Sunday, November 22, 2009

Etymology of Country Names

Much information can be extracted from names, and particularly the names chosen for countries. Many names reflect part of a country's history or national identity. I thought it might be interesting to have a look at a few.

Let's start with Canada, the Great White North. Many believe that the word Canada comes from kanata meaning 'village' or 'settlement' in Iroquois. This term was used by indigenous inhabitants to direct Jacques Cartier—the Frenchman whose explorations of Eastern Canada laid the basis for French claims to Canada—toward Quebec City and Montreal Island.

France, in turn, got its name from the country's earliest settlers, a West Germanic tribe known as the 'Franks.' And thus France means the Land of the Franks.

I personally find Germany fascinating. Before examining its roots, let's first point out that the name of this country is different in various languages. In French, 'Germany' is Allemagne, similar to the Spanish Alemania; in English it is of course Germany; but in German, it is Deutschland. The corresponding names of the languages reflect these differences: Allemand, Alemán, German and Deutsch, all meaning 'German' in the respective languages. One must not forget tedesco, which means 'German' in Italian.

Why are these names completely different in the various languages? In ancient times, there existed a large number of Germanic tribes, each having a distinct name. Being positioned in the center of Europe, Germany shared borders with a plethora of societies (present-day Holland, Belgium, France, etc.). And so in many cases, the name of the Germanic tribe that came into contact with each different region was used. Alemanni, a southern Germanic tribe that settled in today's Alsace and Switzerland, became Allemagne and Alemanía, in French and Spanish. Germani was used by Julius Cesar to describe the tribes in north-eastern Gaul, today France and Belgium, thus in the direction of the peoples who were to become the English speaking Europeans, meaning that Germani became 'Germany' in English.

This is but a very brief introduction to the topic in order to simply underline the different names this country has depending on the language.

Mexico is another country name that stems from its first settlers. The Mexica (the X is pronounced "sh") were the rulers of the Aztec Empire. To demonstrate their authority and power, the Spanish conquerors built on top of the ancient Aztec capital of México-Tenochtitlan, located in the Valley of Mexico, and maintained part of this name: Mexico. Subsequently, the country took on the same appellation as its capital.

The etymology of country names is a tantalizing topic. History, culture, language and linguistics, all wrapped into one word.