Do you speak saesneg? How about pelekani?
PUBLISHED: 13:38 04 September 2017 | UPDATED: 13:38 04 September 2017
English has many different names across the globe. Here PETER TRUDGILL explores the origins of the names used to describe the languages of Europe
Many people in this country won’t know what the word Saesneg means. It’s the name of a language. The same language also goes by the names of Pelekani, Edegeesi, and Chirungu.
The language in question is English. These are all names for the English language in, respectively, Welsh, Hawaiian, Yoruba (Nigeria) and Shona (Zimbabwe).
Saesneg is the Welsh form of the word Saxon. The linguistic ancestors of modern English speakers were the Angles and the Saxons, and most names for our language (including English itself) derive from Angle. But the Celtic languages, including Irish and Scottish Gaelic, Manx and Cornish, have based the name they use for our language on the word Saxon instead. In Scottish Gaelic, English is called Beurla, a shortened form of Beurla Shasannach, where Beurla means “way of speaking” and Shasannach means “Saxon”.
Pelekani comes from fitting the word Britain into the patterns of pronunciation found in Hawaiian, via an intermediate form Peretani. In the case of Edegeesi, ede means “language” in Yoruba and the geesi part comes from the Portuguese word Ingles “English” – the Portuguese were the first Europeans to establish a presence on the West African coast. And, as for the Shona name Chirungu, chi means “language”, while rungu originally meant “white man”.
Other European language names can also be puzzling. Our word German comes from the Latin name Germani, which first appeared in the writings of Julius Caesar. But the name was not used by the Germanic peoples themselves, and might be derived from some Celtic term – we don’t really know. We also don’t know why German is called Vokietija in Lithuanian or Vācija in Latvian.
We do have a good idea about the origin of the German word for German – Deutsch – and the related Scandinavian word Tysk. There was an Old English word theod which meant “people”: Thetford in Norfolk was originally Theodford, “the people’s ford”. Theod came from an ancient Germanic word thiud. The related form thiudiskaz, meaning “of the people”, came down into Old English as theodisc. The corresponding Old High German word was diutisc, which was often used to refer to the Germanic ‘language of the people’ – as opposed to Latin. In modern German, diutisc has become Deutsch.
In English we have the same word in the form of Dutch, but we use it not for German but for the closely related language of Holland and Belgium, as well as for the people of the Netherlands, although we don’t call that country Dutchland. The situation in Italian is similar: Germany is called Germania, but the German language is called Tedesco, which has the same root as Deutsch.
It’s also clear where the names referring to German in the Slavic languages come from. Slovak Nemčina, Croatian Njemački, Slovenian Nemški, and Polish Niemiecki are all derived from the Slavic word for “dumb”: the modern Polish word for “mute” is niemy. As far as the Slavs were concerned, Germans were people who couldn’t speak. Over time, this Slavic name was also borrowed into some non-Slavic languages: the Hungarian word for German is Német, and the colloquial Romanian label is Neamț. The old Turkish name for Austria was Nemçe – many of the areas of the German-language-dominated Austro-Hungarian Empire which abutted on the Ottoman Empire were Slavic speaking.
Other European language names which English speakers find it difficult to recognise – and which etymologists also find it difficult to account for – include Shqiptar, the Albanian name for Albanian; Suomi, the Finnish for Finnish; Hrvatski, the Croatian for Croatian; and Ellinika, the Greek for Greek. Węgierski is unrecognisable to us as the Polish word for Hungarian; so is Włoski, the Polish name for Italian. Ruotsi is tricky for us to interpret – it’s the Finnish word for Swedish. And so is Saksa, the Finnish word for German – except that it’s no surprise to learn that Saksa has the same origin as the Welsh word for English, Saesneg.