The Many Different Names of Poland
#language & literature
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Names of Poland, The different names of Poland, photo: Culture.pl, polenia_4.jpg
There's Sarmatia and Scythia, Polonia, Poland and Polska. But how about Lenkija, Lengyelország or Lehistan? And why do many Poles refer to their country by an altogether different name?
The name Poland may seem like an obvious word denoting a contemporary country, but this wasn’t always the case. In fact, even today, Poland is called different things – depending on who’s doing the talking.
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While the official name of the country, Polska, along with its cognates in various modern languages – like Poland, Polen, Pologne, Polónia or Польша ('Polsha') – can all be traced back to one historical word root, the story of the name, and the many names of Poland, is much more intricate and puzzling.
Poland with an S: Sarmatia or Scythia
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Before Poland, there was Sarmatia... Eastern Europe according to 'Cosmographia Claudii Ptolomaei' by Claudius Ptolemaeus (ca 100-ca 168), photo: Polona.pl
One of the earliest and most persisting geographical designations of this part of Europe was Sarmatia. The term was first used by the Greek geographer Claudius Ptolemaeus in the 2nd century AD, and it referred to a region that stretched all the way from the Black Sea to the Vistula River and the Sarmatian Ocean (better known today as the Baltic Sea).
As such, Sarmatia encompassed much of what we call Eastern Europe today. Further to the east, there was only Scythia – a name which was sometimes identified with Poland – but which eventually came to be identified with Russia.
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In the centuries to come, Sarmatia and Scythia were constant points of reference for a Western Europe trying to construct the map of the eastern parts of the continent. And in early modern Poland, the name Sarmatia and its mythical inhabitants became a key element of the inchoate cultural identity of the Polish upper classes.
Poland with a B: Bulania
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The modern copy of the 'Tabula Rogeriana' by Arabian Geographer Al-Idrisi, which mentions Poland as Bulania. The map is turned upside-down in accordance with the European cartogtraphic tradition, which orients North up (Europe is in the lower right-hand corner). Source: Wikimedia Commons
One would have to wait until the end of the first millennium to see the name Poland appear in writing on the pages of history. And even then, it was actually Polonia, the Latin name of Poland, which appeared in Mediaeval manuscripts (the Polish language hadn’t yet been codified in writing).
The name first appears in the late 10th century, coming up shortly after the formation of the first Polish state, for which the symbolical date is the Baptism of the first Polish ruler in 966. Yet these early – Latin and Arabic – manuscripts preserved a truly mind-boggling variety of alternate versions of the name, such as Polania, Palania, Polenia and even Bulania.
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The latter variant – a Poland with a B, so to speak – appears in the 12th century work Tabula Rogeriana by the Arabian geographer Al-Idrisi. But while the spelling of Bulania could be accounted for by the Arabic alphabet's exclusion of the letter P, the traces of a B-Poland can also be identified in numerous Latin manuscripts from the period. One of them mentions the first Polish king, Bolesław the Brave as Dux Bolanorum, namely ‘the prince of Bolans’. Another Mediaeval chronicler, writing in the mid 11th century, referred to king Kazimierz I as ‘Kazmir Bolaniorum’.
Quite counterfactually, one could expect that, had this variant of the name prevailed, we could well be referring to Poles today as ‘Boles’ – in which case the name of the country itself would have to sound something like ‘Boland’.
The land of Polans
However, and most etymologists seem to agree on this one, the early name of Poland should be written with a P, as the name goes back to an ethnonym of one of the Western Slavic tribes – namely that of the Polans.
In the 8th and 9th centuries, the Polans inhabited the basin of the Warta River in the Wielkopolska region (today's Western Poland, with the then-gords of Poznań and Gniezno). It was here, in the 10th century, that the rulers of the most powerful dynasty, the Piasts, formed a kingdom which the chroniclers came to call Polonia – that is, the land of the Polans (hence Poland).
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The name Polans on its part, is usually explained through a relation with the Proto-Slavic word *pol’e – which meant ‘open area, plain or field’. Thus, the name of the tribe is usually construed as to mean ‘people of the fields, field dwellers’. This is still fairly relevant, as most Poles today, still living on plain areas, would probably invoke fields as a typical Polish landscape.
Poland with an L: Lengyelország, Lenkija, Lechistan
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Poland spelled with an L... The Lithuanian, Hungarian and Ottoman languages all used an L-name for Poland. Photo: Culture.pl
But a look at today’s name(s) for Poland in different languages proves that the story – and history – was much more complicated. As it turns out, a couple of countries (including one of Poland’s neighbours, a historical Asian arch-enemy and a fellow European nation which Poles consider a kindred soul) use an altogether different name. This one has nothing to do with the ‘Polish’ word root present in the names Poland/Polska/Polonia or Bulania. This is a Poland starting with a capital L.
That a country is called differently by other nations is definitely nothing special. Particularly in the case of neighbouring countries, the history of mutual relations affects and shapes the name of any given state. And Poland most surely has a history of such relations, as testified in such Polish names as Niemcy, Węgry, Holandia and Włochy (that is, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands and Italy, respectively).
Lengyelország, Lenkija and Lehistan – the names of Poland in Hungarian, Lithuanian and Turkish (at least, it’s ancient variant), respectively – may just offer us a lesson in the alternative paths of history. While they all look quite different, most likely they all share a common history.
Most etymologists suggest that Lengyel, the Hungarian word for Poles, goes back to the name of the Western Slavic tribe of Lendians (the pronunciation of Lengyel is actually ‘Lendzyel’, which corresponds with the Polish name of the tribe: Lędzianie). The tribe was located in various places, from Wielkopolska in the west, to the east, where the contemporary Polish-Ukrainian border lies. Little is known about the Lendians, yet their name is usually linked to the Proto-Slavic word lęda – which describes a fallow piece of earth, a landscape resulting from slash-and-burn cultivation.
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The same name is probably behind the contemporary Lithuanian word for Poles and Poland: Lenkas and Lenkija. The cognate root, Lyakh, became the basis for an all-Ruthenian (Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian) endonym for Poles: Lyakhy (which today, has a pejorative ring).
Then, through Ruthenian mediacy, the word must have travelled even further east, like to the Ottoman Empire – where, for many centuries until the partitions, Poland was referred to by the name of Lehistan or Lehistan Krallığı (the Kingdom of Poland). A variant of the name was also used in the language of the Crimean Tatars and in Persian (Lahestân).
Poland in Asia: Bulanda, Ba Lan & Polandia
But what about those regions and countries with which Poland has had fewer historical relations, say the Far East and Asia?
- Bulanda (بولندا ) – Arabic
- Bōlán (波兰) – Chinese
- Pōrando (ポーランド) – Japanese
- Phollandy (폴란드 ) – Korean
- Ba Lan – Vietnamese
- Polandia – Indonesian
Poland with an R: Rzeczpospolita
And what is Poland called in Poland? As it turns out, the name Polska is by no means the only legitimate option when speaking about the country today. Depending on the context, Poles also call their country Rzeczpospolita.
This designation goes back to the name of the historical multi-ethnic state which was formed in the 15th century by Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. By the 17th century, this became one of the largest and most populous countries in Europe: the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth or, as it is traditionally called in Polish, Rzeczpospolita Obojga Narodów.
So while abroad the country was usually referred to as Poland (or the Crown of Poland), in Poland most of its citizens referred to it simply as Rzeczpospolita, a Polish equivalent of the Latin phrase res publica – that is, ‘common or shared good’, which was how the Polish nobility conceptualised their state.
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Today, the word features in the official name of the country (Rzeczpospolita Polska), and Rzeczpospolita is still how many Poles think and speak of their country. Depending on the context, Rzeczpospolita can become a synonym of Poland, and is used particularly when one wants to invoke the republican, democratic traditions of the country.
Finally, it’s worth noting that Poles simply just refer to their homeland as kraj, ‘country’. This simplest name form is most often used when Poles abroad talk wistfully about heading back home: ‘Wracam do kraju’.
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Written by Mikołaj Gliński, 30 Nov 2016.