The amusing meme above illustrates the uniquely diverse array of names for the nation of Germany used by peoples around the world. The diversity can be attributed to Germany’s location in the centre of Europe and its many historical interactions with the diverse peoples around it.
There are some unique names for Germany such as Old Norse Suðrvegr which means literally “south way”, used by the Vikings to denote a people to the South of them, or Hebrew Ashkenaz used by Jews to denote the Germans whom they believed were descendants of the biblical King of that name. However, besides several curious anomalies such as these, most of the world’s names for Germany can fall into five etymological categories.
Alemanni, Saxon, Nemtsy, Germany or Deutschland
Deutschland – As the meme shows, this is the word Germans themselves use for their country. It is derived from the Old High German diutisc, or perhaps another similar word derived from Proto-Germanic Þeudiskaz. This word, which means “of the folk” is cognate with Lithuanian tauta, Old Irish tuath and Old English þeod and derives from the Proto-Indo-European word for “people” *teuta.
The Nordic language words for Germany such as Danish Tyskland, Faroese Týskland and Icelandic Þýskaland also come from this root. Since the word denotes one who is the same rather than other, it is likely the Norse words are simply derived from the original German.
Germany– We English, like the Italians, refer to the krauts as Germans, a word derived from the Latin for the Germanic speaking regions populated by barbarian tribes – Germania. This was the land described by the Roman historian Tacitus who is one of the earliest writers on the subject of German people.
Allemagne – This is the word the French use and it derives from one of the many early Germanic tribes described by Tacitus, the Alemanni. The Arabic word ألمانيا (‘Almānyā) also comes from this root as does Spanish Alemania and Turkish Almanya. The Alemanni must have been regarded as the most prominent and definitive of tribes in the region by their Frankish/Gaulish neighbours.
The language which was spoken in the Alemannic tribal region is the ancestor of Old High German. The term Alemannic German now describes the dialects spoken in parts of Southern Germany. During the first world war English soldiers adopted a slang term “Alley-mans”derived from the French word to refer to their German enemies.
Saxon – The Saxons are another Germanic tribe but one by no means restricted to the area now identified as Saxony nor even to the entire German nation. The Transylvanian-Saxons are the descendants of a group of Saxons that colonised Transylvania in the 12th century AD. Another Saxon migration resulted in the founding of the ethnic English group (later termed Anglo-Saxons) and the nation of England itself.
This history has led to some confusing linguistic anomalies. While Finnic languages refer to Germany with words derived from Saxon such as Estonian Saksamaa, Finnish Saksa and Livonian Saksāmō, the Celtic language speakers of the British Isles use words from the same root such as Welsh Saesneg or Cornish Sowson to refer to England. This shows how closely related the German and English peoples really are.
Nemtsy – In Eastern Europe, most languages refer to Germany with words derived from the Protoslavic němьcьd which simply denotes a foreigner. Although another etymology explains the word as being derived from the Germanic tribe called Nemetes mentioned in Caesar’s writings.
You may have noticed in the meme that the Lithuanian word for Germany Vokietija does not correspond to any of the five linguistic categories above. Lithuanian is the most conservative language in Europe and preserves some extraordinary linguistic artefacts, making it the closest living language to Proto-Indo-European. One etymology for the word Vokietija claims that it actually derives from a word for Swedish Vikings! Lithuanian linguist Kazimieras Būga cites a reference to a Swedish tribe named Vagoths in a 6th-century chronicle which she believes is cognate with it. This isn’t so strange when you consider that the Germanic languages originate in Denmark and Southern Sweden and that the Gothic tribes who moved out of Germany in the migration era had also originated in Sweden.
So that’s why Germans are known by so many different names!