Allemania, Niemcy, Vokietija, Tedesco, Tyskland, Germany, Deutschland…. WHY are there so many different names for Germany? And these aren’t just names that are a translation of the word Deutschland, they are very different words with different etymologies (starting place of a word). Even the word Deutschland is relatively recent. The answer has a lot to do with Germany’s location. Sitting smack in the middle of Europe, Germany ends up being the crossroads for a lot of groups through history. The borders changed over and over… expanding, then getting pushed back, then expanding again. Add to this, the tribes that occupied the land a few thousand years ago weren’t all the same people.
So, why do the people of Finland call Deutschland Saksa? Let me explain…
(note- I’m going to use both the names Germany and Deutschland …just to keep things simple.)
Why are there SO MANY different names for Germany?
This week I learned two new words.
Exonym– “outside name”, a name used by foreigners for a place
Endonym– “inside name”, or a name that people give to their place
Technically, the country Germany / Deutschland didn’t really exist before 1871 when the States all came together to form the first German Empire. This is wildly confusing, so let me explain. Prior to this, the states were princedoms or bishoprics under the Holy Roman Empire. Instead of identifying Germany as a specific PLACE with set borders, Germany referred to German speaking people all over central Europe. People identified as Hanseatic league members, Hessians, Prussians, Bavarians, or members of another principality. (This helps explain why the Hessian mercenaries who fought with the British during the American Revolution were called Hessian, and not German… make sense?) To add to the confusion, one of the many titles for the Holy Roman Emperor was “King of Germany”, most likely a name leftover BY the Romans who referred to the people as Germanii.
Before the Holy Roman Empire, various Tribes occupied the land, and THAT explains many of the names for Germany. The exonym, name people use, tends to be related to the relationship that the other people had to Germany. The names aren’t a translation, they are a specific name given to place by the other people. Confused? Think of it this way. To many people I’m Karen. In Germany I’m often called Karin. To my kids I’m mom. To my neighbor I’m the lady with the brown and white doggie. To the man at the bank I’m Ms. L. Make sense? Same person, me… just different relationships, and therefore, different names. But in the case of countries, they stick, and after a few years, become the permanent label. (For an example of simple translated names, look no further than the United States which translates directly in German to the Vereinigte Staaten. )
Old Tribes leave Modern Names
The name Germany dates back to Julius Caesar who in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico, a write up of the Gallic wars 58-50BCE, labeled the 4 different tribes encountered along the north-east of as Germanus. In 98 AD, Tacitus set the name in stone when he published his famous work De origine et situ Germanorum aka. On the Origin and Situation of the Germans. (Tacitus did all of us a favor with his ethnographic work, because it gives us a close look at our early ancestors. Everything from laws to diet.) How did the Romans come up with the name Germani? They learned it from the Gauls (the people living in what is now modern day France). The original meaning? Most likely “men of the Forest” or (my personal favorite) “neighbor”. (I can just see it, the Romans point at the tribes on the other side of the Limes and ask…”who are those guys”, and the Gauls answer “our neighbors”…Romans, “ok, we will call them Germani/neighbor then”.) (The similar linguistic goof comes up in England where the River Avon means River River). The people obviously never referred to themselves as Germanii (why would they call themselves “neighbor”?), and I imagine they wondered who the Romans were talking about.
Interestingly, the people of Gaul used a different name. Along the southern border that divided Gaul from modern Germany (the Alsace and Switzerland) lived a tribe known as the Allemani. To this day, the French call Deutschland, Allemagne. Spain and Portugal use the very similar Allemania. In a twist of fate… the Franks, a Germanic tribe, ended up in the land that is modern France. By the 600s they were absorbed by the Romans there, and their name was changed to France. The Ancient Greeks even called Germans, Frángoi, in reference to the Franks. Interestingly, England used Allemagne until the 1520s… then they Anglicized the name to Germany…. and later sent that name to the New World.
The Saxon tribe passed their name to the north, which explains why Finland and Estonia still call Germany Saksa and Saksamaa. (Wondering if they called the pre-1066 dwellers of England Saksa as well…?)
Quick aside…Speaking of northern German tribes, the Teutons got their name from the Romans who lumped them in with the rest of the German tribes after the Cimbrian War in 2BCE. Historical evidence suggests that they weren’t really part of the German tribes, they just lived there for a while. (Some believe they were Celts, but since Celts didn’t leave written information, we need a time machine to work this out). The word Teutonic comes from the proto-Indo-European meaning “people” or “tribe”. Some time around the 9th century a monk used the word to describe Germanic Language… and it stuck. Today, many associate Teutonic with Germany. But that, as they say, is another story.
Origins of other Names for Germany
Still, not all name origins are traceable to tribes, my favorite names are apparently the result of misunderstandings….
The proto-Slavic name Nemetes, meaning meaning “silent ones” or “hard to understand”, turns up in a few places. In the East, Poland still uses the name Niemcy, “not understandable” a name they got from the early Slavic tribes who bumped against the Germanii. While the Czech Republic calls Germany, Německo.
Interestingly, the Silesians, who for a while were PART of Germany, called the land, Ńymcy. Another meaning for the word is “those who don’t speak like us”… (making me wonder if their first encounter was with someone using a strong Bamberg dialekt) But Silesians also used the word Prusacy, which would refer to Prussians. Seems they were open to change. (And now, Silesia is part of Poland).
Lithuanians refer to Germans as Vokietija, possibly from the word Volk? meaning “people”?
The Native North American tribes use the concept of adopting names based on attributes, so Germany received the name Béésh Bich’ahii Bikéyah which roughly translates to “Metal Cap-wearer Land”. And the Plains Cree clearly dealt with the same issues that the Slavs did when they named Germans mâyakwêsinâhk, meaning “Speakers of a strange Language”.
Interestingly, the ASL (American Sign Language) sign for Germany is similar to the Navajo..>
Where Did Deutschland Come From
All these names for Germany do leave us with an obvious question then… What about Deutschland? Where and when did that name appear?
Right around the 8th century, the people living in the area started referring to their language as duits disk. In old High German, the word diutisk (or diutisc) means “of or pertaining to the people or the tribe”. They called themselves the “Diutisk” which, when you modernize it a bit, comes out sounding like “Deutsch”, so Deutsch means “people or tribe”, and Land means, well, land. Put it all together, and you end up with “people of the land”. Which, to me, might just be the most perfectly German descriptive name.
Fortunately, a few other countries picked up on that. In the low countries, Belgium and the Netherlands, they still use Duitsland. In Sweden and Denmark, Deutschland twists a bit, and comes out Tyskland.
For a complete list of the many MANY names for Germany, check the Wikipedia page here
In 1871, Otto von Bismarck united the many German speaking principalities, free cities, duchies, and bishoprics under one umbrella to form one German Empire / Deutsches Reich. Over the next 150 years, the borders expanded to include overseas colonies… then shrunk again due War. A second World War and the aftermath changed the borders dramatically again. Finally, in 1990, East and West Germany were reunited to form the country’s current borders.
Call it Germany, call it Niemcy, you can even call it Allemagne… There, they call their country Deutschland.