Your RDA of Irony

A Mystery of the Map

Most countries have plausible names. After all, there are Italiani in Italy, Urduniya in Jordan, and somewhat united states in America. The billion citizens of Bharat might be annoyed by the common misnomer for their country but at least they recognize the name India as one of their major rivers. However, there are no Germans in Germany and there was never a Teutonic hero named Gerry. More than 80 million people called themselves Deutsch and insist that they live in Deutschland. But no one else seems to believe them. How did they develop this identity crisis?

As a start, blame the Romans. They put the name Germania on the map to designate the vast and rough territory east of the Rhine. The alternative might have been Barbaria. However, the meaning of Germania is a matter of conjecture. Some of its native tribes were known as the Herminones and the Hermunduri. For the Romans, the pronunciation of H was just as alien and hostile as the tribes themselves. Rome might have transliterated a more palatable G on the Hermans.

Another possibility is derived from the Gauls. Before they mutilated Latin into French, they spoke a Celtic language. The similarity between the words Gaelic and Gallic is not a coincidence but a family resemblance. The Gaelic word for neighbor is “gair.” Was that also the Gallic term for the horde across the Rhine? If the ancient Gauls spoke of the “gair Hermionones”, Roman efficiency or impatience might have compressed the term to the name we would recognize. Rome never conquered Germania– three legions were massacred trying-but it did impose a lasting name on the territory. In English, Russian and Italian, the country is called Germany.

However, that is only one misnomer for Deutschland. The French call their unnerving neighbor Allemagne. The Spanish echo it with Alemania and, in Iberian unison, the Portuguese speak of Alemanha. The obvious question is “Why?” There actually were Alamanni, a confederation of tribes that lived in southwestern Deutschland. The Romans regarded them as more obnoxious than ferocious. Throughout the third and fourth centuries, the tribes’ looting sprees into Gaul were usually thwarted and punished. In the fifth century, the Roman Empire no longer had victories; but the Alamanni proved to be underachievers. They could have “toured” such ripe lands as Italy or Spain; instead they just moved across the Rhine into Helvetia. That is the reason the Swiss now speak Deutsch. It is the Alamanni’s only actual legacy. Yet, they had such a miserable reputation that their name became an epithet for all Deutsch.

Of course, you might wonder why the Deutsch did not assert their real name. As history repeatedly proves, they are not a shy and unassuming people. When the barbarians were imposing their peace terms on the vanquished Rome, they could have added the demand “And don’t call us German!” In the fifth century, however, the tribes had no concept of a Deutsch people. Goths, Vandals, Angles and Franks shared a common culture and language, but their identity and loyalty were constricted to their tribe. Indeed, they had never heard the word “Deutsch.” It was first used in the ninth century by the Church.

As part of its civilizing mission, the Church intended to transform Germania from tribes into dioceses. In this new Christian society, a people bound by the same language and culture received the generic designation of Deutsch. The word literally meant “people” and in its original context only applied to the commoners. The term was synonymous with peasant. When medieval society progressed beyond the Dark Ages, so did the definition of Deutsch. The word reflected the growing prosperity and literacy of the culture. Ironically, the common Deutsch identity did not surmount the tribal identifications. Bavarians, Saxons and Prussians could quote the same poets and still hate each other. It would take a thousand years of rivalry and war before Deutsch became a nationality as well as a culture.

Being German emigrants themselves, the Angles and the Saxons certainly were aware of the old homeland. The English referred to their eastern cousins as the Dutch. It was an honorable attempt at pronouncing Deutsch. The term was vague, however, and didn’t distinguish the natives of Holland from the peoples east of the Rhine. In the 16th century the English were eager to acquire Renaissance sophistication; so they began to affect Latin and Italian terms whenever possible. The English now referred to those central Europeans as Germans. The almost correct designation of Dutch was dropped, a victim of human vanity. Then, as now, people would rather be fashionable than accurate.

  1. jlaucker says:

    On a related note, I can think of one instance in which the term Dutch has been incorrectly applied to a people, and that is the case of the Pennsylvania Dutch. They aren’t Dutch at all, much less even German. Upon arrival in Colonial America, these people called themselves Deutsch, and the English, Scotch and Irish in the state found it easier to call them Dutch. They really couldn’t claim themselves to be Germans, either, as they had just been passing through the Rhine Valley on their exodus from the Deutsch speaking areas of Switzerland. The predominantly Catholic Swiss made life so difficult for their Anabaptist neighbors, that these forerunners of the Pennsylvania Dutch found themselves being forced out of Switzerland or leaving on their own accord. Their journey over two-hundred years led through the Rhine Valley, and the Palatinate states, to Rotterdam in the Netherlands, and eventually, to the Commonweath of Pennsylvania.

    Other related notes: the Germans call the French nation “Frankreich” and the United Kingdom is “Groß Brittanien.” And for all you folks that don’t speak German, the large B-looking thing that I used is called an “Esset.” It represents a double S in “Deutsch.” The Japanese refer to their home as “Nippon,” but the P that you see isn’t a P at all, it’s really pronounced “Ni-hon.” I also think of the few instances in which explorers really tried to ask the natives of countries what the name of a place was, and it still ended up being misnamed. Case in point, the largest island of the Philippines. Magellan asked some folks in a boat what the name of the island was, and they thought he was asking them what they were doing. They replied, “Luzon.” “We are rowing.” The name stuck, and they’ve been rowing ever since.

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