Toponyms & Ethnonyms: a brief ramble

Rambling about toponyms and ethnonyms in various languages.

Branko Milanovic has revived interest in an older post of mine about the Polish language. From Twitter it appears that the tidbit from that post which has been most remarked about is the fact that the Polish word for Italy is Włochy (related to Gaul, Wales, Wallachia, Galatia, and Vlachs). That inspires this rambling.

There are many examples where the word for a country or a people in a foreign language is very different from, and sometimes completely unrelated to, what it is in the native language. For example, the “official” name for India, in the sense that it’s enshrined in the Indian constitution, is Bharat, although it’s got slightly nationalistic overtones. Indians “dream of Bharat but live in Hindustan (+India), so to speak. But Hind is etymologically connected with India as well as Sindh, the Pakistani province which has served as the electoral-feudal domain of the Bhutto family.

Speaking of the Perso-Islamic toponymical suffix, my favourite -stan of all time is Asoristan , the name of one of the pre-Islamic provinces of the Sasanian empire, and of course it means “Assyria-stan”. In fact the BEST country names using the suffix -stan are virtually unknown to the world. Sistan, a province of the modern day Islamic Republic of Iran, is a modern version of Sakastan, and Saka refers to… the Scythians ! The current Persian word for Mongolia is Mogholestan, which preserves the history of the strong association which peoples of the past maintained between the Mughals who conquered India and the Mongols who conquered much of Eurasia.

But surely one of the most remarkable uses of –stan is the word the Armenians use for their own country: Hayastan ! Here is one of the oldest Christian countries in the world, appropriating a suffix associated with non-Arab Islamic countries. Armenia lived under under Persian and Ottoman rule for a long time, and a large percentage of Armenian words have Perso-Arabic origins. But the Armenians don’t keep the suffix just to themselves; some major countries are -stan-ised: e.g., Rusastan and Chinastan. (I’m sure The Economist was not aware of this when they used the latter as the title of a piece on Xinjiang, once known as East Turkestan.) Even cooler-sounding are Hndkastan (India) and Parskastan (Persia).

Lehastan, or Poland, shows how thoroughly influenced the Armenian language was by its Ottoman and Persian pasts. Lechia is the poetic-quaint name of Poland in Polish, and Hungarian plus one of the Baltic languages still use the root Leh- in their current names for Poland. The Ottomans also picked this up and referred to that northern country as Lehistan which is preserved in modern Persian, but not in modern Turkish.

The Greeks certainly do not call their country Hellastan, although if SYRIZA does not succeed one way or another perhaps they might start thinking about it. By the way, the Armenian name for Greece, Hunastan, is either an independent derivation from Perso-Arabic, or was acquired from Turkish, which refers to the land of Hellas as… Yunanistan. Personally I think the Turks, given the increasingly caliphal behaviour of their government, might readopt the old Ottoman/Arabic name for the Roman as well as Byzantine empires, Rum.

But where on earth does Yunanistan come from ? Well, in Arabic, modern Greece is Yunan, which has spread far and wide, so that pretty much everyone from Iran to India to Indonesia uses that word. The Arabic word is clearly cognate to the Hebrew Yavan, one of Noah’s grandsons, but the one is not a direct descendant of the other. Instead, Yunan is the Arabic corruption of Ionia, which was located on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor (Anatolia).

The fact that the Turks call Greece Yunanistan is therefore ironic, since they occupy the very Aegean coast which was once inhabited by the Ionian Greeks ! And, of course, a little cruel, since Greeks still lived there until the 1920s, when Greece and Turkey “exchanged” populations.

The word Greece itself comes to us from the Romans, but they got Graecus from the Greeks themselves. According to this, Graikos was “originally used by Illyrians [!!!] for the Dorians in Epirus, from Graii, native name of the people of Epirus”. The Illyrians are often associated with modern-day Albanians. More and more ironies.

One can expect that a people, like the Greeks, whose civilisation has had a major impact on many others, will have many names. The same is true for Germans and Germany.

Most languages use some variant of German- or Aleman-, except for the Germans themselves who say Deutschland. The root Aleman-, taken from a High German dialect Alemannisch, never caught on in Germany, but was adopted by most of its Romance-speaking neighbours, except the Italians who call the country Germania but its inhabitant a Tedesco. This bifurcated practise is mirrored amongst the Russians and most other Slavs who say Germaniya but the native is known as a Nemets. Although the language of the Franks is ancestral to many dialects in Germany and the Netherlands, they famously gave their name to France aka Frankreich. As if they were deliberately trying to confuse English speakers, the Dutch refer to the Germans by the etymologically identical name the Dutch themselves are known to English-speakers, Duitse. Synecdoche, or naming a thing according to one of its parts, seems popular for Germany. Finns and Estonians call Germany Saksa, after the Saxons.  (I can’t figure out the Latvians and the Lithuanians who utter Vok… something or rather.)

Turks and Germans have a special relationship, of sorts. In Turkish, the word Ottoman is Osmanli. Osman is the Turkish variant of the Arabic name Uthman, the name of the third Caliph of Islam. Turks can’t lisp, so they say Usman or Osman. The English word Ottoman comes from an Italian corruption of the Arabic original. Like the Turks, the Italians can’t lisp, but unlike the Turks the Italians interpret /θ/ as /t/. Thus, Ottoman. The Germans remain faithful to the Turks: Osmanisches Reich.

Finally, a note on China, which in many languages of East Asia goes by some variation on “middle kingdom”. But the Russians, however, call China Kitay — a cognate of the English archaic name Cathay. Kitay is the Tatar-Mongol name for the nomadic Mongolian tribe of the Khitan. Do the Chinese have an opinion about this ?

PS#1. I have heard many times that Catalonia is a combination of Goth and Alan, Germanic and Iranic tribes, respectively, which invaded Visigothic Hispania. But I don’t believe this etymology. [Edit-correction: The Alans arrived in Spain before the Visigoths, who were used to cast them out !]

PS#2 — a topic I see people broaching all the time is farengi. Yes, it’s an Arabic corruption of Frank used to refer to the Latin Crusaders. And yes today many languages, not just those of Muslim peoples, use some variant of farangi to mean “westerner” or “foreigner”. One non-Muslim example is Thai.

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10 Responses to Toponyms & Ethnonyms: a brief ramble

  1. Jørgen says:

    Thank you for a very interesting post. Note that there is a fairly extensive Wikipedia article


    • Jan Banan says:

      The Slavic term ‘němy’ for German literally means dumb (as in mute), as opposed to Slavs (‘Slované’) or people of the word (‘slovo’). As the article points out, it’s probably a generic holdover term that now is just applied to Germans, just as the Czechs have the same word for ‘foreigner’ and ‘stranger’–cizenec (‘cizí’ means strange). There’s even a common surname ‘Němec’ (Nimitz), presumably for people who had Germanic forbears.


  2. sarkoboros says:

    “Turks can’t lisp, so they say Usman or Osman.”

    Turkmen and Bashkir have the voiceless interdental fricative θ (“th”) represented by Arabic ث. Possibly Osman himself could say it as ʻUthman would.


  3. GRAHAM CONNAH says:

    thanks for a fascinating discussion….if there is any recommended reading on languages and their history, please disclose. ( a favorite of mine is A History Of English Words by Geoffrey Hughes, and another one which got my juices flowing was entitled Latin Alive by J. Solodow). Thanks in advance.


    • For general/beginners’/popular treatments :

      Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World Good as history of the world seen through the language point of view.

      The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language Good as popular historical & comparative linguistics.

      There are many books on the history of the English language, with varying degrees of academic rigour, but I like McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, primarily because it has got a chapter on a neglected topic, the influence of Celtic on English (which is very small, by the way). The book contains a conventional history of the English language, except for the first and last chapters, which are iconoclastic. The first is utterly compelling, in my opinion, and I would vigourously defend the (limited) “Welshness of English (grammar)” thesis. The last “Phoenician” chapter is mildly entertaining rubbish.

      If you are interested in the histories of other individual languages, you can ask separately.

      While it has no genetics, and the archaeology is a bit outdated, I still highly recommend, In Search of the Indo-Europeans because it’s an excellent primer on the basic linguistics and history of Indo-European studies. For a much more thorough treatment in both linguistic & archaeological terms check out Anthony’s The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. But the genetic aspects of IE studies move very fast. Follow or or to stay up-to-date.


  4. Whyvert says:

    I think it is amusing that the land of the Anglo-Saxons is named after the Angles for most languages (England, Anglia, Inglaterra etc) but in Gaelic it is named it after the Saxons (Sasainn). I don’t know why that is, though.


  5. Henry says:

    The name for “Sweden” in Finnish, Estonian and various other related languages has an interesting etymology, as well. Quoting from Wikipedia (

    ‘According to the most prominent theory, the name Rus’, like the Finnish name for Sweden (Ruotsi), is derived from an Old Norse term for “the men who row” (rods-) as rowing was the main method of navigating the rivers of Eastern Europe, and that it could be linked to the Swedish coastal area of Roslagen (the Rowing crews) or Roden, as it was known in earlier times. The name Rus’ would then have the same origin as the Finnish, Saami, Estonian and Võro names for Sweden: Ruotsi, Ruoŧŧa, Rootsi and Roodsi. It is remarkable enough that the local Finnic and Permic peoples in northern Russia proper use the same “Rus'” related name both for Sweden and Russia (depending on the language): thus the Veps name for Sweden / Swedish is Ročinma / Ročin, while in the neighboring Komi language the same term Ročmu / Roč means already Russia / Russian instead.’


  6. Henry says:

    Forgot to add: In turn, the words for Russia and Russian in Finnish (Venäjä, venäläinen) are apparently borrowed from Germanic *weneđ- (“Slav”). Cognates include Estonian vene, Venemaa. There’s also “ryssä” (Russian person), but it has a clearly derogatory tone (from around 1939, at least).


  7. Fletcher says:

    The Lithuanian “Vokiskai” and its Latvian cognate may well derive from the German “Volk”, “voelkisch”, i.e. the tems by which the Germans referred to themselves.


  8. Josephjaive says:

    cozd od tracking


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