A person from Germany walks into a room. So does a person from Allemagne, a person from Deutschland, a person from Saksa, a person from Tyskland, and a person from Niemcy. At least how many people are in the room?
Germany is one of several countries that have completely different names in different languages. In French, Germany is Allemagne; in German, it’s Deutschland; in Finnish, it’s Saksa; in Danish, it’s Tyskland; in Polish, it’s Niemcy. Why is this? And what other countries have this quirk? It’s all a story of tribes, dynasties, foreign domination, and rivers…
A long time ago, when people in part of what is now Germany spoke what we call Old High German, their word for “popular” or “of the people” was diutisc. This has been handed down over history, altered by the general sound patterns of different languages, as the modern German Deutsch, the Danish (and other Scandinavian) Tysk, and the Italian tedesco. Quite a few languages have names for Germany based on this, including most Germanic languages, as well as Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese.
But not everyone who had contact with the Germans felt inclined to call them what they called themselves. The Gauls, a Celtic people who were in France before the Romans arrived, called their neighbors to the east Germani, which seems to come from a Gaulish word meaning “neighbor” or another meaning “noisy.” Think of the Germans as the noisy neighbors of the French. Many languages use a name based on this foreign term.
But the French don’t. They call it Allemagne, which comes from Allamanni, which was the name of a Germanic tribe. Other tribes included the Saxons, from which the Finns made Saksa. The Slavic languages, on the other hand, use a word based perhaps on the river Neman, which is near the western boundary of Russia. This is near the border between Poland and Russia, and yet the Polish word for “Germany” is Nemcy — a country on their west named after a river on their east.
Nearly every language in the world uses a word for Germany based on one of those five origins, and you can generally tell which origin the name comes from by the first letter: D/T, G, A, S, or N.
Meanwhile, there’s another place that also gets one of the D/T words: people from the Netherlands are Dutch. You will surely recognize the resemblance to Deutsch. So, why are Hollanders Dutch?
It goes back to the Middle Ages, when the national boundaries were not tidily drawn and Dutch was seen as a kind of Low German (“low” because of the area’s low elevation — that’s also what the nether in Netherlands means). The label stuck, even as Germans who moved to Pennsylvania came to be called Pennsylvania Dutch, because at the time they got that label, the distinction had still not been firmly made.
But did you notice how I called people from the Netherlands Hollanders? Holland used to be what English speakers normally called the Netherlands. Holland is actually just part of the Netherlands, one that lies along most of the coast and includes the country’s three largest cities. So the Dutch people that English traders met were typically from Holland, which is how the name came to be generally used. But people from the rest of the country didn’t like that so much, so we don’t normally call it Holland anymore.
One of the world’s great airlines is Cathay Pacific. What is Cathay? Another name for China. And what’s China? The English name for Zhongguo. You know, the country the Russians call Kitai.
Here’s how that all came to be. About a thousand years ago, a nomadic people called the Khitan started a dynasty in northern China. They were ultimately overthrown and pushed westward, but the name stuck as a term for northern China and spread to a few languages — it’s where the Russian Kitai comes from, and the word Cathay too. Marco Polo helped spread it.
Another dynasty, the Qin (formerly spelled Chin), gave us the word China, which shows up in slightly differing form in many languages, from Norwegian Kina to Afrikaans Sjina, as well as the Latin Sino that shows up in terms such as Sino-Tibetan relations.
But in Mandarin Chinese, the country is called Zhongguo (pronounced like “jong gwo”), which translates to “Middle Country” or “Middle Kingdom” — reasonably enough, since from where they’re sitting, it’s the center of everything.
The Greeks used the name India for the place they had to cross the Indus River to get to — the name Indus comes from Sanskrit Sindhu, passed through Persian and Greek. Most of the world knows the country by a version of India. A few call it by another name that’s used in India, especially for the north of the country: Hindustan. But the official name for the country in Hindi is Bharat. That is generally thought to have come from a king, who in turn took his name from the Sanskrit word for “carry, bear” — in fact, it’s related to the English word bear (as in carry, not as in animal).
Japan is another country where people in the country call it one thing and almost everyone else calls it another. In Japanese, Japan is Nippon or, more informally, Nihon — which means “where the sun comes from.” Why do we call it Japan? Because Marco Polo (him again!) encountered some Chinese traders who called it by their words for “country where the sun comes from,” which he wrote down as Cipangu. That got trimmed and changed a bit to make a word that first showed up in English as Giapan. Most of the world now calls the country Japan or something similar.
We know that Korea is currently two countries, North Korea and South Korea. But did you know that in Korean, they use two historically different names? In North Korea, the country name is Choson; in South Korea, it’s Hanguk. Why does everyone else call it Korea or something similar? It comes (does this sound familiar?) from a dynasty that ran the country a millennium ago — the Goryeo.
Lest you think it’s just an East Asian thing for a country to be called by something other than what its own people call it, Finland has the same problem. Well, OK, the name Finland comes from Swedish, and Swedish is one of the two national languages of the country — for the same reason that English is one of the national languages of Ireland: They owned the place for a while and there are still lots of them there. But in Finnish (or Suomea, as they call their language) the name of the country is Suomi. Only a few other languages call it something based on Suomi. The rest go with versions of Finland.
We know that it can be a nuisance to look up England in an index, because it could be under United Kingdom (of which England is part) or Great Britain (the island England shares with Scotland and Wales). But add to that the fact that in Celtic languages, England is something else altogether: Sasana (Irish Gaelic), Sasainn (Scots), Bro-Saoz (Breton). Why? Well, England was colonized by the Angles and the Saxons (they took over from the Celtic Britons, some of whom fled to northern France). We take England from the Angles; the Celts took their names from the Saxons. Except for the Welsh — they have their own word, Lloegr, which is something they called that part of the island long before the Angles and Saxons showed up.
Does anyone else use a word based on Saxon? Yes — scroll back up to the top of the story: the Finns do (so do the Estonians)… but they use it for Germany, which is where the Saxons came from in the first place.