnish language group) were also called Chuds (чудь) in Old East Slavic chronicles.
The Estonian language belongs to the Balto-Finnic branch of the Finno-Ugric group of languages, as does the Finnish language. The first book in Estonian was printed in 1525, while the oldest known examples of written Estonian originate in 13th century chronicles.
Although Estonian national consciousness spread in the course of the 19th century during the Estonian national awakening, some degree of ethnic awareness preceded this development. By the 18th century the self-denomination eestlane spread among Estonians along with the older maarahvas. The Bible was translated in 1739, and the number of books and brochures published in Estonian increased from 18 in the 1750s to 54 in the 1790s. By the end of the century more than a half of adult peasants were able to read. The first university-educated intellectuals identifying themselves as Estonians, including Friedrich Robert Faehlmann (1798-1850), Kristjan Jaak Peterson (1801-22) and Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald (1803-82), appeared in the 1820s. The ruling elites had remained predominantly German in language and culture since the conquest of the early 13th century. Garlieb Merkel (1769-1850), a Baltic German Estophile, was the first author to treat the Estonians as a nationality equal to others and became a source of inspiration for the Estonian national movement, modelled on Baltic German cultural world before the middle of the 19th century. However, in the middle of the century the Estonians became more ambitious and started leaning towards the Finns as a successful model of national movement and, to some extent, the neighbouring Latvian national movement. By the end of 1860 the Estonians became unwilling to reconcile with German cultural and political hegemony. Before the attempts at Russification in the 1880s their view of Imperial Russia remained positive.
Estonians have strong ties to the Nordic countries stemming from important cultural and religious influences gained over centuries during Scandinavian and German rule and settlement. Indeed, Estonians consider themselves a Nordic people rather than Balts, in particular because of a close ethnic and linguistic affinity with the Finns.
From 1945-89 the share of ethnic Estonians in Estonia dropped from 94% to 61%, caused primarily by the deportations organized by the Soviet regime and the Soviet mass immigration program from Russia and other parts of the former USSR into industrial urban areas of Estonia, as well as by wartime emigration and Stalin's mass deportations and executions. The ethnic Estonian population has now risen close to 69%.
Most of émigré Estonians live in Russia, Finland, Sweden, US, Canada, or other Western countries. In neighbouring Latvia, there are around 2,700 ethnic Estonians (1997 census), in Lithuania, the number was 600 in 1989.