¿How many names does a country have?
As it is shown on the map, most of the countries have a single root: The one to call themselves, endonym, is the same as the one used in foreign languages, exonym. Even if the word is different in different languages, (for example, Belgium, Belgique, België) because they share the same etymologic root (Belg). It is the case in light-colored countries. The darker countries have more. Some would belong to the light countries group If they had not at least one exception to the rule (see Portugal).
Small exceptions to the rule
Some countries however have exonyms that do not correspond to its endonym: The Republic of Portugal is called Urenu “Kingdom” in Swahili. Portuguese had commercial relationships with southeast Africa since the Middle Ages. A bit outdated name.
Poland, the land of field people, gets a bit of its own medicine and some languages use instead of the Land of Lech, the mythical leader of the Lendians: their former partners, Lithuanians, say Lenkija, in Hungarian, Lengyelország, in Persian, لهستان, in Armenian, Լեհաստան, in Ottoman Turkish was لهستان and in modern Turkish, Lehistan is rarely used but Lehçe is reserved for the language.
Włochy in Polish and Olaszország in Hungarian are the names of Italy. Both names come from Latin Volcae, a Celtic tribal confederation. In the rest of the languages, the name comes from Oscan 𐌅𐌝𐌕𐌄𐌋𐌉𐌞 (víteliú), the land of young bulls. Oscan was an Italic language, similar to Latin, which was spoken in Southern Italy until CE 100.
Some countries might have several names because several languages are spoken there. It is the case of Switzerland, which has five official names: German, French, Italian, Romansh, and Latin.
- Schweizerische Eidgenossenschaft
- Confédération suisse
- Confederazione Svizzera
- Confederaziun svizra
- Confoederatio Helvetica
The first four, and most of the foreign names, come from the toponym Swīz. The ancient name is Helvetia, the name in Latin. It is still used in Romanian, Elveția, Irish, An Eilvéis, and Greek, Ελβετία.
Sometimes a part is so well-known that it takes the name of the whole by a type of metonym. Let’s see: Holland is not a country but a region. We should know that! In many languages are synonyms of the Netherlands. However, some languages lack this distinction: Albanian, Arabic, Hebrew, Kurdish, Macedonian, Persian, Swahili, and Tagalog.
Estonian is not a universal name, but almost. The neighbors in the north and south use different names. They took the names of the country from the ancient counties: The region Vironia gave the Finnish exonym, Viro, while the region Ugaunia gave the Latvian name, Igaunija.
Sometimes neighbors do not understand each other. Imagine if they do not call them by their own name. Estonia’s case is not alone. Another region that usually is taken as a whole country is England in the United Kingdom. The name is quite universal except when it comes to their neighbors in the British Islands: “Saxon” is used by Irish (Sasana) and Scottish (Sasainn), in Welsh a mysterious term exists: “Lloegr“.
Belarus and Russia share a long history together, also the root of their countries’ name, Rus. There are two groups: first, Kriv “leftish” in Latvian, Latgalian, and Livonian after Krivici (Кри́вичи), an old Slavic tribe in that region. Second, veneh (Estonian, Finnish, and other members of the Uralic family) means Slav and maybe meant boat.
Austria, literally the eastern country, is called Rakousko and Rakúsko by their former compatriots, Czechs, and Slovaks, from the castle Rakous, situated right on the border.
Finland and Suomi could not be more different. Despite that, they might have a common origin. Finland is the “Land of Finns” but the origin of the name Finn is uncertain. We do not know for sure what Suomi means. It is a big mystery. But both might have referred originally to Sami people.
The origin of the word “Suomi” is believed to have derived from Proto-Balto-Slavic *źemē meaning “land” or “earth”, like Russian земля́ (zemljá) or Latvian zeme. It may have been later influenced by the Proto-Finnic word *suoma, which means “fen” or “marshland”. Still, none of them have been accepted. This root is used especially by Finns themselves and their neighbors. Everywhere else Finland (or similar terms).
Finn may be derived from the Proto-Germanic word *finþanan, referring to northern dwellers with a mobile lifestyle. This theory is based on the words finnr and finnas, which appear in the Norse sagas and come from Proto-Germanic *finnaz.
At the end of the day, who knows? A Spanish student once told me, very confident, that Finland is at the “End of land” (Fin is “End” in Spanish). Do you have your own theory? Let me know, please.
Falklands or Malvines?
The Falkland Islands is a special case, but not the only one where history, geography, and language take part. Some territories change names as different states take control over them. Saint-Malo is a port city in Brittany (France) from where the ships departed to colonize the Falklands in 1764 and named Îles Malouines by French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville. Two years later Port Egmont on Saunders Island was founded by British John MacBride. But British were there before: in 1690 John Strong named the strait between the two main islands Falkland Sound in honor of Anthony Cary, 5th Viscount Falkland, the Treasurer of the Navy. Then Spanish came. They took over the French part and the name too: Islas Malvinas. After Spain, Argentina came. In 1774 England left the islands and returned in 1832. Argentina tried to regain control in 1982 but fail. Nowadays, according to the UN, the official name is Falkland Islands (Malvinas), except in Spanish, Islas Malvinas (Falkland Islands).
Hungary is the Land of Huns in Latin. It is widely extended. The endonym, Magyarország, means the land of Magyars. It is used in Hungarian but also in Turkish, Arab, Hindi, and some Slavic languages. This word comes from, mogyër, an Old Hungarian word formed by mogy (probably meant person or man) and ër (it used to mean “man”).
Another curious case is the one of Albanians, who call themselves Shqiptarë and nobody else does. It is a situation that Armenians can understand well, their own country in Armenian is Hayastan. Except in Georgian (and in Ossetian similarly) where the name is Somxeti.
Alba or Scotland
There are some peculiar cases: Scotland, Land of Scotti, is of unknown origin but originally referred to Ireland, the Gaelic-speaking people. In Scottish Gaelic, the name of the country is Alba, from the Proto-Celtic word albiyū; it is likely to be from Proto-Indo-European *h₂elbʰós “white”. Historically, the term refers to Britain, possibly named after the Southern English landscape in Dover where white cliffs are found.
The winners of the contest
In a similar fashion to the last two, Sakartvelo is the native name for a country in the Caucasus. Everywhere else has two names, either Georgia or Gruziya (from Russian Грузия). The distribution depends on the zones of Russian Empire influence and probably because of that, there is a diplomatic mission to rename the country. Recently Lithuania changed the name to Sakartvelas, but it is very exceptional.
Time seems not to settle these issues. Romans called Graecia (Greece) the country of Ἑλλάς (Hellas) or Ἑλλάδα (Hellada). Norwegian and Chinese use the second. Ionia was an ancient region in Anatolia and from that name is derived the exonym in many Asiatic languages. In Georgian, the name is საბერძნეთი (Saberdzneti), the Land of Pelasguians or the Land of Wisemen. Good choice.
The last country name has undoubtedly the longest list, six. Germany has an extensive article on Wikipedia with a map to explain the distribution. The English name comes from Latin Germania, the endonym is Deutschland (People’s land in Proto-Germanic), other names derived from different Germanic tribes: Alemanni (All men) or Saxons (Seax people). The Slavic name němьcь (Mutes) is not used nowadays by all Slavic languages thought. The Baltic names are hard to trace their original meaning, Vācija, and Vokietija. Add to the already long list the ancient names, not used anymore as a national name, Medieval Hebrew אַשְׁכְּנַז (Ashkenaz, now used for the Jewish diaspora in Central Europe), Old Norse Suðrvegr (literally South-way, the opposite of Nor-way) or Navajo Béésh Bich’ahii Bikéyah “Metal Cap-wearer Land” because of the Steel helmet of the German army.
The etymology of the endonym
In this second map, we have the countries colored according to the linguistic family of their endonym. Germanic languages named many northern states, in East Europe the predominant is Slavic origin, and in the south, Semitic and Italic. Russia dates back to the Slavic state Kievan Rus. There are many theories about the origin and meaning. The most accepted ones are of Germanic origin, rōþrą “rudder”.