The meaning of “Deutsch”

27. November 2005

When I was asked for the meaning of “deutsch” in a German class, I was confused. Even beginners ought to know that “deutsch” translates to German. However, my students were not after the translation at all. They had noticed that “deutsch” has many althogether different names in different languages. It is German in English, allemande in French, tedesco in Italian, tysk in Swedisch, duits in Dutch, alemán in Spanish, německy in Czeck, niemiecki in Polish and so on.

Today the word deutsch refers to

  • the language spoken mostly in Germany, Austria and Switzerland (and in some other countries). When refering to the language you write Deutsch with capital letter.
  • everything, which has to do with Germany or German people.

However, to answer the questions of my students, we have to consider the history of words, i.e. their etymology. Deutsch is derived from de indoeuropean root *þeudō, which roughly translates to “people” as in nation (the letter þ is pronounced like a voicelss th). This root has a lot of children in different languages. Those words refer to so called vernaculars, in opposition to Latin, which was the lingua franca.

The Latin word for such vernaculars was theodisce. On the British Islands it was used as a name for Old English. In Old High German there was the term diutisc, in Middle High German tiutsch or diutsch. Therefore, “Deutsch” can be translated to “the language, spoken by the (common) population”, in opposition to Latin. Later on, the term was used to differentiate between romanic and germanic languages. In the 10th and 11th century Diutisc and tiutsch were used as a name for the germanic languages spoken on the continent. Even dutch dialects were called “Deutsch”. The Englisch word Dutch is a relict of those days. Today German and Dutch are different but similar languages.

But why are the words for German so different? In the list above you can discern four different groups. Some are related to the word deutsch. For instance Italian tedesco, Dutch duits or Swedisch tysk . Those languages use a form of the self-designation german speakers use.
The English word German comes form Latin. Julius Caesar used the word Germani to speak about tribes in the north-east of Gaul. The precise origin of the word is unknown. It might have been the name of a particular tribe.
The French and Spanish words are derived from another group of tribes, called Allemanni. They lived in the region we call Alsace today.
The forth group of words ( like Czeck německy and Polish niemiecki) might have been derived from the name of another germanic tribe. The Nemeter lived in the region of Lake Constance. But this explanation is not uncontested.

Sources:

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  • 1. Rebekka  |  8. Dezember 2005 um 17:10

    Interesting! In Finnish, “German” is called “saksa”, which is of course derived from the Saxons (in German “Sachsen”). Any other languages?

  • 2. Maxim S. Romanov  |  13. Januar 2006 um 20:22

    In fact, all Slavonic languages use form “nemec”, “nemecki”, not only Czeck and Polish, but also Russian, Ukranian, Bulgarian etc. “Nemec” (nemets) = “German” means “man, who can’t speak”, (russ. “nemoj” = “dumb”)

    Word “Slavianin”, “Slovianin” (=”Slav”) means “man, who know words” (russ. “slovo” = “word”) Foreign people, who don’t know any Slavonic language are dumb, “nemoj”, “nemec”

    Resembling of “nemec” and “Nemeter” is a chance.

  • 3. A Kwiatkowski  |  16. Februar 2006 um 15:51

    Yes, it is a fact that the Slavic people, ‘the people of the word’ among themselves, called the Germans ‘dumb’.
    Similar to the Greeks calling people who could not speak a Greek dialect ‘Barbarians’. They thought that the strangers were saying ‘bar bar bar’.

    What is interesting here is that in Latin, German means simple, or straightforward.
    Is it perhaps that Caesar was being somewhat insulting to the Germanic tribes for their lack of understanding Latin.

  • 4. richard deutsch  |  21. März 2006 um 00:27

    Thanks for a little more understanding of my surname. In modern Greek, Deutsch (German) is Ghermanos.

  • 5. Colin Hall  |  19. September 2006 um 00:52

    The first person to use the expression Germania in writing (as far as we know) was Tacitus – not Caesar. In Latin, germanus means genuine, real and is not connected with Germania.

    The Saksa root can be found in the Welsh word Sais (referring to the English) as well as the Scottish word Sassenach (from the Gaelic) also referring – in an insulting manner – to the English.

    The Swiss refer to the Germans as ‘die Schwaben’ (the Swabians, a Germanic tribe just north of Switzerland).

  • 6. Prasanth  |  6. November 2006 um 18:03

    Very interesting! i googled to find the etymology of German and i landed here! You say that the word Deutsch is derived from a proto indo-European root *þeudō. What are the form this root has taken in all ancient Aryan languages? How is the French word for the Germans(L’Allemagne) connected? What exactly does “German” mean?

  • 7. Rich Crawford  |  12. Dezember 2006 um 18:01

    German originates from an archaic word meaning ‘spear,’

  • 8. Brad Walters  |  7. Juni 2007 um 18:25

    These words that we say “come from” one place, may not in fact come from another known word, but just share a root. Such as: the Saxons were calling themselves Sachsen long before the welsh called them sais (saigs).
    Also, the germanic root “ger” means spear, and “man” of course means men.
    However, most cultures just called the germanic people by whatever tribe they ran into first. Like the Alamanni and the Teutons (shares the root with “Tysk”) and the Nemeter.
    If you examine the word in any Indo-european language, chances are there is a germanic tribe with a similar name closeby the center of that language.

  • 9. xacobe  |  19. Februar 2008 um 00:00

    I´ve read the origins of the word German or Germania, used by Latin people, and the meaning related to them, and I have to disagree. I´ll tell you the story: The celts, who come from originally from middle-europe, called the people that inhabithed the southern parts of scandinavia and what is now denmark “carmmani”, which means in celtic language “men who shout in battle”. This word was taken then by the Latin as they were invading the Gauls, and it turned into Germania meaning the place where all those people who came from scandinavia started to inhabit in the continent. That´s all.

  • 10. Schumacher  |  15. Mai 2008 um 19:29

    Hallo,wer weiß,wie Esten,Letten und Litauer Deutsche bezeichnen?Wichtig wäre auch die jeweilige Etymologie der 3 Worte.Schönen Dank an unbekannt im voraus!M.Sch.

  • 11. Rocio  |  18. Juni 2008 um 15:26

    hallo! ich möchte euch mein spanisches DaF-Blog präsentieren:
    EL BLOG ALEMÁN DE TERUEL (http://www.alemanteruel.blogspot.com/)
    Gruß aus Teruel
    Rocío

  • 12. John  |  13. August 2008 um 22:03

    My theory on German coming from or being associated with both the cities of Kerman and Sassania located in modern day Iran.

    German may be related to the names Herman and Kerman. In Latin, the letter ‘G’ is pronounced ‘H’.
    So German in Latin is pronounced Herman. The name Germania given to the land and people residing
    in that area may refer to their origin. There is speculation and strong evidence that the Saxon
    component of the name Anglo-Saxon derives from the name of the city of Sassania in messopotamia.
    Nearby is a city named Kerman. By using the name German pronounced Herman which is very similar
    to Kerman.

    The Saxons lived and ruled various areas. In Finnish, the word for German is Saksa which is Sahsen
    in German. Sahsen means Saxon.

    I believe all the following names refer to the same people:

    German
    Aleman
    Kerman
    Saxon
    Assyrian
    Deutsch

    There may also be a connection with the names:

    Goth (means God in German)
    Angels, England (land of the angles)

    Why Germans Call Themselves “Deutsch”

    Perhaps you have never thought of it — but the Germans do
    not call themselves “German.” They refer to themselves as
    DEUTSCH, and to their country as DEUTSCHLAND. Why?
    Let’s turn back the pages of history for the answer.
    The Assyrians anciently called their land “Athur” — the
    Indo-Germanic form of the Semitic word “Asshur” (“Encyclopedia
    Britannica”, article, “Mesopotamia”).
    Sometimes the name “Athur” was shortened simply to “Tyr” in
    the Indo-European tongue. Asshur or Tyr was worshipped as the god
    of war by all the ancient world. His name was placed on the THIRD
    DAY of the week — called “Tuesday” in the English-speaking
    world. Tuesday is Asshur’s day.
    Tuesday is from an old Saxon word meaning “Tiw’s day.” Tiw
    was the god of war of the Germanic people of Europe. Tiw, or
    Tiwe, was also known by the name Tyr — that is, Asshur. Tiw is
    another name of Asshur! The Assyrians knew Asshur or Tyr was
    their ancestor. We should expect, therefore, that when they
    migrated to Europe they would still be known as the sons of Tyr
    or Tiw, that is, Asshur. And what do we find?
    When the Germans appeared in Europe, they claimed Tyr or Tiw
    as their ancestor! But what has the name “Deutsch” to do with
    Tiw?
    The modern German word “Deutsch” — as educated Germans know
    – is derived from the old Anglo-Saxon word Tiw. (See any
    thorough book on etymology and word derivations.) Whenever a
    German calls himself Deutsch, he is saying he is Tiw’s or
    Asshur’s son — an Assyrian. And when he terms his country
    Deutschland, he is saying Tiw’s or Asshur’s land — Assyria!
    Even ancient Hindu literature uses both the word “Asgras”
    and “Daityas” to refer to the Assyrians. “Daityas” is but a
    Sanskrit word for “Deutsch” — a name applied to the Assyrians
    over 1500 years BC

  • 13. Bruna  |  16. September 2008 um 17:35

    Hi! Congratulations, your explanation is very interesting. In portuguese we called “Alemanha”.
    Adeus!

  • 14. Julien  |  19. September 2008 um 20:19

    Interesting, even if some of the comments are a bit “ethno-centered”…
    Anyway I’d just like to know how a PIE root can have a sound that did not exist at that time, namely the voiceless inter-dental /þ/ as in *þeudō. I don’t remember seeing the sound appearing in any comparative studies, specially not in Robert S.P. Beekes’ one, which still remains a reference in that domain.
    I think the oldest cognates we can find is in ON “þjodh” meaning “folk, nation” which we still find in Icelandic nowadays.
    It seems anyway that the root doesn’t originates in PIE but from a non-IE substrate language already present at the arrival of the Indo-European people, being one of the theorical explanation for the Verner’s and Grimm’s laws to take place.
    The PIE root would rather be *ple- meaning “fill, people, crowd”. The root being related to Latin “plebian”.
    “People” is of Etruscan origin, via Latin “populus”, and then via French “peuple”.

  • 15. John  |  4. November 2008 um 01:08

    If you look closely you will see that the root of DEUtsch is very similar to the word for GOD, i.e. Deu, Theo (theology). It is a well known fact in the study of linguistcs that the mother tongue, the indo-eurpoean language from which most european languages derive, most closely resembles modern german. Why is this? Because during the height of the roman empire, the Romans couldn’t conqur the germanic tribes. The Romans made treaties with them. Because of this, many of the germanic tribes kept much of their original tradition, culture and LANGUAGE. Most europeans migrated from messopotamia, the cradle of moder civilization. They recieved their civilization from the Angels (Engles), and Gods (Gott, Goth ). The names indicate that there were physical beings on earth with these titles. The Gods and Angels were the ones that were involved with our presence here and taught us how to survive.

    History has been changed. Gods and Angels lived on earth. They were giants. There is much evidence of this. The real question is, why is is so important to the ruling elite to cover up this fact?

  • 16. Cornelia  |  4. November 2008 um 19:15

    Some of the comments postes here do not reflect my opinion. I just wanted to make that clear.

  • 17. Manuel  |  8. Januar 2009 um 06:09

    That theory of John 12. is just too way speculative. What pot are you smoking?

  • 18. Vaidas  |  10. Juni 2009 um 08:20

    Deutschland in Lithuanian is Vokietija.
    Found an explanation that it came from one of germatic tribes called Vagoth.

  • 19. David  |  22. Juli 2009 um 18:13

    From what I read somewhere, German means “man of war”. I know the portuguese word “guerra” (war), that’s the same in spanish and italian and similar to french “guerre”, derives from the ancient germanic word “werra”. When the so called barbarians invaded the Roman empire they were known as “the warrior men”. Thus, german.

  • 20. l  |  31. August 2009 um 14:24

    hallo. schöner artikel.

  • 21. Marina  |  31. August 2009 um 14:24

    sehr spannend.

  • 22. giselbert  |  31. August 2009 um 14:25

    Schöner Artikel! Sehr interessant und aufschlussreich.

  • 23. jeremy  |  8. September 2009 um 01:47

    I alwasy thought the word Deutsch came for from the german spelling of Teutonic from the old german crusaders…anyone think there is a connection their? Teutonisch…Teutsch…Deutsch…

  • 24. duh  |  8. Oktober 2009 um 21:17

    Fredrich Nietzscshe says in “The Gay Science” that Deutchen means heathens, designated by the Goths to all their unbaptised fellow tribes.

  • 25. ashok  |  9. Dezember 2009 um 10:26

    I dont think that word Deutsche is from root *þeudō, It is from the sanskrit word Desha or more properly Desche, which exactly means country, people and everything associated.

    Saksa or saxony is probably derivde from sakya or saka, an Indo Aryan tribe which spread with Buddhism

  • 26. ciscowen  |  12. Dezember 2009 um 10:50

    I read somewhere that the term Deutsch is derived from the Latin for god (deus) and came about in the times of the Holy Roman empire.
    It was supposed to mean “the people of god”, i.e. commoners, to differentiate them from the rulers of the church and the nobility.
    As for the English word “German”, my money is on the “spear” connection. Look up the meanings of the first names Gerard, Gerald etc. I’d guess that the romans called the country Germania from what the the tribes they tried to conquer there, called themselves.

  • 27. The Origin of of the Word&hellip  |  28. Juli 2010 um 18:51

    [...] knowledge is still not yet sated, you may co-miserate with other confused peoples in their quest to try to understand the origin of the word “Deutsch”. This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. ← Top 10 German Verbs [...]

  • 28. Yasemin  |  12. April 2011 um 13:40

    Hallo!

    Ich bin Yasemin aus der Türkei und bin Deutschlehrerin in einer Privatenschule. Ich habe eine Blogseite eröffnet um die Interesse von meinen Schülern auf die Deutsche Sprache und Kultur zu erwecken. Aber manchmal habe ich Schwierigkeiten verschiedene Ubungen zu finden oder vorzubereiten.Können Sie mir ein paar Tipps für das Forschen geben?

    Mit freundlichen Grüssen
    http://kilincyasemin.wordpress.com

  • 29.  |  23. April 2011 um 05:54

    [...] [...]

  • 30. Smejki  |  30. April 2011 um 12:51

    In Slavic language group (Czech and Polish in the article) is also traditioned, that the words “Němec (=one single member of German nation), Německo (=Germany), německý (=german as adjective)” in Czech (or similar words in Polish) are derived from word “němý” (read as nyemee) which means “speechless/mute”, because Slavics didnt understand a single word to them.

  • 31. Smejki  |  30. April 2011 um 13:01

    Forgot one thing. Polish word for speechless is “glupi” which is etymologically close to czech “hloupý”, but in czech this means dumb/stupid. So this means that Polish took the “niemec/niemcy” from czech or that this theory is all fault :-)

  • 32. ela  |  4. Mai 2011 um 16:17

    Polish word for “speechless” is “niemy”. “Głupi” means “stupid”.

  • 33. Smejki  |  4. Mai 2011 um 23:18

    ah, it is ok then :-)

  • 34. Zac Sullivan, M.A.  |  27. Mai 2011 um 06:54

    This comment is @ Rebekka, the first commenter:

    I just learned tonight that Adolphe Sachs invented the “Sachs”ophone – or saxophone as we know it today.

    I may post about it on my blog soon @ http://www.germanlearninghelp.com/

    Alles Gute,

    ~ Zac Sullivan, M.A. ~

  • 35. marian filip  |  21. November 2011 um 15:46

    Hello,

    You know that until the beginning of the first millennium there was a kingdom, lengthen between Caucas Mountains and Lake Constance, called Dacia .
    Dacians were part of the Tracians people. Out of the Dacians and other related peoples (celts, ..) emerged and migrated until the beginning of first millennium most of Europe peoples.
    As pronunciation “Deutsch” is very close to “Daci”, and also the suffix “Land” may mean also the land of the Daci or the Land where it is spoken Dacian language.

  • 36. alex  |  10. August 2012 um 16:35

    Of course And what “Marian” wrote is called protochronism. Pretty present in the minds of people who look for something in the wrong place.

  • 37. George_Serbia  |  24. September 2012 um 16:48

    The word “Nemac” in ex Serbo-Croatian/Croat-Serbian (now Serbian and Croatian)comes from the root of the word “nem” which means ‘mute’ or ‘silent’. So basically the Old Slav tribes called Germans Mutes( this is the best translation), because they didn’t understand them, of course, and their language.This expression lived up to date, so in Serbian and Croatian, the word ‘Nemac’ means ‘The Mute’. :o )
    There are 2 words which are the proof that Germanic and Slavic tribes moved together: Serbian ‘med’ (in English ‘honey’) and English ‘mead’ (in Serbian ‘medovača/medovina); and the other pair is Serbian ‘mač’ (in English ‘sword’) and Old English ‘mace/mece’ which meant ‘sword’…Very interesting indeed :o ) !!!

  • 38. Lothar Walter  |  4. Januar 2013 um 06:04

    Jetzt habe ich doch endlich mal (nach ungefähr 70 Jahren herausbekommen warum ich ein Deutscher bin und nicht ein Germane

  • 39. Vincere  |  3. August 2013 um 12:54

    Deutsch = Duch = Dacians = Thracians , the same pronuncion Th= D, and the root could be the same for “Dragons”.
    Goths = Getae

    Getae=Geos= Earth

    Getae= Dacians (Strabon, ancient historian 64 BC – 24 AC)

    =

  • 40. Vincere  |  3. August 2013 um 12:59

    Germans = germinus = seed = tribe (latins)

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