Names of countries seem arbitrary, and yet they can also reflect a more local history of relations between countries and peoples. Some of these Polish names for other countries and ethnicities can be interesting mini-lessons in the history of Central and Eastern Europe.
Germany has been Poland’s neighbour since time immemorial (which in this region of the world, is the early Middle Ages). Yet when speaking about their neighbours, Poles, and actually most Slavic people, use a name than can be quite a surprise.
Niemcy, the Polish endonym for Germans and Germany (yes, it’s the same word for both) is traced back to the Proto-Slavic word *němьcь, which means mute. Well, this does not necessarily imply that these ancient Slavic tribes considered their Western neighbours as literally mute creatures, devoid of the capacity of speech. Rather, they simply deemed their language pretty much unintelligible - a reasonable statement considering the fundamental differences between Germanic and Slavic languages.
A variant of that name is preserved in almost all other Slavic languages of the region, with the exception of Russia and Bulgaria (compare Croatian Njemačka, Slovene Nemčija, Czech Německo, or the Kashubian M-variant Miemieckô). The same name even percolated into the vastly different Hungarian, as: Németország.
In yet another bold and unrestrained case of linguistic transfer, the Slavic name of Germany is unexpectedly found at the core of the Arabian name for Austria: النمسا (an-Nimsa), where it landed most likely via Southern Slavic languages.
But there must be something about Germany and Germans that would explain why it has so many different names depending on which country is speaking. Here’s just a sample of the range: Swedish: Tyskland , French: Allemagne, Italian: Germania, Finnish: Saksa, Latvian: Vācija, German itself: Deutschland.
Good luck pinning down this country on the map. Don’t count on dictionaries either - the closest you’ll get is włosy which means ‘hair’, and the Polish włochy is actually an augmentative of hair.
Well, it’s Italy, and Polish is perhaps the only European language (again, with the exception of Hungarian) to have dropped the international word Italy, and go for the strange, mysterious and even ugly Włochy. So why did Poles choose to use this word?
The word Włochy is usually descended from the Proto-Germanic word *walhaz, which was a term for speakers of various Romance languages living in post-Roman Empire areas. But by extension, it could also refer to foreigners in general (compare the contemporary Dutch word Waals ‘Walloon’, the English word Welsh, or even the Hungarian word Olasz).
In Polish, the word, or actually one of its variants, Wołochy (and Wołosi, was at first used in reference to the Romanised tribes of the Balkans, compare Vallachia). It was only later that the name, now as Włochy, was applied to another, more Southern people, that is Italians. To make matters more complicated, the original *Proto-Germanic *walhaz is probably derived from the name of the Italian tribe Volsci, itself a word of Italic origin. Complicated? Here’s a simplified version: the Poles refer to Italians by using a Germanic word for 'foreigner' which likely goes back to ancient Italic ethnonym.
Węgry is Hungary – and it’s more reasonable than it looks. The Polish name is a developed version an early Old-Church-Slavonic word, *ągrin,which denoted the people of Uralic origin, who in the 9th century migrated to Central Europe and have stayed there since. They called themselves the Magyars.
The Slavic realm turns out to be quite divided in their approach to Hungary. Some are similar to Polish with a VENG- sound preserved in Lithuanian, Belarusian and Russian, while other Slavic languages like Ukrainian and Bulgarian go for UNG-. Another group, including, Slovakian, Czech, Slovenian and Serbian use a derivative of the original Hungarian ethnonym: Magyar.
Hungarians, fittingly, have their own peculiar word denoting Poland in return: Lengyelorszag. Find out more about the many different names of Poland
Włochy, Węgry and Niemcy are likely the most outrageous examples of the strange and misleading capacity of Polish names for other countries. But others, perhaps not as bewildering, make an interesting case for one other language’s huge impact on Polish.
The name of England in Polish, Anglia, leads back to the Angles, the ancient tribe who invaded the island in the early Middle Ages. This means that, in a way, Polish has retained the original Latin name for the country more faithfully than English itself has. A slight inconvenience lies in the fact that the Polish word is actually homonymous with the name of one of England’s regions, that of East Anglia.
The Polish name for Great Britain, meanwhile, is Wielka Brytania, a rather literal translation.
The Polish name for the Netherlands, Holandia, goes back to the name of one of the regions of the country: Holland. In case you’re wondering, the region’s name means ‘wooded land’ (the Dutch word holt means ‘wood’).
(Trivia: some Slavic languages, like Czech and Serbian, choose to translate the name Netherlands. It looks like this: Nizozemsko, Низоземска.)
You might have noticed already that many country names in Polish end in -ia. This is most likely the result of the lasting influence of Latin on the history of the Polish language, and how it has perceived other nations. Compare names like Belgia and Francja, or Grecja and Hiszpania – the latter pair are actually only slightly modified versions of the Ancient Roman names.
Ancient Rome continues its verbal rule when we head into Scandinavia. Sweden is Szwecja. One can immediately notice the difference between the English and Swedish equivalents (Sverige). Again, the Polish Szwecja looks very much like the Latin name of the country, namely Suecia (or Suetia, Svecia or Svedia). Same goes for Norwegia, or Dania which is the Polish (and Latin) name for Denmark. As you can see, Polish didn’t bother with the -mark part.
Note: make sure you pronounce the word Dania correctly. If you don’t, and if it sounds more like dania, you run the risk of a minor culinary misunderstanding – dania means ‘food dishes’.
While we have no doubt that you can easily identify these:
Litwa can be more problematic.
Lithuania, a country with which Poland, historically speaking, has had the closest ties. While the name today refers primarily to the name of the Baltic state with Vilnius as its capital, Polish also uses the word in an altogether different meaning: to denote a historical and cultural area which stretched from Lithuania proper and covered contemporary Belarus.
Czechy is almost like the word ‘Czech’ (as in the republic), except for the fact that it’s plural in Polish – odd but at least an easy shot in terms of pronunciation. But it’s the somewhat confusing orthography of that name that may be more interesting. In fact, and perhaps a little paradoxically, it seems that ‘Czech’ is perhaps the only international word that consistently employs Polish orthography (with digraphs CZ and CH). Usually English speakers are baffled how the pronounce the repeated cz- they see in Polish, and yet they are more than competent when it comes to pronouncing ‘Czech Republic’. See our guide to the Polish alphabet for more about the pronunciation of Polish digraphs.
Gruzja, a bit surprisingly, is Georgia (that is, the country in the Caucasus, and not the state in America).
Chorwacja is Croatia. The original Croatian name, which is Hrvatska, is of little help, as is the Latin name. Perhaps the Hungarian Horvát(ország) is the closest shot.
Here’s a look at some other names that may strike you as intriguing.
Stany Zjednoczone Ameryki: The United States of America, sometimes shortened to Stany, much like how in English the name is reduced to simply ‘The States’. The word USA and Ameryka are also used to refer to the land of the free. And, yes, the capital of USA is called Waszyngton.
Republika Południowej Afryki: the Republic of South Africa, often abbreviated to RPA (err-peh-ah). The Polish name of one of the biggest cities in that country is Kapsztad, much the same as in Afrikaans.
Japonia: Japan. You’ll notice by now the Latinate -ia suffix. And of course, the Polish ‘J’ is not what it seems to be...
Chiny: again, like with the Polish version of Japan, the name of China in Polish is pronounced according to the rules of Polish alphabet which reads ch as ‘h’: hee-ny. Additionally, the name, like Czechy, is plural, which makes reasonable sense since China was traditionally a huge conglomeration of states.
Any country names we’ve missed out that have caught your eye and ear? Let us know in the comments!
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, January 2017