Josna Rege

251. Deutschland (or Germany?)

In 1960s, 2010s, Childhood, Greece, history, India, Inter/Transnational, places, postcolonial, Stories, travel, Words & phrases on April 4, 2014 at 8:27 pm

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Rotkäppchen or Little Red Riding Hood, fairytale of the Brothers Grimm (Wikimedia Commons)

Rotkäppchen or Little Red Riding Hood, fairytale of the Brothers Grimm (Wikimedia Commons)

It is interesting that so many countries have a name for themselves that is different from the name by which they are known to the rest of the world. Because I collected stamps as a girl in the early 1960s I learned to match the name on the stamps with the country’s name as I knew it in English, but never gave much thought to why the two were so often different.

Take Germany, for instance, the country that I am currently visiting for the first time. My (West) German stamps had Deutsche Bundespost printed on them, and I soon came to know that Germans called their country Deutschland. The name dates back to the movement of Pan-Germanism in the 19th century, which sought to unite all German (Deutsch)-speaking kingdoms, dukedoms, and principalities into one nation (disregarding the non-German-speaking peoples within those territories). Deutch was the Germanic name that came to refer to the language and derived from the Teutons, the tribal/ethnic people who spoke it. Tracing its etymology, it comes from the Old High German diutisc, and back through Old High German diot to the proto-Indo-European word teuta—or simply, “people.” Thus do most groups simply call themselves “the people,” in their own language; while outsiders usually refer to them in their (foreign) language, by religion, language, or ethnicity. (Even the word ethnos, was used by the Greeks to refer to themselves—people who spoke Greek.)

The English name, Germany, comes from the Latin name for the Germanic tribes who originally occupied a region, documented by the Romans before 100 AD, that is now in Northern Germany and Southern Scandivania. So the English call Deutschland by the name used by the Roman Empire, the same one that conquered and ruled them.


My childhood stamp album proudly displayed a page of stamps, printed with the words Magyar Posta, from another country known to outsiders by an altogether different name. The Magyars are an ethnic group that make up the majority of the Hungarian nation, while the word Hungarian is thought to have come from the Bulgar-Turkic word On-Ogur, the name of a tribal confederacy that ruled parts of modern-day Hungary back in the 9th century. My Greek stamps (we lived in Athens at the time) had the name ΕΛΛΑΣ (Ellas or Hellas, the original name for Greece) on them.


Many groups, whether ethnic groups or nations, similarly call themselves a name (called an endonym) that is different from what the rest of the world call them (exonym). Why? Ultimately, it’s just because what you call yourselves, from the inside, is likely to be different to what outsiders call you. Why are exonyms often different from endonyms? Quoting Naftali Kadmon, Richard Nordquist gives three main reasons. The first is historical conquest: that explorers, colonizers, or conquerors gave their names to a place because they wanted to mark it as their own; a second is mispronunciation by those same outsiders; and a third is geographical—sometimes a geographical feature stretches over more than one country and therefore has a different name in each.


Growing up in an India newly independent from British colonial rule, I was familiar with reasons number one and two above. Outsiders from the time of the Greeks in the 4th century BC had called the Subcontinent after the river Indus that ran through it, while the Indian name was the Sanskrit Bhārat, thought to be the name of a king mentioned in the Rigveda, whose realm is known as Bharātavarṣa in the epic Mahabhārata. Today the nation displays both “India” and भारत (Bhārat in Devanagiri script) on its stamps. But on the local level, it has been changing the names of cities (and streets) renamed and/or mispronounced by the British for their own convenience back to their “original” Indian names—Bombay to Mumbai, Calcutta to Kolkata, Madras to Chennai—though the old names never entirely go away.

Anti-nationalist sticker on lamp post, Bremen

Anti-nationalist sticker on lamp post, Bremen

One might think that it would always be better to call a place by the same name that it is called by the people who live there, especially if the outsiders imposed their name by force of conquest. From a postcolonial perspective, I would be inclined to agree—most of the time. But there may also be problems with the insider’s name. If it is too clannish, limited to a single tribal, ethnic, linguistic, or religious group, it can exclude and alienate minority groups within that nation, leading to ethnic conflict and even to national disintegration. In some cases, then, the outsider’s name can actually be more inclusive.

And with that paradoxical thought I will leave you, Dear Readers, until tomorrow.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

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  1. […] Deutschland (or Germany?) On stamp collecting and nationalism, by no means just the German version. […]

  2. I remember Magyar Posta and other “odd names” myself, from when I collected stamps in my childhood! For me, the stamp collection was one of the first places where I got to know the world outside of my own country, got to understand that there are other places and other languages. I think it’s different for children today, they get more immediate (and audiovisual) input from all over the world through internet (at least as long as it’s in English, it’s still not that easy to be “exposed” to other languages).
    Thanks for this post, very intresting and informative!

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment.Yes, before the Internet, even (in my day) before much long-distance phone calling, it was so exciting to receive a letter from abroad, and you are right, stamp collecting brought the world into one’s home. (I can also look back and see how many countries’ names have changed since I was a girl.) You’re also right that what may look like global exposure today is very English-centered. I sometimes feel that young people today actually know less about the world than they did when it wasn’t at their fingertips.

  3. What a wonderful history-packed post. I loved every word of it and learned things I did not know. Thanks for sharing

    Paula at /Smidgen,Snippets,&Bits

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it, Paula. I’m having such fun with this Challenge, although I’m also having a lot of late nights! I’m also enjoying the tremendous range of posts–in subject matter and style, mode and mood. I love that you write poetry. Cheers! J

  4. Thanks especially for the link from Deutsch to Teuton. Neat. Neat also that you use the example of Hungary. Its name for other countries are often very different, too: Germany = Nemetorszag, Italy = Olaszorszag, Croatia = Horvatorszag, England = Anglia (no surprise there), Poland = Lengyelorszag, Russia = Oroszorszag. The Danube goes through several name changes: Danube, Duna, Donau, maybe others. When I first planned to go there, I remember looking at a map and thinking, Wow, no cognates! No -ville or -burg or -berg! It took a while to learn the Hungarian counterparts. Also, a lot of family names indicate ethnicity. As a Hungarian friend said, they’re “not us” names.

    Sorry, you got me going!

    • Thank you for your terrific comment, Sarah. Amazing-sounding names, Sarah–all except England ending in “orzag”, which on looking up I find means “country,” so that figures. No cognates I suppose because Hungarian’s not Indo-European (I see after again looking it up). It’s no wonder that they have such a strong sense of Us,since their language is so different. I wonder why–where they came from, and whether they were isolated from other groups for a long time? Love it when you get going!

  5. Wonderful article! I never knew the Germeny’s older name, thank you for sharing it.

    • Thank you for visiting and posting a comment! I am trying to take more photos–you are the master of beautiful photos. I very much enjoy your blog.

  6. I learned that people called themselves “the people” through learning what Native American groups called themselves as opposed to what names they were given. Interesting that this is true around the world.

    • Now, if only we could expand our collective “We, the people” to include all human beings (even all beings), there would be no “They/Them” to designate as Other. That shift in thinking may be what the world needs to survive.

  7. Fascinating post Josna. I used to collect stamps as a child and your post brings back so many memories, especially the word, “Magyar Posta. I found what you said about exonyms and endonyms so revealing. It’s universality is quite an insight for me. Thank you.

    • Thank you, Don. Yes, isn’t that “Magyar Posta” memorable?! Stamp-collecting was so absorbing when I did it, and then I just stopped at a certain point. Nowadays people send so few letters that it must be hard for kids to get hold of stamps. I think about the subject of Self/Other, Us/Them, insiders/outsiders a lot, but only encountered the words endonym and exonym while I was doing a little online research for the post.

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