They sprechen Deutsch there

For a long time, I’ve wondered about the name of the country Germany. I’ve studied a bunch of different languages to some extent or another, and I’ve seen that the country name was wildly different in several of them:


I knew that the name in the other two romance languages I’ve studied was essentially the same as Spanish, just spelled differently according to the languages’ phonetics—French Allemagne and Portuguese Alemanha. But what was up with all this variety? The answer is fascinating!

While my librarian colleague (and longtime friend) Jackson chides me for turning to Wikipedia², in this case the best explanation I discovered for the question was found there. Germany’s geographic location in the middle of Europe and its history of tribal and regional divisions resulted in almost all world languages taking names for the country from six different sources. The names I was familiar with represent four of those six.

English is one of a large number of languages whose names for the country originate with the Latin Germania—the biggest group of the six. Oddly, the romance languages I knew of take theirs not from the Latin, but from a tribal name, Alamanni—the second largest group. (There are also romance languages in the Germania family.) The next largest group of names comes from the Old High German diutisc, which in turn comes from a Proto-Germanic word meaning “of the people.” Germany’s Deutschland belongs here, of course, along with similar names not only in the expected Dutch and Afrikaans, but also in languages as varied as Vietnamese and Nahuatl. Nearly as many derive their names from the Proto-Slavic němьcь, “a foreigner.” Nemecko falls into this group.

In addition to these four, there are two small groups that take names from the Saxon tribe (e.g., Finnish Saksa) and the Germanic word for folk (e.g., Lithuanian Vokietija), as well as a handful of names that come from other sources. My favorite is the Navajo name for the country, Béésh Bich’ahii Bikéyah. It literally means “Metal Cap Wearer Land,” and was coined by the WWII code talkers.
¹The “c” is pronounced “ts,” so Neh-MEHTS-koh.
²Everyone has an opinion about this, I guess.

About Verla

Wordfreak. Retired private investigator and Spanish court interpreter. Erstwhile librarian. Texan by birth, cheesehead by upbringing, latina by soul, in New Mexico by choice. Lover of things purple. Passionate participant in the Librivox audiobook recording project. We record books that are in the public domain in the U.S. The recordings are then placed in the public domain themselves.
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