Varying Names

People’s names for themselves, and our names for them in English


It may seem odd, but a number of the names we use for peoples, nations and their languages are actually quite different from their names for themselves. Some, I expect, are better known than others.


Let’s take a look at just a few:


Greece, Greek. Own name: Elladha, ellinika


Finland, Finnish. Own name: Suomi, Suomen kieli


Hungary, Hungarian. Own name: Magyarország, magyar


Wales, Welsh. Own name: Cymru, Cymraeg


Germany, German. Own name: Deutschland, Deutsch


Armenia, Armenian. Own name: Hayastan, Hayeren


Georgia, Georgian. Own name: Sakartvelo, Kartuli


Basque Country, Basque. Own name: Euskadi, Euskara


Japan, Japanese. Own name: Nihon, Nihongo


So why do we have names for these nations that differ so greatly from what they call themselves? Well, there can be many reasons. Sometimes, names come from earlier tribes that lived in the regions now inhabited by others. A name might also come from a geographical feature. It may even come from a mistake, a name that’s misheard, or a mythological figure closely associated with that place. And once a name is there, it tends to stick, and it can be very hard to change it!


One thought on “Varying Names

  1. There are probably more names for the Germans than anybody else, doubtless because they’ve been in the middle of Europe for thousands of years. (Indeed, they meet the official U.N. description of an indigenous people!) To themselves and the Italians they are ‘the People’; to the Finns they are ‘the Saxons’ (that is, ‘the knifemen’), which of course is what the Welsh call the English; to Western Romance speakers they are ‘all the men’ (probably from an old tribal alliance); to the Slavs they are ‘the mute’; in Latin and modern English they are ‘the spearmen’ (or possibly ‘the brothers’).

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