Saturday, 14 September 2013

What's in a national name?

It's axiomatic that one of the most important aspects of an identity for both an individual and an ethnic group is the name of the group, whether that be a clan, a tribe or a nationality. It may come as quite a surprise to find out that the commonly used name of such a group is often not that name which the group gives itself. However, this is more often the case than you might think. Here are a few well-known, and a few less well-known examples.

The Scots

What comes to mind when you think of the Scots? Kilts, whisky, Rangers, Celtic, lochs, Rabbie Burns, och aye the noo, etc., etc. However, the original use of the term Scot was by the Romans, who referred to the Scotti, raiders from Ireland who settled Scotland and brought their language, Gaelic, with them. So perhaps the Scots should really be drinking whiskey, chasing leprechauns and kissing the Blarney Stone.

The Welsh

This is a classic example of a people bearing a name which was given to them by a hostile people and which is essentially dismissive of them. When the Romans abandoned the British to their fate in the face of the invading Germanic tribes which came to be known as the Anglo-Saxons, the British tribes took on the name Combrogi, Fellow Countrymen, which eventually became the Welsh name of their country, Cymru (pronounced come-re). The term Welsh came from the invading Germanic tribes and meant foreign. So essentially, the Welsh were called foreigners by the English in their own land – a habit which the English have cherished right up to now with regard to other nations. A further twist comes from the fact that the term Welsh originally came from the Volcae, a Celtic tribe encountered by the Romans whose name they applied to all Celts. This term was picked up by the Germanic tribes and adopted as the term for foreign, which is still true in modern German Welsch, which denotes peoples that speak languages descended from Latin.

The French

We talk of Gallic humour, Gallic shrugs and Gallic wit, but that should really only apply to those of Celtic descent, who can trace their ancestry back to the time of Gaul before Caesar conquered it and brought it into the Roman empire. The French are technically not Gauls – they're German. The Franks were a group of German tribes, some of which started to settle in ancient Gaul during the time of the Roman empire, but who eventually took over the country after the collapse of Roman rule. In fact, Frankish vocabulary accounts for about 10% of modern French vocabulary, with the bulk coming from Latin and the rest mainly from Gaulish. So the French shouldn't really be the French, as so little of what the French are is genuinely French.

The Dutch

Now, the Dutch are used to being called Dutch, but they never call themselves Dutch, and they don't really like the term, calling themselves Nederlands, people from the Low Country. This is mainly because the real Dutch are the Germans, who call themselves Deutsch. I know, it gets confusing. The origin of Dutch and Deutsh is the Germanic version of the ancient Indo-European form *teuta, people, which produced Proto-Germanic *theudiskaz, of the people, producing Old High German diutisc. So basically, the Germans call themselves the People, but the Dutch, who English speakers call the People, don't like being called the People. Other languages use a word from the same root to name the Germans: Italian Tedesco, Scandinavian Tysk, and even the languages of Eastern Asia. Funnily enough, the Slavonic languages all refer to the Germans as Nemtsi, literally the Dumb Ones, as the Germanic tribes were unable to speak the language of the Slavs, who regarded themselves literally as speakers, or people of the Word, slovo.

The Greeks

Let's get one thing straight. The Greeks have never been the Greeks. They have been many things, but never Greeks. What I mean by this is that the Greeks have never called themselves Greek, and are the victims of name-calling by foreigners, in this case the Romans, who designated them according to a subset of the wider people, which is actually quite a common occurrence (see below). Interestingly, the Greek government once ran a campaign to get foreigners to effectively abolish the term Greek and use Hellene, with little success.

The people known as the Greeks have actually called themselves many things. Homer, writing around 750 BCE, mostly used Achaeans, Argives and Danaans, terms which are associated with different areas in Greece, to describe the peoples who went to war against the Trojans. After Homer's time, the name Hellene gained currency throughout Greece and has remained the name that the Greeks use for themselves to this day, along with the name of the country Hellas (modern Elladha), though that's not the whole story.

As the Romans expanded their rule through Italy, mainly to the south, they started to come across various peoples living in cities which were colonies settled by people from mainland Greece. The practice of the colonies was to identify themselves strongly with their mother-city, metropolis, in Greece, rather than with the Greeks as a whole, who were all Hellenes (though they constantly fought amongst themselves). The first of these people who the Romans came into contact with called themselves Graikoi in acknowledgement of the region they originated from in Greece, so the Romans cheerfully called the whole of southern Italy Magna Graecia, Great Greece. The name stuck and the rest is history.

It doesn't end there. The Greeks also founded colonies on the coast of Asia Minor, modern Turkey, the best known of which referred to themselves as Ionian, giving their name to that region. The coast of Asia Minor fell under the dominion of Persia, which took the name Ionian to refer to all Greeks. From this we get variations of the term Ionian in Arabic, Persian and Hebrew to refer to the Greeks. All this chimes with other instances of one tribe or group being used to denote the wider group, such as the Chechens being named by the Russians after a village in their country, and the Germanic Allemani tribe giving their name to French, Spanish and Portuguese to describe all Germans.

One final thing here; the Greeks don't even call themselves Hellenes, really. Hellene is largely a revival of the ancient term to denote the modern country. Before modern Greece was founded, any self-respecting Greek would call himself Romios, Roman, and many still do. By the time the Roman empire split into eastern and western, Athens had long been reduced to a village and the centre of the Hellenic world was Byzantium, or Constantinople, known just as i Polis, the City, by the Greeks. In fact, if one Greek asked another where he was going, he would reply “to the City”, “is tin bolin”, which gives the modern Istanbul. As Constantinople was the capital of the surviving Roman empire, the people living there called themselves Romios, Roman, even though they spoke Greek. So, essentially the Greeks reject the name of one of their own tribes, which was applied to them by the Romans, but are happy to call themselves by the name of the people who actually gave them the name from their own language that they reject. That's history for you.

The Russians, the Hungarians and the Romanians

The Russians are not really the Russians. They're actually Swedes. Well, at least their name is Swedish. Back in medieval times, before the Slavic tribes settled down in the countries we are familiar with now, groups of Swedes known as Varangians, essentially eastern Vikings, started rowing their ships from the Baltic up the rivers of what is now modern Russia. These people were known for their rowing skills, from which they got the name Rus, the first name of the kingdom which became Russia. The name also sticks in the Finnish name of Sweden, Ruotsi.

The Hungarians are not really the Hungarians. They're the Magyars. However, they were stuck with the name Hungarian, which comes from the Turkic Onogur, meaning either Ten Tribes or Ten Arrows. Medieval Latin added the initial H.

Finally we get to the Romanians. Romania, formerly known as Dacia, was settled by the Romans in the 2nd century. Although the Romans pulled out around 150 years later, it was enough for Latin to be established as the main language. Apparently, from that time the Romanians have always regarded themselves as the true Romans, which, in a sense they are, even though it's debatable how many of them are actually descended from the original Romans. Still, at least they have the name they want to call themselves, even thought the real Rome is hundreds of miles away in Italy.

There's a world of weird and wonderful ethnic names just waiting to be discovered. Feel free to find some more and bring them back here.

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