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Category: Polish

Who are the Germans?

Who are the Germans?

You may be familiar with the fact that the Germans refer to themselves as Deutsch and their country as Deutschland, and we find this term also in most other Germanic languages, such as Dutch Duits or Swedish Tysk, as well as Italian Tedesco. However, there are many other names in other parts of Europe. The French and Spaniards call them Allemand/Alemán, as do the Welsh with Almaenaidd; the various Slavic languages share a different term again, seen in e.g. Polish Niemiec or Russian Nemets. In the Baltic the Lithuanians and Latvians have their own terms not seen anywhere else (Vokietis and Vācijis respectively), while in Finland and Estonia they call them Saksi. We could also add some assorted forms from smaller languages, such as Miksas from Old Prussian, an extinct sister language to Lithuanian and Latvian.

An aerial shot of the meeting of the Rhine and Mosel rivers at Koblenz
The Deutsches Eck, or ‘German corner’, in Koblenz

Now, it is not unusual for inhabitants of a country to refer to themselves and their country with a different form from that used by outsiders (when was the last time you called China Zhongguo or India Bharat?). What is particularly notable about the German case, however, is the diversity even among its immediate neighbours. Contrast e.g. France, where everyone uses some form of derivative of Latin Francia (after the Germanic tribe the Franks), though the Greeks still call it Gallia after the Roman province of Gaul. Similarly, most call Spain some form derived from Hispania and Italy one from Italia. So, this diversity in names for the Germans requires some explanation.

Whence this plethora of terms? A consideration of history leads us to our answer. Recall that the modern country of Germany is a relatively recent creation, only being officially united in the mid 19th century by Otto von Bismarck. While there was a political entity that occupied the area in the form of the Holy Roman Empire it was only a relatively loose collection of small states, and prior to that the area was inhabited by a number of distinct Germanic-speaking peoples.

As a result, some of these names derive from the individual groups or tribes which lived in part of the area: so in the Western Romance and Brittonic Celtic languages the name of the Alemanni tribe was applied to the Germans as a whole. The same process occurred in the northeast with the Baltic Finns and the Saxons: not only were the Saxons the nearest group, but also, due to a combination of the Hanseatic League controlling trade through the Baltic and the anti-pagan crusading of the Teutonic Knights (another Deutsch-relative, see below), many Saxons came to settle in the Eastern Baltic, with some of their descendants still living in Estonia and Latvia today. Some small varieties show different groups again: some of the smaller Germanic varieties use a form derived from Prussian, after the state which ended up uniting the German peoples.

English takes a slightly different approach, deriving the term Germans from the Latin name of the region; Germania. This term included two Roman provinces covering much of modern-day Belgium, Switzerland, parts of eastern France and the Rhineland in modern Germany, as well as applying to the larger swathe of barbarian territories further east. Interestingly, several languages use this term to refer to Germany the country despite using a different term to refer to the Germans: Italian and Russian are the most notable examples.

We find a different source again with the Slavic Nemets terms. There is again some dispute in origin, but the general consensus is that it derives from a Slavic root *němъ meaning ‘mute’, itself of contested origin. The meaning likely was not ‘mute’ necessarily, but rather simply denoted that these groups were not Slavic-speaking. This puts in a similar group to the word ‘barbarian’ in fact, which derives from a Greek word meaning ‘those who go bar-bar/talk incomprehensibly’. Similar origins to do with ‘talking’ are likely behind the Baltic Vok-/Vāc-/Miks- forms as well.

Finally, what of German ‘Deutsch’? Well, as is the case with many endonyms it is a relatively simple and self-referential etymology. It ultimately derives from an Indo-European root *tewteh2 meaning simply ‘people’, which shows up also in e.g. Irish túath with the same meaning. This form may also be the source of Romance forms such as Spanish todo or French tout meaning ‘everyone/everything’. This root even survives in Slavic, in Russian giving the form čužoj, meaning ‘foreign, alien’. This ended up as Germanic *þeudō, which through an adjective formation *þiudiskaz meaning something like ‘of the people’ ultimately leads to the modern German form. This form also gives Latin Teutones, a likely Celtic or Germanic tribe which lived in the North German region and was encountered by the Romans early in their expansion northwards.

So, as with many other terms, such as the aubergine words which have been discussed here before, the differences between languages are reflective of a complex history. In this case the wide array of disparate terms of different etymologies reflects the complex history of the entity involved, specifically the absence of a country that even called itself ‘Germany’ until the modern era, as well as the extent to which different groups of ethnic Germans have moved about in Europe.



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Those who have out of desire have chosen to or out of dire necessity been forced to bake their own bread may have encountered the term poolish. It refers to a semi-liquid pre-ferment used in bread-making, a mixture of half water and half white flour mixed with a teeny bit of yeast and allowed to slowly ferment for several hours, up to a day, before mixing up the final dough.

The word itself is an exceedingly odd one, and has been the source of much head-scratching and inconclusive speculation among bread-bakers across the world: it looks like the English word Polish, but is spelled funny, and anyway seems to be borrowed from French, where the spelling would be funnier still. Most discussions of the technique include the obligatory etymological digression, usually fantastical, involving journeymen Polish bakers fanning out over Europe. Linguists too have gotten on the trail: David Gold’s Studies in Etymology and Etiology (2009) devotes a whole page to the question, but does not get too far.

In its current form it is technical jargon from French commercial baking, and has probably made its way to a broader public through Raymond Calvel’s influential Le gout du pain (‘The taste of bread’) from 1990. In his account:

This method of breadmaking was first developed in Poland during the 1840s, from whence its name. It was then used in Vienna by Viennese bakers, and it was during this same period that it became known in France. (2001 edition translated by Ronald Wirtz)

This explanation has been widely accepted, and appears in one form or another in any number of bread-baking books. But how could it even be true? The first problem is the word itself. Poolish is not the French word for Polish, and doesn’t much look a French word anyway. In earlier French texts it crops as pouliche, which looks more French and is indeed the word for a young mare, whose connection to bread dough is tenuous at best. But earlier French texts also have the spelling poolisch or polisch, which looks rather more German than French and suggests we follow the Viennese trail instead.

This thread of inquiry has its own potential hiccoughs. The German word for Polish is polnisch, with an [n], so would this not just be fudging things? Actually not: polisch, poolischpohlisch or pollisch turn up often enough in older texts as alternative words for ‘Polish’, particularly in southern varieties of German that include Austria. And it is exactly in these form that we find it being used to refer to this particular process, juxtaposed with Dampfl (or Dampfel or Dampel), the term in southern Germany and Austria for a rather stiffer pre-ferment which goes through a shorter rising period, as in these two examples from 1865, one from Leopold Wimmer’s self-published advertising advertising screed for St. Marxer brand (of Vienna) pressed yeast, where it turns up as Pohlisch:

the other from Ignaz Reich’s (of Pest, as in Budapest) account of ancient Hebrew baking practices, where it’s rendered as pollisch.

The term polisch (in all its variants) in this sense seems to have died a natural death in German, only to reemerge during the current craft-baking revival in the guise of poolish.

But if poolish was originally the (or a) German word for Polish, we run up against the sticky question of what it was actually referring to. Calvel repeats the story that this technique was invented by Polish bakers (which turns up in a 1972 article in The Atlantic Monthly, I think anyway, because it’s but coyly revealed by Google in snippet view), a supposition which lacks as much plausibility as it does historical attestation. Poland has traditionally been a land of sourdough rye bread. Is seems unlikely that a novel technique involving the use both of white wheat flour and commercial pressed yeast (a relatively new product) would have been devised there and introduced into the imperial capital that was Vienna. So what on earth could it have meant?

Here I make my own foray into speculation; you read it here first. Poland is not just a land of sourdough rye bread, it is a land of a soup made from rye sourdough: żur or żurek (itself derived from sur, one variant of the German word for ‘sour’), still widely consumed and also sold in ready form form for time-strapped gourmands. Since the Austro-Hungarian Empire included much of what had once been Poland, it isn’t too far-fetched to think that people in Vienna might have been familiar with this soup. And since the salient characteristic of poolish is that it is basically liquid, in opposition to more solid doughs, my guess is that the term poolish arose as a facetious allusion to żur: a soup-like fermenting dough mixture, like the thinned-out sourdough soup that Poles eat.

This theory has the minor drawback of lacking any positive evidence in its favor. So far the only 19th century reference to żur outside of its normal context that I have been able to find is as a cure for equine distemper, otherwise known as ‘strangles’. That leads us into the topic of pluralia tantum disease names…