When I first took Spanish in elementary school, I learned that pretty much everything has a different name in español. A house becomes a casa, a dog becomes a perro and so on. In the beginning, though, I assumed that there would be some consistency for proper nouns. Massachusetts was not going to be called something else in a different language, so I could say Soy de Massachusetts when I was telling someone where I was from. It turned out, however, that geographic names were not as predictable as I thought.
The realization came when I had to talk about what I’d done over the summer. I’d gone to Germany, so when telling the story I just took the word “Germany” and tried to make it sound Spanish. “Fui a Germania,” I said confidently. My teacher quickly corrected me, saying Germany was actually Alemania. This didn’t make sense, because Alemania sounds nothing like “Germany.” Why would it sound so different? The German name for Germany, Deutschland, just added to the confusion. As I found out later, country names are more eclectic than I thought, and that’s thanks to the winding path of history.
Newer countries tend to have consistent names thanks to globalization. The United States, relatively a baby, is called almost the same thing in every language, except it will be directly translated because “united” and “states” are both words on their own: Los Estados Unidos in Spanish, for instance.
A similar phenomenon happens with countries like England. The name “England” descends from the Old English Englaland, which meant “land of the Angles” or “Angles’ land” because the Angles were the people who were settling the area. This etymology is used by almost every other language too, like the Spanish Inglaterra, which also means Angles’ (ingla) land (terra).
Compared to almost any other country, Germany has a very diverse etymology. The German name Deutschland comes from Old High German’s þiudisk (meaning “people’s”) and land (meaning, well, “land” or “country”). Thus, the Germans call their home “the people’s country.”
Tribes are a major source of names for Germany. Spanish (Alemania) as well as a number of other languages use names based on the fact that modern-day Germany was once occupied by the Alemanni tribe. Finnish (Saksa) and other languages have named it after the Saxon tribe. Still others, like Polish Niemcy, have based their name on the Protoslavic word němьcь, which means “mute, dumb” or “person who doesn’t speak Slavic.”
English-speakers, of course, call it Germany. There’s no consensus on the exact etymology of “Germany,” but records show that it seems to go back to the days of Julius Caesar, and it appears the Gauls were the first to use the word Germania. This list of names for Germany could go on and on, including the Navajo Béésh Bich’ahii Bikéyah (“metal cap-wearing land”), but you probably get the point.
Germany seems to be one of only a few cases in which the names are so very varied. From them, you can learn how people from different lands first interacted with the Germanic people. Usually, languages just have a version of a country’s name so that is easily pronounced by natives, like how España became Spain. But once in a while, the names give fascinating insight into history. To learn more about the world, we made a quiz that looks at some various languages’ names for countries. Some places are very consistent across the world, while others are a bit more challenging.