Most Googled: Why does Germany have so many names?
Deutschland, Allemagne, Tyskland, Saksa, Németország: All over the world, the federal republic that is Germany is known by different names. This is largely down to the tribal history of Germany, as other civilisations and people came to associate certain words with the people who resided in the area.
In this article, we explore the many names of Germany and how they evolved from other words that were used to describe the people of ancient Germany.
The Romans and Germania
Before the Romans invaded, the area that is now Germany was occupied by a number of tribes. The Romans knew these tribes as Germani and named the land they found and conquered after the people that called it home. Germania, as it was known, spanned from the Rhine River to east of the Vistula River and from the Danube in the south to as far north as Scandinavia. The name Germani was probably adopted by the Romans from a Gallic language, although the origin of the word is still uncertain.
The first written instance of Germanus (the singular of Germani) is in Julius Caesar’s famous Gallic Wars. The great historian Tacitus also used the term for his work on the Germanic people outside the Roman Empire, "Germania". The word was used in a geographical sense to describe the provinces of Germania Superior and Germania Inferior, but was rarely used to describe groups of people and their societal structures.
The word “German” was subsequently reintroduced into English vernacular in 1520 when it started to replace other common words that were used to describe people from Germany.
Names of Germany that derive from Germania
- Germany - English
- Germania - Italian
- Gjermania - Albanian
- Ujermani - Swahili
- Германия (Germánija) - Russian
Why do the Germans call themselves die Deutsche?
While it seems every country in the world has a different name for "Ujermani", the Germans themselves proudly call their own country Deutschland, and refer to themselves as die Deutsche. But how did this come about? Deutschland is one of several names that derive from the Old High German language word diutisc. Diutisc meant “of the people” and was used to refer to people that spoke the Germanic languages.
Diutisc comes from diot, the Old High German word for “folk”. It probably came from West Frankish, an early Germanic language spoken by the Franks in Western Francia – what is now northern France. The word was slowly adopted in Eastern Francia (what is now Germany and Austria) and, by the 10th century, diutsch was used by the locals to describe themselves.
Names of Germany from diutisc
- Deutschland - German
- Tyskland - Danish, Swedish, Norwegian
- Duitsland - Dutch and Afrikaans
- Däitschland - Luxembourgish
- ドイツ(独逸) (Doitsu) - Japanese
The home of the Saxons
In Finnish and Estonian, Germany is known as Saksa and Saksamaa respectively. These names derive from an ancient confederation of people called the Saxons, who hailed from the area of what is now the state of Lower Saxony in Germany. The Saxons were known as coastal raiders and famously invaded England, along with other Germanic peoples known as the Jutes and the Angles (they would become known under the name Anglo-Saxons).
The area that the Saxon tribes inhabited was known as Saxonia, or Old Saxony as historians now call it. The area constituted the regions of Lower Saxony, Holstein, Westphalia and the western part of Saxony-Anhalt and was considered the homeland of the Saxon tribes, until they were conquered by Charlemagne and incorporated into his Carolingian Empire.
The Carolingian Empire would eventually fall and separate into three states: Western, Middle and East Francia. The eastern part of the Empire would eventually be succeeded by the Kingdom of Germany and the Holy Roman Empire; the precursors to the modern German state.
Names of Germany taken from the Saxons
- Saksamaa - Estonian
- Saksa - Finnish
- Ssassitko temm - Romani
The Alemanni tribes
A lot of countries and regions know Germany under a name derived from the Germanic Alemanni tribes. The Alemanni were a confederation of Germanic tribes, famous for their conflicts with the Roman Empire. They inhabited a region that covered parts of modern-day Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, as well as parts of Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria and the Alsace region in France.
In Old French, aleman was recorded in the 12th century as the word to describe Germany. This was adopted into several different languages, including Middle English – the playwright William Shakespeare even used almain interchangeably with German.
Names derived from Alemanni
- Allemagne - French
- Alemanya - Filipino
- Alemanha - Portuguese
- Almanya - Turkish
- Yr Almaen - Welsh
- Alemania - Spanish
- Almaniya - Azerbaijani
Nemets: people that don’t speak like us
Just like diutisc was used to describe Germanic speakers, the Slavic word nemets was used to describe people who didn’t speak a Slavic language. Nemets derives from the Proto-Slavic word němьci, which means “mutes”. Etymologists believe the word, rather than meaning people who could not speak, was used to describe foreigners, or “people who don’t speak like us.” Originally, the word was used to describe all people who didn’t speak a Slavic language, but it was later designated to just Germans.
Names from derived from the Proto-Slavic němьci
- Njemačka - Croatian
- Németország - Hungarian
- Niemcy - Polish
- Німеччина (Niméččyna) - Ukrainian
- Německo - Czech
- Немачка (Nemačka) - Serbian
- Nemecko - Slovak
The Prussian legacy
Prussia was a large and powerful state that was ruled by the House of Hohenzollern. At its height, the Kingdom of Prussia covered parts of Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic. It took a leading role in the formation of the German Empire, before eventually beginning its long fall from power with the rise of the Weimar Republic - although it did survive under the Nazi regime. The state was finally dissolved following the resolution of World War II.
The Kingdom of Prussia grew out of the Duchy of Prussia, which was awarded to the Teutonic Knights – a Catholic order of knights first founded in Acre in the late 12th century.
The full Latin name for the order was Ordo domus Sanctae Mariae Theutonicorum Hierosolymitanorum, or Order of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem. Theutonicorum is the Latin word for German here, giving rise to the English word Teuton in the 16th century to describe something German.
Theutonicorum is actually connected to diutisc through its Latin form: theodiscus. In Medieval Latin, theodiscus was a term used to refer to West Germanic Languages. It has been suggested that both words come from the Proto-Indo-European word tewtéh, which means tribe or people. This is why some languages refer to Germany with more obscure names like Teutōtitlan in Nahuatl, a language spoken by the Nahua people from Central Mexico. The Italian word for German, tedesco, comes from the same root as diutisc too.
Names of Germany based on Prussia
- Pruses - Limburgish
- Preisen - Luxembourgish (informal)
- Purutia - Tahitian
Mystery of the German names
There are a few Baltic languages and dialects that have names for Germany whose origins are still shrouded in mystery. The two main languages are Latvian and Lithuanian, which describe Germany as Vācija and Vokietija. These words are thought to be connected with a Swedish tribe called the Vagoths.
It has also been suggested that the word was used to describe people who could not be understood by the Western Baltic people, since it may have been based on the Indo-European word wek (speak), which gave rise to the the Old Prussian word wackis or “war cry”.
Germany: a land for people
One significant idea that we can take away from this article is that Germany is a country that, throughout history, has been defined by its inhabitants. We can see that the lands of Germany have continually been defined by the people that made them their home, whether that be the Saxons, the Alemanni, or the Germani. This certainly isn’t the case for other civilisations throughout history, with most groups of people being defined by the area or place that they inhabited (the Romans being from Rome, the Greeks being from Greece).
This gives Germany a rather unique standing: the country has never been defined by one group of people. Rather, Germany has been historically a land where all sorts of people can come together and live together - an interesting idea to ponder.