Sunday, 6 April 2014

Nordrhein-Westfalen - Naming your Neighbours

Something that has always interested me about Germany is the fact that there is no single name for this central European country.  Whilst France is called Frankreich (German), France (French), Francie (Czech), An Fhrainc (Irish), Frankrig (Danish), Frankrijk (Dutch), Francija (Latvian) and Prantsusmaa (Estonian), Italy is Italien, Italie, Itálie, Iodáil, Italien, Italië, Itālija, Itaalia and Spain is Spanien, Espagne, Španělsko, An Spáinn, Spanien, Spanje, Spānija, Hispaania - the names for Germany in these languages are; Deutschland, Allemagne, Německo, An Ghearmáin, Tyskland, Duitsland, Vācija and Saksamaa.

I guess it's because of Germany's central position in Europe and also the fact that it didn't become a united nation until 1871 that so many different names still exist for this country.  They do tend to fall into categories and the image below shows roughly how the various names for Germany are distributed around Europe. Most variations are related to ancient tribe names, like the Germani, Alemanni, Saxons and Vagoths.  The Germannic version deutsch/duits/tysk comes from an old word for 'people'.

Name for Germany in European Languages

The Slavic word for Germans, Němci (Czech), немцы/nyemtsi (Russian), Nijemci (Croatian) - originally meant something like 'those who don't speak our language', but sounds a lot to me like 'those who don't (nye) come from this place (mesto)'.  

As I've been researching this topic, I've learned a lot about endonym, ie. the name people give to their own country/the place where they live and exonym the name given to a place by neighbouring tribes or countries.  Many of the names we use for countries in English are exonyms and have been borrowed into English through other cultures that had greater contact with people in that place, eg. the English name for China comes from Persian, our name for Brazil comes via Portuguese.

It's interesting that the endonym theudo/þeodisc/Dutch was used more widely in English in the past to refer to any Germanic people, but it gradually came to mean only those Germanic people who lived closest to England, ie. people in the Netherlands.  That's where we get the strange situation in English where we call Netherlanders Dutch and Deutschlanders German!

German border control in the 1950's by Hellebardius
I first started thinking about the names of Germany when I moved to Bratislava in 1999.  That's when I learned the Slovak name for Germany Nemecko and began to wonder what it all meant.  I was also surprised to learn the Slovak name for its neighbours Austria (Rakúsko) and Hungary (Maďarsko).  To be honest, most country names in our modern world are standardised, especially in the 'New World' - Mexico, Argentina, Australia - it gets more interesting when you look at the names neighbouring countries give to each other.

I tried a few of these and came up with some interesting examples below:

γαλοπούλα (galopoúla) - the Greek name for Turkey which, I guess comes from the place name Gallipoli? Then there is Yunanistan, the Turkish name for Greece, which relates to the Ionian Sea and is also used in languages like Arabic, Hindi and Persian.

Border locked by Morten Oddvik
The Irish name for England is Sasana which related to Saxony in Germany - I guess as far as the ancient Irish were concerned, the English were basically Germans, although I'm sure most 21st century English people would tend to disagree!  Likewise, in the other Celtic languages, England is called Sostyn (Manx), Pow Sows (Cornish) and Sasainn (Scottish Gaelic).  The origin of Lloegr the Welsh name for England is more obscure.  

The word for Egypt in Swahili is Misri, which is an ancient name from Classical Arabic and means 'the two straits' ie. Upper and Lower Egypt.

The Chinese name for Japan is 日本 (riben) which is an approximate pronunciation of the symbols that Japanese use for their country's name, Nippon.  The English name for Japan is believed to come from the Portuguese mispronunciation of Nippon although it could also be from the Cantonese pronunciation of this symbol. The Japanese name for China is 中国 (chugoku) which quite literally means 'the Middle Kingdom' and is exactly the same as the Chinese Zhōngguó.  

Endonyms can be quite different from the internationally accepted name given to a country and I've often wondered what it's like to grow up in a place like Nippon and to later find out that the rest of the world calls your country Japan, Japon, Jaapan etc?  I've put together a list of some of the countries I've already blogged about, in their native languages - click on the links to find out which countries they are:


Монгол улс




Image credits:

The map with the names for Germany in other European languages is from Wikipedia and you can see more information on the file here.

The image of the German border control is owned by Flickr member Hellebardius - it was taken near Lubeck in the 1950's.

The image of the 'Border locked' signpost was taken by Morten Oddvick, a teacher from Trondheim in Norway.  This photo was taken on the Georgian/Russian border.

Thanks for Hellebardius and Morten for sharing these images with us, using the Creative Commons license.

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