Issue 7 |

Germany or Deutschland

by on June 13, 2016

Introduce yourself to someone, and they will usually call you by your name. If you don’t both speak the same language, they may not pronounce your name perfectly, and that’s fine. But wouldn’t it be strange if they called you by a name that didn’t resemble at all the one you had just given them? The same sometimes applies to the names of countries—but not always. It’s easy to see how English speakers got Italy from Italia, and Spain from España. But what about Germany, which sounds absolutely nothing like what Germans call Deutschland?

When the primary word used to refer to a country or cultural group is different from that country or cultural group’s own native word for themselves, it is known as an exonym. These develop in contrast to endonyms, the native terms for the land or people, mostly due to historical circumstance, though the specific causes vary greatly. So in this case, ‘Germany’ is an exonym, and ‘Deutschland’ an endonym.

All languages change over time. This includes words for neighboring peoples and places, and often, this change does not mirror the change of those neighboring peoples’ own word. This results in an exonym, and with the example of ‘Germany’ vs. ‘Deutschland,’ we can see how historical circumstances can influence the development of an exonym in such a way as to render it completely different from its endonymic counterpart.

A land with many names

It would seem simple enough that back when the first ambassadors of Germany introduced themselves to English speakers as representatives of Deutschland, that the English speakers would have done their best to pronounce it, and that would be that. The reality is a bit more complicated.

Germany is relatively new as a sovereign country, but people have been referring to its land and its people for a very long time; different groups of people having different ways of coming up with names for them. The Polish, for example, who descend from ancient Slavic groups living in close proximity to the Germans, could not understand their strange Germanic tongue, and were therefore mostly unable to speak with them. In modern Polish the country is called Niemcy, coming from the word for “mute” (Polish niemy). Meanwhile, the Finnish, who had a lot of contact with the Saxons, an ancient Germanic tribe, applied their tribal name (Sachsen) to the whole region, calling it Saksa, while the French, who had much more contact with the Alamanni tribe, ended up calling the region Allemagne.

When the Norman-French conquered England in 1066, they brought with them their dialectical version of this French name for Germany, Alemaigne. This became Almain in English, which was used as a word for Germany throughout the Middle Ages, but fell out of use by the early modern era.

The ancient Germanic peoples had their own word to describe themselves as well. Because the oldest languages of the Germanic family were never written down, we cannot know with certainty what this original word was; nonetheless, through comparative reconstruction, a technique in which related words (cognates) in related languages are compared and contrasted in order to best guess the earlier word from which they all descend, this word is thought to have been something along the lines of *Theudiskaz [1] (meaning ‘people’).

As the speakers of this ‘Proto-Germanic’ language spread and diversified, so did their languages. The descendants of this original word morphed over time into the modern Germanic languages’ words for ‘German’. Remove a few consonants (Theu-iska-) and this can easily be seen in the Icelandic þýska (thýska). In Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish the word became Tysk, in the Netherlands Duits, and in German Deutsch (all being their respective languages’ name for the German people). In English that word gave us Dutch.

Of course, by that logic, Germans should be called something more akin to ‘Dutch’ in English, and their country ‘Dutchland’. So why aren’t they?


For most of the history of the English language, the word ‘Dutch’ was used to refer to all Germanic peoples, not just Netherlanders. For example, the Pennsylvania Dutch, who settled in the eastern United States, mostly emigrated from what is now Germany, not the Netherlands.

Beginning in the late 16th century, England and Holland both became powerful sea-faring nations, seeking to increase their power, influence, prestige, and control over resources by scouring the world, setting up trade routes, and claiming land wherever they could. This put the people of the two nations into frequent competition with each other. After a while, when English sailors would come home and complain about “the Dutch,” it began to mean those Dutch, from Holland, right across the sea, that were constantly giving English sailors and colonists trouble everywhere from the Americas, to Africa, to East Asia.

In the 19th century, when German nationalists sought to unify all German-speaking lands in central Europe into one pan-German country, most Germanic nations called the resulting country something similar to Deutschland: the Scandinavians called it Tyskland, the Icelandic Þýskaland (Thýskaland), the Hollanders Duitsland, and the Germans Deutschland. But by this point, the English had already designated a specific population as “the Dutch,” and they weren’t from Germany, but from Holland. With the word ‘Dutch’ now referring to Hollanders, Almain continuing to gradually fall out of popular use since the 14th century [2], and a renewed interest in Latin and Greek, an old word from classical antiquity was gaining popularity in England.


Though no one can say with certainty where its ultimate origins lie, the word “Germany” can be traced back to the writings of Julius Caesar (circa 50 BC) who used the term Germani (pronounced with a hard ‘G’) to refer to a group of tribes among the Belgic peoples in northeastern Gaul (present-day France and Belgium). The most commonly suggested origin of this word ‘Germani,’ is that it was a Latin approximation of the name of one of the Belgic tribes Caesar was referring to when he first used the word.

These Belgic tribes were not ‘Germans,’ or even Germanic, but were considered to be Gauls (an ancient Celtic people) by the Romans. They used Celtic military techniques, and are thought to have spoken Celtic languages. Many of them however, claimed ancestry from groups who had lived to the east, on the other side of the Rhine. As such, the Romans came to call the lands of these tribes Germania cisrhenana, or land of the Germani this side of the Rhine, and the area across the Rhine Germania transrhenana, or land of the Germani across the Rhine.

Because it lay outside the bounds of the empire, the Romans’ concept of Germania transrhenana remained relatively vague, extending east past the River Rhine and north of the River Danube with a border to the north at the North Sea. It did not have a formalized eastern border, but significantly large populations of Germanic peoples are known to have lived at least as far east as what is now eastern Poland. [3]

The people living in Germania transrhenana (also called Germania magna, or Greater Germania) at the time came from diverse backgrounds and included Celtic, Baltic, Slavic, and Scythian peoples, but the main cultural and linguistic presence (at least as far as the Romans were concerned) came from groups who had splintered off from the peoples of Scandinavia, migrating southwards beginning in the early 1st millennium BC. Over time, the Latin word Germanicus, or “from Germania,” came to mean these people that we now know as Germanic.


Now we can see that the words ‘Germany,’ and ‘Deutschland’ have completely separate origins and separate histories. But what meaning can we make of this?

We saw how for the Slavic tribes unable to communicate with the Germans, Germany (Niemcy,) was a land of silence—where words failed in their power to connect different cultures. To the Germans, *Theudiskaz continued on as Deutsch, meaning ‘the people’: our people. For the English, ‘Dutch’ had long ceased meaning ‘our people’, being used to refer to Germanic peoples outside of the British Isles (especially in the Holy Roman Empire,) and eventually, only to those from the Netherlands. To refer to others as Dutchmen but not themselves reveals that the English no longer identified with the rest of the Germanic-language speaking world. This could be attributed in part (along with the word Almain) to the massive influence of the Norman-French on England, which drew English cultural ties away from the rest of the Germanic world.

Endlessly influenced by the world around them, languages, like the people speaking them, are alive. Place-names, whether in that place’s native language (endonym) or in a foreign language (exonym), are no exception; like all other words, they too are subject to change over time—and to the historical perspectives and biases of the speakers.


[1] An asterisk at the beginning of a word is used by linguists to denote a word that has been reconstructed

[2] Scholars are not entirely sure why Almain fell out of favor. Details on the word are scarce but it seems to have been used much more before the invention of the printing press and is attested in writing to the early 14th century.

[3] Though evidence of smaller or temporary settlements places them even further east

One Response to “Germany or Deutschland”

  1. so then WHY in Heino’s super popular German song “”Wir tanzen Polka, denn wir lieben Germany”
    why are the lyrics not “Deutschland” instead of “Germany “??
    – this song was written for Heino 11 years ago (he was 68),
    and the song is a giant hit – these are the exact words.
    so WHY, singing in German, and with a big nationalistic vibe,
    (as are many of his songs, songs with the word “heimat” featured, etc.,)
    and there is even a line in the chorus “in gut alt Germany” !!!!!!!!
    I mean, if you were hard core German, wouldn’t you want to sing “Deutschland” instead of “Germany “??
    Is something going in in modern German culture that I have completely missed?
    Does anyone nowadays say “Sprechen sie German ?” I don’t think so ???!!!!!!!

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