What’s in the name: Germans?

Mar 22, 2011 by

Sometimes keeping track of peoples and their languages is not an easy task because the same group (and its language) may bear different names in different languages.

Quite often we refer to a group by a name that is different from what they call themselves. Hence, ethnonyms (names applied to a given ethnic group) can be divided into two categories: exonyms (names of the ethnic group created by another group of people) and autonyms or endonyms or self-designations (names created and used by the ethnic group itself). To give just a few examples of differing exonyms and endonyms, a group calling itself Cymry is known to us as Welsh, Sakha — as Yakut and Magyar — as Hungarians. Furthermore, we follow the Romans in calling Greeks the people who have always called themselves Hellenes (according to Joseph B. Solodow, “the Graeci were probably a Greek tribe who came early to the notice of the Romans and then disappeared, leaving only their name behind”). Similarly, we use the Latin-derived name Basque for the language and the people who call themselves Euskara (in Latin, vascones meant ‘people of the forest’).

An even tricker situation arises when different groups have different exonyms for the same people. Germans are the case in point. In English, we use the exonym that derives from the Latin term Germani, “which Julius Caesar may have learned from the Gauls” (Solodow 2010: 49).

The French and the Spanish use the name of one Germanic-speaking tribe, the Alamanni, for the whole people. This is particularly curious because today the French use the word Allemagne to refer to the country of Germany, whereas historically the Alamanni lived in what is now Switzerland and Alsace (see the map below).

Even though they are close linguistic relatives of the French and the Spanish, and the heirs of Rome, the Italians use a different name altogether: to them the Germans are tedeschi, which, despite appearances, is close to what the Germans call themselves. The Italian term goes back to the Germanic theudisk, which in Old High German became diutisc and in Modern German deutsch. The root of theudisk is cognate with the Gaulish root teuta-, which gave us Teutonic, an archaic designation of Germanic-speaking peoples, who were also the core of the order of Teutonic Knights. The second element of theudisk is the suffix -isk, an adjective-forming suffix that in English turned into -ish, as in English and Gaulish.

The same root gave us the designation Dutch, now used in English for another Germanic-speaking people, those of Holland. Except, of course, in the phrase Pennsylvania Dutch, where it still means “German”! You may also find it surprising and confusing that the Russians use the term datchane to designate yet another Germanic-speaking group — the Danes! (Yet, the name of the country of Denmark is the less confusing Danija). And the Dutch are for the Russians gollandcy — the Hollanders!

Speaking of the Russians, the term they use for the Germans is nemcy. This term originates from the same root as nemoj ‘mute’ — this was the way to refer to the foreigners whose language was not comprehensible for the Russians. Thus, it was applied indiscriminately to all foreigners to the west of the Russian lands, but not to the Poles who speak a related Slavic language (in fact, the Poles refer to the Germans as Niemcy too). This older use can still be seen in the expression iz varjag v greki, iz nemec v xazary ‘from Varyangeans to the Greeks, from “Germans” into Khazars’ (note that the Russians too follow the Romans in referring to Hellenes as ‘Greeks’). This expression describes the two major trade networks: one connecting the Swedish Vikings in the north with Byzantium in the south (shown in purple on the map below) and the other connecting Western Europe to the Khazar Khanate (despite its historical importance its precise geography is less known).

Another old Russian expression that reveals the archaic, generalized use of the term mency is Nemeckaja sloboda ‘German Quarter’, the neighborhood in the northeast of Moscow populated by foreigners from all over Western Europe.

One final curiousity about Russian: the word for the country of Germany is Germanija, and a fine distinction is drawn between nemeckij narod ‘German people’ and germanskij narod ‘the people of Germany’. A long-time reader of this blog will remember that the Russian language often draws careful distinctions between ethnicity and citizenship (hence, for example, not all russkie are rossijane and vice versa). In the case of the Germans, nemeckij narod refers to Germans living everywhere (not only in Germany but also in Austria, Alsace, Switzerland, etc.), while germanskij narod may include non-Germans ethnically speaking, but is restricted to the borders of Germany.

Finally, let’s look at Hebrew ethnonyms for the Germans. In Modern Hebrew, they are referred to as germanim, but the Biblical Hebrew term for ‘Germany’ was Ashkenaz — this is the source of the term Ashkenazim, referring to the group of Jews from Germany, Poland and Russia. While many Ashkenazim do not trace their ancestry directly to Germany (scholars say that perhaps up to 12% of the Ashkenazi Jewish gene pool is Eastern European in origin; cf. Nebel et al. 2005), until recently they have all been connected by a common Germanic language — Yiddish!

Nebel A, Filon D, Faerman M, Soodyall H, Oppenheim A. (2005) Y chromosome evidence for a founder effect in Ashkenazi Jews. European Journal of Human Genetics 13: 388–391.

Solodow, Joseph B. (2010) Latin Alive. The Survival of Latin in English and the Romance Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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