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Category: Russian

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.

SMG – I’d Arapaho, Roon, Sala, Tubar and Nara, but alas no Oroha paradigms

SMG – I’d Arapaho, Roon, Sala, Tubar and Nara, but alas no Oroha paradigms

A palindrome is a linguistic delight: it reads the same in both directions. For example: level. Or Anna, or indeed Hannah. This is a visual trick: if you record yourself saying one of these words and play the recording backwards, it won’t sound exactly the same.

Palindromes hit the big time in the parrot sketch. They were also promoted by ABBA, with their top hit SOS!

Here’s a nice one from North Ambrym (an Oceanic language spoken in Vanuatu): rrirrirr ‘sound a rat makes when you try and kill it but you miss it’. And a long one from Estonian: kuulilennuteetunneliluuk ‘bullet flying trajectory tunnel’s hatch’. I’m not sure that one is used much (except in blogs about palindromes).

We can go up a level (!), as it were, to palindromic phrases. A famous one of these is:

A man, a plan, a canal – Panama!

This has been around at least since 1948. It has often been extended, as in this version due to Guy Jacobson:

A man, a plan, a cat, a ham, a yak, a yam, a hat, a canal – Panama!

And here’s a Russian sentence palindrome: Рислинг сгнил, сир. ‘the Riesling has gone off, sir’ More Russian palindromes at For French sentence palindromes go to And there are even songs based on such palindromes:

They have palindromes in American Sign Language:

Not surprisingly, palindromes don’t translate. Though we can go up another level (!) of cleverness, to the bilingual palindrome: I love / e voli. This is half English, half Italian, and overall a palindrome. More of these at It’s truly amazing what people can create, including whole poems as palindromes:

Some time ago, I mentioned to linguist colleagues that Malayalam (a Dravidian language of southern India) is a palindromic language. One colleague’s eyes opened wide, and he asked whether it was palindromic at the word level or the sentence level. What a great idea! Of course, it’s just the name which is a palindrome (just as Anna is a palindrome but that doesn’t make Anna a palindromic person – there are deep issues here: what does a name refer to?).

It turns out that there are over seventy “palindromic languages”, including some that are central to our research in SMG, notably Iaai (spoken in New Caledonia). Here are some more: Efe, Ewe, and Atta.

What then of E (also called Wuse/Wusehua), a Tai-Chinese mixed language, of Guangxi, China? Yes, it’s a palindrome, just not a very impressive one. Just as the English pronoun I is a palindrome, though hardly one to get excited about (unless you’re called Anna or Hannah of course). But it gets much better. You may have noticed that linguists increasingly give three letter codes after language names. These are the ISO codes that we use to uniquely identify a language, to make sure that we’re talking about, say, the language Aja (a Nilo-Saharan language of Sudan), ISO code aja, and not Aja (a Niger-Congo language of Benin), ISO code ijg. So, what is the ISO code for the language E? It’s eee. The language name and the code are both palindromes! Similarly there’s U (an Austroasiatic language of the Yunnan Province of China), ISO code uuu.

Here are the languages which are doubly palindromic (name and ISO code):

Name ISO code
E eee
Efe efe
Ewe ewe
Iaai iai
Kerek krk
Naman lzl
Mam mam
Nen nqn
Ofo ofo
Ososo oso
Utu utu
U uuu
Yoy yoy

A real star is Naman, whose ISO code is quite different, lzl, but still palindromic. Where does that come from? Well, the language has an alternative name, Litzlitz, so when it’s not a palindrome it’s a reduplication!

Back to the tricky use of “palindromic language”. Iaai is a palindromic name. As we’ve seen, its ISO code iai is also a palindrome. And the language does have some very nice palindromes:

  • aba ‘caress’
  • ee ‘locative – near the interlocuter’
  • ii ‘to suck’
  • iei ‘to hurt, cause pain’
  • ikiiki ‘repugnant’
  • iwi ‘rudder’
  • komok ‘sick’
  • maam ‘your manner’
  • mem ‘Napolean fish (Cheilinus undulatus)’
  • omoomo ‘women’
  • nokon ‘his/her infant’
  • oṇo ‘Barracuda (Sphyraena sp.)’
  • öö ‘spear’
  • ölö ‘mount, embark, disembark’
  • ölö ‘legume (Pueraria sp.)’
  • u ‘an old word for yam’
  • uu ‘fall from a height, chop down (of tree)’
  • ûû ‘a dispute, to dispute’
  • ûcû ‘similar, same’ (a nice meaning for a palindrome!)
  • ûcû ‘to exchange, buy, shop’

It would be impressive if you could read this post backwards, and have it make sense. But that wouldn’t be a BLOG but a GLOB, the latter being is an instance of a Semordnilap, but that is another story. For now, we welcome your favourite palindromes, in any language, in the comments.

For examples, thanks to Jenny Audring, Sacha Beniamine, Marina Chumakina, Mike Franjieh, Erich Round and Anna Thornton, and for the title (you’ve guessed what sort of title that is!), thanks to Steven Kaye.

Are words all different? Or are they all the same?

Are words all different? Or are they all the same?

Imagine we have less than a life-time to describe the words of a given language. We might start from the view that each individual word is a treasure to be described in exquisite detail. Indeed, it is one of the achievements of our field that linguists have found and described gems like the following:

  • Archi (Dagestan) has the word t’uq’ˤ. which is a stone post inside an underground sheepfold, which supports the stone roof.
In Archi the t’uq’ˤ is the stone posts supporting the roof of a sheepfold (Photo credit: Dr. Marina Chumakina).
  • Soq (Papua New Guinea) has the verb s- ‘stay’, which is anti-irregular. While typical irregular verbs (like English go ∼ went) have unexpected forms but mean ‘the right thing’ (went means ‘go in the past’), the Soq verb s- ‘stay’ is the opposite of that. Its forms are unremarkable, but uniquely in the language, its present tense covers the time period of the English present (‘now’). All other verbs have a present tense (sometimes called ‘hodiernal’) which covers the period starting at nightfall yesterday and running through to and including ‘now’.
  • Krongo (Sudan) has the noun m-ùsí ‘sorcerer’, where the initial m- tells us it is singular. The plural is nú-kù-kk-ùs-óoní ‘sorcerers’ with no less than four plural markers, each of which is found independently with other nouns.
  • Russian skovorodá ‘frying pan’ seems remarkable only in that you have to wait for the last syllable to put the stress on the word. But in the plural, the stress moves forward three syllables: skóvorody ‘frying pans’, which makes it sound rather different.
  • English dust. Yes, even English has some star items. The humble verb dust is an example of ‘Gegensinn’, that is, it means its own opposite. We can dust a cake with icing sugar (that is, putting on particles), the opposite of dusting the furniture (removing particles).
    Dusting – even elephants love to do it!

    But there is a danger with this approach: we may well manage a few hundred items, and leave behind an unpublished dictionary. Or we may publish Volumes I-III (A-F), leaving the user stuck for words later in the alphabet: this happens particularly with larger projects, when grand intentions meet organizational and financial reality.

    The alternative approach is to start from the assumption that all words in a language are the same. We soon discover, of course, that this is not quite true. There are dramatic generalizations to be made: we may find, for instance, that many words can occur alone, and some cannot. More generally different classes of words have different properties of combination with others. That is, we specify part of speech information (verb, noun, and so on). Consistent with this, wholly or partly, we may find regularities such as some words distinguishing tense while others do not. And real dictionaries embody such regularities as defaults. If an English dictionary specifies that compute is a verb, it is taken as given that it will have a past tense, that the form will be computed, that this past tense will be compositional (we know that what it means is a combination of the lexical meaning of compute and the grammatical meaning of PAST). And when a default is overridden, the information is given in the dictionary entry. For example, the past tense of go is went (and only the form need be given, since our default assumption about what it means will hold good), or that binoculars is a noun but lacks a singular.

    I have described not one, but two straw men, though I have met real people who came close to these extremes. The point is that the interest of the linguistic gems we started with comes precisely from the way in which they stand out against the backdrop of the general picture. We know that there are general defaults – otherwise speakers and hearers would not cope. We expect singular and plural of a noun to be linked by a simple formula, rather than by a stress-shift that dramatically changes the way the noun sounds, as with Russian skovoroda ‘frying pan’. So in principle we can start from either end (words are all different or words are all the same), so long as we have the other horizon in view too.

    Don’t forget to destress when using a frying pan in Russian… But if you can’t take the heat, time to get out of the kitchen!

    Of course, real people tend to feel more comfortable working from one end or the other; lexicographers are, arguably, more interested in the differences and linguists more in the generalizations. And there are important movements within the field where dictionary-makers point out the need for much more detailed grammatical information about individual words, and conversely where linguists point out that the broad classes we often work with need to be broken down into rather finer detail.

    A saving grace in all this is the possibilities offered by online dictionaries. We can present some of the richness of words in new ways. For example, rather than trying to describe what the pillar that holds up the roof of an underground sheep fold looks like, we can give a picture. The online Archi dictionary does this. And it provides the sound file, so that users can hear what the word sounds like. Indeed they can hear all the basic forms needed to derive its large array of forms (its extensive paradigm). What if the system of sounds comprising the words has taken years of work to unravel? We want to hear the sounds and see the system. This is something – among other good things – that the new Nuer dictionary offers.

    Browsing in the Archi and Nuer dictionaries makes us marvel at how different those words are, one from another, and perhaps from ‘our’ words. And yet they are all the same too – they all use the same Archi and Nuer systems of sounds, and they fall into parts of speech which are interestingly comparable to ‘our’ parts of speech (verbs and nouns are distinct, and so on).

    It would need several lifetimes for anything approaching a ‘complete’ dictionary of Archi or Nuer. But there are plenty of surprises whichever perspective we take: the dictionary entries tell us about the amazing differences between languages, but the innocent little markers (like v. and n.), and the sets of forms given, point to the equally amazing sameness.

    If you enjoyed this post, why not check out our favourite untranslatable words from the languages we work on.