Different names for the same place across languages
November 23, 2008 10:22 AM   Subscribe

Why do cities and countries have such vastly different names in different languages?

Like English speakers say Germany, French speakers say Allemand, and German speakers call it Deutshland. I can understand minor letter shifts like Bombay/Mumbai, but none of those are even close. What are some other examples, and what is the explanation?
posted by yellowbinder to Society & Culture (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
posted by vacapinta at 10:28 AM on November 23, 2008

A Straight Dope Classic.
posted by box at 10:31 AM on November 23, 2008

Eeps thanks, did a search but didn't find that. Feel free to remove this.
posted by yellowbinder at 10:42 AM on November 23, 2008

I think Ethereal Bligh's last post on that previous thread is worth reading again.
posted by peacheater at 11:21 AM on November 23, 2008

Essentially they are using different tribal names to refer to the area.. Germany and England and Germany and France had contact for many years and spoke different languages, and had different alliances and trade routes.

In the German example: English is copying the Roman tradition of calling Germany, Germania... Allemand is referring to a tribe/culture from one of the regions in modern Germany called the Allemani. There are some variations in this convention: England is named after the Angles- a very old tribe; the word in English is England. In French, England is Angleterre (sp?) which is basically a translation (Angle=angle, terre=land, earth). On the other hand, very few people call Canada, British North America or refer to Iraq as Babylon.

Sometimes this is of course, subtle propaganda.
posted by Deep Dish at 11:27 AM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

One of my favorite examples of this, to take Ethereal Bligh's tack on Bush's renaming as dominance in the previous post, is the Russian word for Germans. While Germany is properly called "Germania" in Russian, Germans are referred to as "Nemtsi" which comes from the word "nemoi" which is an adjective meaning "mute." I've been told it's a result of some point in history when Germans and Russians encountered one another and the Germans couldn't seem to get the hang of the Russian language. (This is all secondhand knowledge as told to me by some Russians, so use your grain of salt.) Some dictionaries now have the word "germanskii" as an adjective meaning German, but I think it really only gets used when using the technical term "Germanic," as in languages.
posted by msbrauer at 3:48 PM on November 23, 2008

Whoops. Just got to the tab with the straight dope article mentioned above, and it looks like my anecdote is repeated there in the reader feedback.
posted by msbrauer at 3:51 PM on November 23, 2008

Now that Germany is explained, why aren't terms for "France" as varied?
posted by lukemeister at 9:18 PM on November 23, 2008

France isn't as varied because its was closer to Rome, romanised quite a bit easier than say Germany or England and had less invaisons and migrations.

The names for France fall under a few categories. Gaul, Frank and France.

The Romans called what we call France, Gaul - the people living in Gaul were bascially Germanic and Celtic and they lived in the countrysides while people like traders and adminstrators tended to be Roman. So any variant on the name of France that uses Gaul or Gallic or something similiar is referring to France as the Romans called it. When the Roman empire fell, a number of Germanic people moved in called the Franks - the Franks tended to take on the culture of the Roman influenced poulation in the towns and cities; they also tended towards strong militaries and stable monarchies. France was quite a bit more stable than England or Germany in the early dark age period, so there was less need to accomodate name changes (look up Charlemagne and it will be easy to see why.)

While France has reasonable cultural stability, England did not. England was only part of the Roman empire for a brief period and was also invaded by Celts, Danes, Normans, and Saxons. Although language remembers the "Angles" in the word England, and the term "Anglo Saxon" has hung on, most residents of presemt day England are actually descended from Danes. Germany was never a unified country up until fairly recent times: Germany consisted of numersous small principipalities: Saxons, Goths, Bavarians, et al - which fought and allied with each other and would sometimes unite under the bannerr of the Holy Roman Empire -- which was an empire quite unlike say the Roman or British which imposed peace on subject people; the Hundred Years War was fought mostly among Germanic tribes.

So the short answer is, France was a relatively peaceful, united and stable country at least compared to its neighbours - opinions on what to call the country were less apparent.
posted by Deep Dish at 9:59 PM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think Ethereal Bligh's last post on that previous thread is worth reading again.

Worth reading again to point and mock, perhaps. EB is a very smart guy, but completely at a loss when it came to linguistics, and it shows.

To repeat my point from that thread, toponyms are words like any other and it is not at all surprising that they differ between languages.

So the short answer is, France was a relatively peaceful, united and stable country at least compared to its neighbours - opinions on what to call the country were less apparent.

Not true; France wasn't even vaguely united until the late Middle Ages, by which time names were already in place. And Italy wasn't united until the late 19th century, yet pretty much everyone calls it a variation on Italia (except for the Poles, who call it Włochy). There really are no simple explanations for these things; every situation is different, and it would be nice if people would refrain from passing along wild-ass guesses on AskMe. I mean, if you have to add a disclaimer like "This is all secondhand knowledge as told to me by some Russians, so use your grain of salt," you shouldn't be saying it in the first place.
posted by languagehat at 6:39 AM on November 24, 2008

France wasn't even vaguely united until the late Middle Ages

I could not disagree more, and my reply was brief, short, and simplistic but not a SWAG.

Now you can argue that the French nobility made the French kingship rather decentralized so the "Frenchness" of their territory was somewhat vague, the Normans were more-or-less independant and you had some culturally disparity in places like Brittany (which still exists) - but the Rhine (the most fluid border), the Pyrenees, the Mediterranean and the English channel provide some obviously useful boundaries. The Rhine boundary can be highlighted very early by the Romans as the Germanic frontier and the fact that the Saxons fought Charlemagne tooth and nail and didn't take easily to Christianity also suggests a cultural boundary. The Pyrenees provide the Spanish border, and I can't think of any point in history where there wasn't a cultural boundary at this mountain range if not a political one. Rome acknowledged that border, and present-day Spain contained Visigoths rather than Franks in the early successor years. I can remember a concept of Italy (Italia), since at least the Social War/late Roman Republic (if not earlier)... even though it didn't come together as a country until much much later. Gauls were very different from Italians - Julius Caesar did not regard his campaign in Gaul as a civil war campaign, his "gosh wow" tales suggest he was dealing with people he considered foriegn.

To push the concept of a cultural boundary further - Muslim influence was a much bigger issue in Spain, and France was also a Christianized country before most of its neighbours, personally I place the founding of France with either the conversion of Clovis, Charles Martel at the battle of Tours, or the death of Charlemagne. Very early on. Nobody has seen much need to rename the Franks or French ever since.

If you are using long-term stability as the criteria for the existence of France and place their founding in the 19th century, I suspect you would place the date for founding the USA as a few years after the American Civil War instead of 1776? No Louisiana purchase, some temporary loss of territory from 1812-1815...
posted by Deep Dish at 8:38 AM on November 24, 2008

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