Why Do We Call It That?: National Names

Heimat—a very German concept of ‘homeland’, referring to a place (country/city/town), or even a time or emotional sense. Find out more here.

How often do you think about where words come from? Probably not that much, right? And yet, every word has its origins. Some have been passed down from ancient roots that, in some cases, are barely recognisable when compared to the words they have become today. Some have been borrowed from other languages and either left as they were or adapted to fit the new rules they’re surrounded with. In this post, we’re going to take a look at the names of some countries, how they differ across languages, and where they may have come from.

This post came into being because of the Māori term for France. Now, the area we know as France (or La France, if you’re French), used to be called Gaul, which is where the word ‘gallic’ comes from. In Greek, in fact, France is still known as Γαλλία (Gallia), but in most other languages, its name is some variation of ‘France’ (Frankreich; Francia; Франция (Frantsiya); 法国 (fàguó)). 

Not, however, when it comes to Māori. That’s because the Māori word for France is Wīwī.

Yep, you read that right—Wīwī—and if you know some French, you can probably make an educated guess about where it came from. 

When French explorers first reached New Zealand, the native Māori referred to them as Ngāti Wīwī. Ngāti means tribal group and Wīwī is derived from what the Māori heard the French saying to each other: “Oui, oui.” (Yes, yes.)

This word has been carried through the generations, so that even in modern Māori, France is Wīwī! 

We’ve done some research and found a few other countries that have (at first sight) strange origins surrounding their names in other languages.

Germany: The Mute Ones

At first glance, the English word, Germany, seems to be the outlier here. In many of the languages that neighbour the country, the name for Germany is related to the Alemanni tribe (French—Allemagne; Spanish—Alemania), who lived on the Upper Rhine River in the third century. 

However, speakers of Italian, Greek, and even Romanian, all call Germany Germania, which is a word that cropped up in Latin in the third century, simply describing ‘fertile land behind the limes’ (a limes being a frontier of the Roman Empire). The word Germany was not actually used in English until the sixteenth century; before that, English speakers would call it ‘Alman’ or ‘Almain’.

So far, then, all the names used for Germany are related to people who lived in that area or where they lived within it. Looking to the east, then, to the countries where Slavic languages are spoken, we would expect to see a similar naming convention.

In Polish, however, Germany is referred to as Niemcy. It is a similar case in Slovak (Nemecko), Czech (Německo and Slovenian (Nemčija)—though, oddly, not Russian, where Германия (Germaniya) is used. Even more strangely, no part of the word Niemcy, or any of its variations, refer to locations.

Němьcь, the Proto-Slavic word that Niemcy, Nemecko, and all these related words are derived from, actually means ‘the mutes’ or ‘not able to speak’. Literally, it means ‘a mute’ but over time, it came to be used to signify ‘those who do not speak (like us)’; or, foreigners. It is suspected that, at first, this term was applied to any non-Slav foreigners, but eventually was only applied to Germans.

Although Russian (and Bulgarian) speakers use a derivation of Germania to refer to Germany, they still stick to their Slavic roots when using the adjective ‘German’—Russians say немецкий (nemetskiy) and Bulgarians немски (nemski).

Germans, of course, refer to their own country as Deutschland. Deutsch is an adjective that comes from the Old High German thiota/diota, meaning ‘people’, ‘nation’, or ‘folk’. So, technically, Deutschland is something close to ‘people’s land’.

Italy: The Foreigners

Although linguists are not one hundred percent certain of the origins of ‘Italy’, they can hazard a good guess. Obviously, it comes from Latin, from the word Italia (originally spelt Vitalia), which was used to refer to tribes that lived in what is now known as South Italy.

It is likely that Vitalia was derived from Oscan víteliú, meaning ‘[land] of young cattle’, so it probably took its name from being fertile land that was useful for farming. Across Europe, now, Italy’s name is similar in every language—with the exception of Polish and Hungarian.

In Hungarian, Italy is known as Olasz; in Polish, it’s Włochy. And, despite their apparent differences, they both come from the same word—Walhaz. Walhaz is a reconstructed Proto-Germanic word which means ‘Roman’, ‘Romance-speaker’, or ‘Celtic-speaker’ and, over time, came to be used to refer to foreigners in general. Wołochy was first used by Polish speakers to refer to the Romanised tribes of the Balkans; later, this changed slightly to Włochy, which came to be used only to talk about a more southern group—the Italians. 

Wales: Fellow Countrymen

Wales—and Welsh, actually—both also derive from Walhaz, as seen above. This term was used often by Anglo-Saxons, who spoke Old English, to refer to Britons (the native people of Britain); the plural form of Walhaz, Wēalas, was the term that ended up becoming the name of their territory, Wales.

This is also where Cornwall, a then non-Germanic area, got its name, as well as places that were in Anglo-Saxon territory, but tended to be where Britons lived (e.g. Walworth in County Durham, or Walton in West Yorkshire). The -wall/Wal- comes from Walhaz!

In Welsh, however, the word for Wales is Cymru. This is derived from the Brythonic (a branch of the Celtic language family) word combrogi, which means ‘fellow-countrymen’ and emphasised that the people living in modern-day Wales, as well as those Britons living in what is now northern England and southern Scotland, were all one people. It was not used to refer to Cornish people or Bretons, even though they shared a similar language, culture and heritage with the Welsh.

It became used as a self-description probably before the seventh century, though it was spelt either as Kymry or Cymry until around 1560.

Argentina: The Land of Silver

Although the name Argentina has been borrowed into English from Spanish, it is actually Italian in origin. Venetian and Genoese navigators were among the first to explore the Americas since the Vikings landed in North America in the eleventh century. As the word Argentina was found on a Venetian map in 1536, far earlier than the first reference to the country in Spanish (1602), it is likely that they were the people to name it as such.

Argentina, in Italian, means ‘of silver’ or ‘silver-coloured’; it is probably borrowed from the Old French adjective argentine, which has the same meaning. By the eighteenth century, the term Argentina was in common usage, even though the country was formally called Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata (Río de la Plata—river of silver) by the Spanish Empire and then United Provinces of the Río de la Plata after independence.

The first use of the name Argentine Republic occurred in the 1826 constitution and, in 1860, a presidential decree settled the country’s name as the same, ruling all names since 1810 as legally valid. In English, Argentina was usually referred to as ‘the Argentine’ until the mid-to-late twentieth century, mimicking the Spanish—La Argentina.

China: A Special Case

We’re going to take a quick look here first at how country names are translated into Chinese—specifically, Mandarin. China has a 5,000 year history, with interactions and relationships with all kinds of civilisations that have existed in that time.

This means that there are lots of different names for different countries in Chinese and that there are different ways these country names have been transferred into the language. Some are direct transliterations—so the name in Mandarin is supposed to sound similar to the name in another language. For example, 古巴 (gǔbā) is Cuba; 也门 (yěmén) is Yemen. This is the case for many country names in Chinese.

Then there are some that don’t appear—at least on first glance—to be transliterated at all. This includes countries like 美国 (měiguó), the USA; 英国 (yīngguó), the UK; and 法国 (fǎguó), France.

What’s interesting about these names is what the first characters in the pairs mean. The second character for all of them—国 (guó)—means country or nation. However, 美 (měi) means beautiful, 英 (yīng) means brave, and 法 (fǎ) means law. 

So, we have: the USA = beautiful country; the UK = brave country; France = law country.

Nice, right?

Well, that’s not exactly how it works. These names are actually all abbreviations; the full name for the USA in Chinese, which has undergone many changes over the years, is 美利坚合众国 (měilìjiān hézhòngguó). The first part of the whole word, 美利坚 (měilìjiān) is a transliteration of America; 合众国 (hézhòngguó) means a country of united peoples. When abbreviated, then, this becomes 美国 (měiguó).

A similar thing happened with the UK and France, where full names have been abbreviated down (and, in France’s case, still end up sounding pretty similar to the original!).

As for China itself—the most common name for the country in modern-day Chinese is 中国 (zhōngguó), meaning middle state or nation. Before the Qin unification of China (221 BCE), this word was used to refer to the Central States, an area centred on the Yellow River Valley; the term differentiated this place from the surrounding tribal areas.

中国 (zhōngguó) first appeared in a formal international legal document during the Qing Dynasty, in 1689. This was a shift as the term grew to encompass not only the geographical nation, but also the varying ethnic identities within it. 

‘Middle Kingdom’, the English translation of 中国 (zhōngguó), entered European languages via Portuguese in the sixteenth century. The word ‘China’, too, has old origins. A Greek document from the first century mentioned a country known as Thin (θίν), but the English word is derived from Middle Persian چین (Chīnī). The modern word China was first recorded in Portuguese in 1516, in a document that was translated into English in 1555. It is suspected that this word comes from the Qin (which is pronounced like Chin) who unified China—and this is the most commonly held theory—but there is still some debate!

What about your country?

The origin of words is a large subject to cover anyway, but especially when it comes to the names of things like countries, which have changed in form and function so drastically over the centuries.

So, if we’ve missed your country off the list (and, let’s face it, that’s pretty likely), let us know! Drop a comment below and we’ll try and cover it in another blog post—or, if you know the origins of your country’s name, tell us that too.

And if you’re interested in learning the names of more than 50 countries in over 150 languages, subscribe to uTalk today!

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