Why is Germany called Deutschland?

Why is Germany called Deutschland?

by Leona Quigley

Updated November 7, 2022

Germany has many names in many languages around the world. Most of these come from a timelong before Germany became a united nation-state in 1871 under Otto von Bismarck. Indeed, it was the historic disunity of Germany that led it to accrue so many different names. From Roman times and ancient tribes, to old stereotypes and even soldier’s helmets, the country’s many distinctive names each have their own origin story. So why do Germans call Germany Deutschland? Why do English speakers call it Germany? And why do the French call it Allemagne? Here is a quick guide to Germany’s names in many tongues.

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Deutschland: land of the people

The German word Deutschland has its roots in the Old High German word “diot”, meaning “people” and the connected adjective “diutisc”, which means “of the people”. Therefore, Deutschland simply means “people’s land” or “land of the people”. 

The word German is derived from the old germanic root theudo, meaning people, so German is the language of the people. Theodisca lingua was the official term used in the old Franconian (fränkisch) language during the reign of Charlemange (968-1014). It was the language of the people as distinct, firstly, from Latin, the lingua franca of the Catholic Church and the elite in the Middle Ages and, secondly, from Romance, later French, in the western half of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. “Tedesco” or “Todesco” or “Todisco”, (plural “Tedeschi”) is the Italian word for ‘German’. Its etymological derivation is from theodiscus, which shares the same root as “deutsch” and is derived from “Teutonic”. Many Italians have the surname Tedesco or Tedeschi, meaning a person from Germany. 

Other languages that derive their name for Germany from this root include:

  • Dutch/Afrikaans – Duitsland
  • Danish/Norwegian/Swedish/Icelandic – Tyskland
  • Italian – Tedesco (German language only, the country is called Germania)
  • Chinese- 德国 (Déguó)
  • Japanese: ドイツ (Doitsu)

The Roman roots of “Germany”

The modern English word “Germany” derives from the Latin “Germania”. The earliest use of which has been found in the writings of Julius Caesar in referring to the “Germani”, a large group of tribes in northeastern Gaul. These Germanic peoples inhabited a stretch of land from the Rhine in the west, to the Vistula in the east, from the Danube to the south and Baltic Seas and Scandinavia in the north. “Germani” might have a Celtic language origin, perhaps describing just one of the southernmost Germanic tribes. However, there is some etymological uncertainty surrounding the origin of the word “Germani”.

Some languages that derive their name for Germany from this same source include:

  • Greek – Γερμανία (Germanía)
  • Hebrew – גֶרמָנִיָה  (Germánya)
  • Russian – Германия (Germaniya)
  • Irish – An Ghearmáin
  • Italian – Germania
  • Māori: Tiamana
  • Pashto:جارمنی (jarmani)
  • Indonesian – Jerman
  • Thai – เยอรมนี (yexrmnī)

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Alemanni: “all men”

The Alemanni were another group of western Germanic tribes who lived in the region from Switzerland and northwards along the Upper Rhine River valley through Swabia and much of modern-day Alsace. Though the Alemanni were eventually subjugated by the Franks, their name has stuck. It derives from Old French and is thought to have meant “all men”, owing to the large number of disparate tribes who were drawn together in the confederation of the Alemanni. The French first got to know their neighbors as Alemanni and then transferred this name to all German ethnic groups, and the name then spread to some other countries.

Some names for Germany derived from “alamanni”  include:

  • Latin – Alemannia
  • French – Allemagne
  • Spanish – Alemania
  • Portuguese – Alemanha
  • Turkish – Almanya
  • Arabic – Almania (ألمانيا)
  • Persian – آلمان (‘ālmān)
  • Filipino – Alemanya

Saxons: knives out

Another group of names for Germany derive from the peoples who lived along the Germanic North Sea coast from late antiquity through the Middle Ages known as the Saxons (die Sachsen). The Proto-Germanic “sakhsan” may come from the name of a type of knife associated with this group of peoples known as a “seax” in Old English or  “sachs” in Old High German.

It may seem odd to refer to Germans as Saxon if you are only familiar with the term “Anglo-Saxon”, used today to refer to Americans who descend from the English. This is because in the 5th century the Germanic tribes of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes (Jüten) who came from present-day North Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein conquered the British island of Britannia.

The major languages that derive their names for Germany from this source are:

  • Estonian – Saksamaa
  • Finnish – Saksa

Nemets: quiet folk

A handful of countries also derive their name for Germany from the proto-Slavic word “nemets” (němьcь), which can be loosely translated as “hard to understand” or “the silent ones”. While one might be prone to attribute this to the stereotype of Germans being somewhat standoffish, it is more likely that it originally meant  “the ones who don’t speak like us” or  “the ones we can’t understand”.

Languages that derive their name for Germany from “nemets” include:

  • Polish/Bulgarian: Niemcy
  • Czech: Německo
  • Hungarian: Németország
  • Slovak: Nemecko
  • Slovene: Nemčija
  • Serb: Njemacka
  • Ukrainian: Німеччина (Niméččyna)

A rose by any other name…

Now that you know a few more of the many beautiful and interesting names that Germany has accrued, we hope you can appreciate the deep history behind them. Whether you call it Germania, Niemcy or Almanya, there’s a long and intriguing story behind each.

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Leona has her roots in the South of Ireland, where she grew up on her family farm. She went on to study World Politics at Leiden University College, The Hague and then completed her MPhil in International History at Trinity College Dublin. Leona has now settled in Berlin, having fallen in love with the city. In her spare time she is working on perfecting her German in anticipation of her doctoral studies, during which she plans to study modern German social history. Her hobbies include bouldering, dancing and reading a healthy mix of history books and corny fantasy fiction. You can find more info about her on LinkedIn.

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