A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Why are there so many names for Germany, AKA Deutschland, Allemagne, etc.?

June 5, 1987

Dear Cecil:

I've always wondered why there are such widely varying names in different languages for the country between France and Poland. We call it Germany, the French call it Allemagne, and the Germans themselves call it Deutschland. Surely we see in such disagreements the roots of much recent tragic history. Why can't everybody just be sensible and settle on one name?

Cecil replies:

You're a good soul, Les, but you lack an appreciation of the philological niceties. There is no necessary correspondence between a nation's name for itself and the name outsiders bestow upon it. This is especially true when the nation or people is very old. In ancient times, when international affairs consisted chiefly of heaving rocks at the tribe over the hill, a people's name for itself was often the local equivalent of "us folks" or "the people," while its name for foreigners was generally some variant on "those frog-faced heathens" or, more kindly, "the gang over yonder." Naturally, the gang over yonder called itself "the people" in its own language while reserving another term for the cretins down the pike.

The various names for Germany are a good example of this. The deutsch in Deutschland probably derives from the Indo-European root teuta- (or tewt-, depending on which authority you believe), the source of our word Teuton. Teuta- means "the tribe" or "the people," the word the early Germans used to describe themselves.

The Romans, meanwhile, referred to the German-speaking tribes collectively as Germani. Where they got this word is not clear. Many authorities believe it was a Celtic term meaning "neighbors" that the Gauls bestowed on the folks next door. (There's an Old Irish word gair meaning "neighbor," although there's also an Old Irish word gairm meaning "battle cry." The path of linguistic progress is never easy.) One holdout thinks it was the name of a Celtic people the Teutons conquered and whose name somehow got transferred to the victors.

Moving right along, one of the German-speaking tribes in Roman times was called the Alemanni. They settled in what is now Alsace in the fourth century AD and were defeated by the Franks in 496. Alemanni may derive from an early German word meaning "all the men," which I suppose is roughly equivalent to "all us guys" — as opposed, naturally, to all you guys. The Franks, in a moment of uncharacteristic liberality, apparently decided to call the Alemanni by the name they called themselves. Later, by means of the metaphoric process called synecdoche, taking the part for the whole, the Franks applied the name to all the German-speaking tribes, and thus we have Allemagne. The Spanish, not having strong opinions on the subject, sensibly simplified the orthography and wound up with Alemania.

The various names for Germany are perhaps the extreme example of diversity in geographical nomenclature. The Italians call Germany Germania, but their word for a German is tedesco, which is their quaint attempt to spell Teuton. The Polish word for Germany is Niemcy, whose meaning is entirely mysterious, at least to me. Given the Polish experience of German manners during time of war, however, I could guess.

The Teeming Millions clarify the situation

Regarding your recent column on names for Germany, I once heard a story you may want to verify about how the Russians originated their word for Germany. Seems that in the late Middle Ages the czars invited Westerners, notably Dutch and German craftsmen, to settle in Russian cities because of their skills. The locals found they couldn't make the newcomers understand their language, so they naturally assumed they were deaf and dumb. Hence the Russian term for a German, nyemetz, which means "mute." This seems similar to the Polish word for Germany, Niemcy. Can you confirm?

More trivia: in Finnish (not related to any of the above), the word for Germany and the German language is Saksa. Looks familiar, especially since the German word for Saxony, in southeast Germany, is Sachsen. Interestingly (or maybe not), the Irish word for a Briton is sasenach. It's also an imprecation.

Cecil replies:

You've got the right basic idea, but the part about the czars and the craftsmen is apocryphal doodoo — the terms date back to prehistory. Nyemetz (often transliterated nemets) quite likely derives from Russian nemoy, a mute, as in "those guys who are so out of it they are incapable of talking like normal people." Variations on this theme occur in virtually all Slavic languages, including Polish niemiecki, a German, niemy, mute.

Similarly, our word "barbarian" is believed to derive from the Greek barbaros — non-Greek, foreign, rude — which many scholars say comes from the Indo-European root baba-, a word "imitative of unarticulated speech," my dictionary says. The ancient Greeks evidently thought foreign chitchat all sounded like "ba-ba-ba," baby talk, although I suppose you could also make the case they'd just stumbled across some primeval ancestor of the Beach Boys, as in "Ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-ber Ann." OK, sorry, I'll stop.

Baba-, in any case, is the source of our words baby and babble. Just to extinguish any lingering curiosity you may have on the subject, our word "infant" comes from Latin infans, "nonspeaking," incapable of speech.

As for Saksa and sassenach, both likely derive from the same root as our word Saxon. The Saxons, you may remember, were a German tribe that invaded Britain along with the Angles and the Jutes. By my count this now gives us five entirely independent names for the home of the Volkswagen: Germany, Deutschland, Allemagne, Niemcy, and Saksa. To these we must add a sixth: the Lithuanian Vokietija. I dunno where it comes from, and I don't want to know. This has gone on long enough.

Department of offended sensibilities, Part One

Dear Cecil:

The last paragraph of your column on the various names for the Germans goes off in the wrong direction. The Italians' tedesco is not "their quaint attempt to spell Teuton." It is only a slightly modified rendition of the German word teodisk. Actually, the Italian is closer to the Old German word than modern German (Deutsch) is! Of course, I don't think Italians will mind. They're used to the Americans and English making them look quaint or silly.

Cecil replies:

Lighten up, doc. It's my life's dream to make everybody look quaint or silly. Just wait till you see the number I do next week on the Uzbeks.

Department of offended sensibilities, Part Two

Dear Cecil:

In your item on country names, you seem to reveal a belief that the Franks were some kind of Frenchmen, therefore a cut above the barbarous German hordes. In fact, the Franks were German by any definition one might choose. Most important, they spoke German. This includes Charlemagne, or Karl der Grosse, as he is more properly known. Of course, there was as yet no France or Germany. (Mostly, there was no France.) At the time of ancient Rome, most of Europe consisted of uncouth barbarians. Barbarians are where you find them. There are still a lot around.

Cecil replies:

Let's not get personal, fella. I'm not the one who invented Gummy Rats.

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