Toponyms & Ethnonyms

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Toponyms & Ethnonyms: a brief ramble

Rambling about toponyms and ethnonyms in various languages.

Branko Milanovic has revived interest in an older post of mine about the Polish language. From Twitter it appears that the tidbit from that post which has been most remarked about is the fact that the Polish word for Italy is Włochy (related to Gaul, Wales, Wallachia, Galatia, and Vlachs). That inspires this rambling.

There are many examples where the word for a country or a people in a foreign language is very different from, and sometimes completely unrelated to, what it is in the native language. For example, the “official” name for India, in the sense that it’s enshrined in the Indian constitution, is Bharat, although it’s got slightly nationalistic overtones. Indians “dream of Bharat but live in Hindustan (+India), so to speak. But Hind is etymologically connected with India as well as Sindh, the Pakistani province which has served as the electoral-feudal domain of the Bhutto family.

Speaking of the Perso-Islamic toponymical suffix, my favourite -stan of all time is Asoristan , the name of one of the pre-Islamic provinces of the Sasanian empire, and of course it means “Assyria-stan”. In fact the BEST country names using the suffix -stan are virtually unknown to the world. Sistan, a province of the modern day Islamic Republic of Iran, is a modern version of Sakastan, and Saka refers to… the Scythians ! The current Persian word for Mongolia is Mogholestan, which preserves the history of the strong association which peoples of the past maintained between the Mughals who conquered India and the Mongols who conquered much of Eurasia.

But surely one of the most remarkable uses of –stan is the word the Armenians use for their own country: Hayastan ! Here is one of the oldest Christian countries in the world, appropriating a suffix associated with non-Arab Islamic countries. Armenia lived under under Persian and Ottoman rule for a long time, and a large percentage of Armenian words have Perso-Arabic origins. But the Armenians don’t keep the suffix just to themselves; some major countries are -stan-ised: e.g., Rusastan and Chinastan. (I’m sure The Economist was not aware of this when they used the latter as the title of a piece on Xinjiang, once known as East Turkestan.) Even cooler-sounding are Hndkastan (India) and Parskastan(Persia).

Lehastan, or Poland, shows how thoroughly influenced the Armenian language was by its Ottoman and Persian pasts. Lechia is the poetic-quaint name of Poland in Polish, and Hungarian plus one of the Baltic languages still use the root Leh- in their current names for Poland. The Ottomans also picked this up and referred to that northern country as Lehistan which is preserved in modern Persian, but not in modern Turkish.

The Greeks certainly do not call their country Hellastan, although if SYRIZA does not succeed one way or another perhaps they might start thinking about it. By the way, the Armenian name for Greece, Hunastan, is either an independent derivation from Perso-Arabic, or was acquired from Turkish, which refers to the land of Hellas as… Yunanistan. Personally I think the Turks, given the increasingly caliphal behaviour of their government, might readopt the old Ottoman/Arabic name for the Roman as well as Byzantine empires, Rum.

But where on earth does Yunanistan come from ? Well, in Arabic, modern Greece is Yunan, which has spread far and wide, so that pretty much everyone from Iran to India to Indonesia uses that word. The Arabic word is clearly cognate to the Hebrew Yavan, one of Noah’s grandsons, but the one is not a direct descendant of the other. Instead, Yunan is the Arabic corruption of Ionia, which was located on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor (Anatolia).

The fact that the Turks call Greece Yunanistan is therefore ironic, since they occupy the very Aegean coast which was once inhabited by the Ionian Greeks ! And, of course, a little cruel, since Greeks still lived there until the 1920s, when Greece and Turkey “exchanged” populations.

The word Greece itself comes to us from the Romans, but they got Graecus from the Greeks themselves. According to thisGraikos was “originally used by Illyrians [!!!] for the Dorians in Epirus, from Graii, native name of the people of Epirus”. The Illyrians are often associated with modern-day Albanians. More and more ironies.

One can expect that a people, like the Greeks, whose civilisation has had a major impact on many others, will have many names. The same is true for Germans and Germany.

Most languages use some variant of German- or Aleman-, except for the Germans themselves who say Deutschland. The root Aleman-, taken from a High German dialect Alemannisch, never caught on in Germany, but was adopted by most of its Romance-speaking neighbours, except the Italians who call the country Germania but its inhabitant a Tedesco. This bifurcated practise is mirrored amongst the Russians and most other Slavs who say Germaniya but the native is known as a Nemets. Although the language of the Franks is ancestral to many dialects in Germany and the Netherlands, they famously gave their name to France aka Frankreich. As if they were deliberately trying to confuse English speakers, the Dutch refer to the Germans by the etymologically identical name the Dutch themselves are known to English-speakers, Duitse. Synecdoche, or naming a thing according to one of its parts, seems popular for Germany. Finns and Estonians call Germany Saksa, after the Saxons.  (I can’t figure out the Latvians and the Lithuanians who utter Vok… something or rather.)

Turks and Germans have a special relationship, of sorts. In Turkish, the word Ottoman is OsmanliOsman is the Turkish variant of the Arabic name Uthman, the name of the third Caliph of Islam. Turks can’t lisp, so they say Usman or Osman. The English word Ottoman comes from an Italian corruption of the Arabic original. Like the Turks, the Italians can’t lisp, but unlike the Turks the Italians interpret /θ/ as /t/. Thus, Ottoman. The Germans remain faithful to the Turks: Osmanisches Reich.

Finally, a note on China, which in many languages of East Asia goes by some variation on “middle kingdom”. But the Russians, however, call China Kitay — a cognate of the English archaic name CathayKitay is the Tatar-Mongol name for the nomadic Mongolian tribe of the Khitan. Do the Chinese have an opinion about this ?

PS#1. I have heard many times that Catalonia is a combination of Goth and Alan, Germanic and Iranic tribes, respectively, which invaded Visigothic Hispania. But I don’t believe this etymology. [Edit-correction: The Alans arrived in Spain before the Visigoths, who were used to cast them out !]

PS#2 — a topic I see people broaching all the time is farengi. Yes, it’s an Arabic corruption of Frank used to refer to the Latin Crusaders. And yes today many languages, not just those of Muslim peoples, use some variant of farangi to mean “westerner” or “foreigner”. One non-Muslim example is Thai.

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