If you’re interested in languages and have traveled around Europe, you might have noticed that it’s not always easy to tell when people are talking about Germany. That is because – unlike other countries – the name for Germany varies wildly from language to language. In the tiny nation of Belgium, French speakers call it Allemagne and the Flemish Duitsland, and if you head over to Poland, it goes by Niemcy. Indeed, linguists tend to group the country’s name into six different main categories. But why the variety?
Germany was split between East and West during the Cold War, but that was far from the first time the nation was divided into territories. Germany as we know it today didn’t actually form until the 19th century, when Otto von Bismarck united politically independent regions with different customs, names and dialects into an empire in 1871.
This means that most terms for ‘Germany’ stem from a time when Germany didn’t really exist. Instead, there was the ‘Alemanni’ tribe in the German-speaking part of the Alsace and the Baden-Württemberg region bordering France, where they say ‘Allemagne’. Meanwhile, in Estonia and Finland, where Germany today is known as Saksamaa and Saksa respectively, people generally thought of Saxons when dealing with Germans.
When in Rome
So what about English (Germany) or Italian (Germania)? When the Roman Empire was taking over Europe, Germania was the Latin term used to describe the area inhabited by Germanic tribes. However, ‘German’ and ‘Germany’ only began to be used in English around the 1500s; before that, ‘Almain’, ‘Alman’ and ‘Dutch’ were used – which brings us to the next category.
Of the people
Tyskland (Scandinavian languages like Danish and Swedish), Duitsland (Dutch) and, of course, Deutschland (German) were terms that likely developed from the Proto-Germanic þeudō or Þeudiskaz, which respectively mean ‘nation’ and ‘of the people’. Indeed, these are the variations used (or that used to be used) in Germanic languages themselves.
Not our people
Slavic terms for Germany, like Niemcy (Polish) or Německo (Czech), have an altogether different origin. They come from the Proto-Slavic němьcь, which means ‘mute’. The word went on to be used to describe foreigners (i.e. people who couldn’t speak the local languages), who frequently turned out to be Germanic people.
There’s no definitive answer for where the Baltic terms like Vācija (Latvian) and Vokietija (Lithuanian) come from. Some think they stem from the Proto-Indo-European word *wek (which means ‘to speak’), while others suggest that they could have developed from terms used for the Vikings.
And so on …
In fact, there are even more names that have been used for Germany over the years that don’t fit into the categories outlined above. Teutonia (Medieval Latin) and Ashkenaz (Medieval Hebrew) might sound familiar to some people. But if you’re interested in learning more about the linguistic history behind these terms, you can check out this YouTube video, or an incredibly detailed Wikipedia page devoted to the topic.
Titelbild via Pexels (CC0)