22 September 2009

Different names for Germany

Back to Europe.

Germany is an enigma, in that there are many different names for the country. Because modern Germany, as a unified nation of most of the Germanic peoples, is a relatively new concept, different languages have used different names for what constitutes Germany now.

The most logical name is Deutschland, the name used by the Germans themselves. The name comes from older variants of the German language, roughly meaning "of the folk." In the Dutch language, which is quite similar to German in many ways, the name is spelled as Duitsland - and that's the name I remember seeing when I was in Amsterdam and trying to get on a Cologne-bound train.

The major East Asian names for Germany are transcriptions of these two variants. In Chinese, it is 德意志 (deyizhi), often shortened to 国 (deguo), the letter "国" simply being country. The Vietnamese variant, Đức, is based on the Chinese variant. In Japanese, the kanji transcription was 独逸, and is pronounced as ドイツ (doitsu), following the Dutch name. The South Koreans use the traditional hanja equivalents (獨逸) of the Japanese kanji, and pronounce it as 독일 (dogil). The North Korean convention, however, is to stick to the original Deutschland name (도이췰란드). Another Korean convention used to be to use the Chinese name for Germany, and pronounce it as 덕국 (deokguk), but that's extremely unlikely today.

The Latin term "Germania" has been a very popular source for more names for Germany. In addition to the obvious English name Germany, the Germania-derived names are also used in Irish, Italian, Bulgarian, Greek, Hebrew, Romanian, Russian, and Thai. Even within Germany, I remember visiting Cologne's outstanding Roman-German Museum, and its name in German used the Germania-derived name as well: Romische-Germanische.

The Alamanni tribe, which used to live around Strasbourg, Stuttgart, and northern Switzerland, is another popular source of names for Germany. The best-known names in this category are Allemagne (French) and Alemania (Spanish), though many other languages, including Arabic, Filipino, Persian, Turkish, and Welsh also get their names for Germany from the Alamanni. The name Alamanni itself may mean either "all men" or "all aliens" depending on one's interpretation of the proto-German language.

While Deutsch, Germania, and Alamanni are three major sources of names for Germany, three more sources exist, to further confound people. The Saxon name is used in Finnish and Estonian. In many Slavic languages, an Old Slavic word for "mute" is used as the source of names for Germany; for example, the Polish name is Niemcy, and the Czechs and the Slovaks use Nemecko. There is a sixth group of names that start with V, perhaps referring to the German word Volk, and those names are primarily used in Lithuania and Latvia.

This means there are a zillion different possible ways to refer to Germany, tracing back to at least six different and distinct sources. Gotta make sure that doitsu, Alemania, and Nemecko are all one and the same - easier said than done!

Of course, the tumultous history of Germany, which is largely responsible for this profusion of different names, is another fair discussion topic - alongside why Austria, despite being a Germanic country, remains separate. I'll save that for my next post.

Wikipedia: Names of Germany