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In English, we call Germany “Germany”; in German, it is “Deutschland”; in Japanese it is “Doitsu”; in French it is “Allemagne.” Today I want to look at why countries have different names in different languages!

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  • To name (v) – to give someone or something a name.
    • We named our dogs Shandy and Belle.
  • Endonym (n) – the name used to refer to a place by its inhabitants, as opposed to a name used by foreigners.
    • In the 1920s, Reza Shah requested that the West call his country by its endonym “Iran,” rather than “Persia.”
  • Exonym (n) – a name used by outsiders for a place.
    • Japan is an exonym – in Japan they call their country “Nihon” or “Nippon”.
  • Linguistic (adj) – connected with language or the study of language.
    • I’m particularly interested in the linguistic development of young children.
  • Variation (n) – something that is slightly different from the usual form or arrangement.
    • The films she makes are all variations on the same theme.
  • To derive (v) – to get something from something else.
    • The institute derives all its money from foreign investments.
  • To entrench (v) – to firmly establish something, especially an idea or a problem, so that it cannot be changed.
    • Some attitudes are deeply entrenched in our society

The Origins of Country Names

Have you ever thought about your country’s name? Where did the name come from?

In some cases, it is quite easy to find the origins of a name. I come from England (The land of the Angles – a Germanic tribe who settled in England about 1500 years ago). The name of the European country Montenegro (in Montenegrin Crna Gora) literally means “black mountain” – referring to the appearance of the large mountain in the country. And South America’s Bolivia is named after the Venezuelan independence fighter Simon Bolivar.

In fact, almost every country in the world is named after one of four things:

  1. either a tribe or ethnic groups (France is the Franks and Vietnam is the Viet people from the south);
  2. a geographical or land feature (Sierra Leone was given its name meaning Lion Mountains not due to animals but the roaring thunder in the mountains);
  3. a direction (Japan – Nihon – means “Land of the rising sun” as it is east of China, while China’s name – Zhongguo – literally means Middle Kingdom);
  4. or men (The Phillipines are named after King Philip II, while Mauritius was named after Maurice of Nassau

There are a few countries that don’t fall into the above four categories. The names of Mexico (named after an Aztec city) and Comoros (small African island) are apparently connected to the Moon. And my favourite country name is Druk Yul (Bhutan’s name for itself) which means “Land of the Thunder Dragon.”

And then there are countries with mysterious, unknown, or disputed names. No one knows for sure how Malta or Nepal got their names!

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Endonyms and Exonyms

You may have noticed something while I was naming countries… they may not be the country names you are used to using.  

I am very aware of this. I’m from the UK or England… but in Japan I come from “Igirisu” and in Taiwan I was from “Yingguo.” A few weeks ago, I received a message criticising me for using the English name for the country Turkey instead of the Turkish pronunciation (they recently changed their name at the UN) – but when I asked that same person what they called my country in Turkish it definitely wasn’t pronounced England.

When you live in an international world, talking with people in various languages and from various countries, it is important to understand the different names we have for countries and cities in different languages. I have a friend from China (so Zhongguo in his language) and we would speak Japanese together (meaning his country’s name was “Chuugoku”) – it is all quite confusing!

There are two basic types of name – endonyms and exonyms. These terms were first used in the 1950s by the geographer Marcel Aurosseau to refer to “insider names” (endonyms) and “outsider names” (exonyms).

These terms describe the ways in which a particular location, region, or country is referred to by people who live there or by people who do not. Exonyms are the names that people from outside a country or culture use to refer to a place. Endonyms, on the other hand, are the names that people from the place itself use to refer to their own location, region, or country.


For example, in English, we refer to Germany as “Germany,” but in German, Germany is known as “Deutschland.” “Germany” is the exonym for this country, as it is a name that English speakers use to refer to the country. “Deutschland” is the endonym, as it is the name that Germans themselves use to refer to their country.

Another example is the country of Japan. In Japanese, the country is known as “Nihon” or “Nippon,” but in English, we call it “Japan.” “Japan” is the exonym, while “Nihon” and “Nippon” are the endonyms, as they are the names that Japanese people themselves use.

Exonyms and endonyms can have different origins. Exonyms may be based on the sound of the word in the original language, or they may be based on the way that the place is perceived by people who speak a different language. Endonyms, on the other hand, are often based on the language or dialect spoken by the people who live in the place.

Historical and Cultural Reasons for Exonyms and Endonyms

Throughout history, many countries and cities have undergone significant political, social, and cultural changes, which can lead to different names being used for the same place. Cultural differences and linguistic barriers can also influence the way a place is named in different languages.

One example of this is the city of Istanbul, which has been known by different names throughout its history. Istanbul was originally known as Byzantium, but after being conquered by the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century, it was renamed Istanbul. In Turkish, Istanbul means “in the city” or “to the city,” reflecting the significance of the city as the heart of the Ottoman Empire. However, in other languages, the city is still referred to by its older name, Constantinople, which reflects the city’s historical roots as a major centre of the Byzantine Empire.

Another example is the country now known as Iran. Prior to 1935, Iran was known as Persia, which reflected the historical influence of the Persian Empire. However, in 1935, the Iranian government requested that the international community use the name Iran, which is derived from the Persian word for “land of the Aryans.” The change in name was intended to reflect the modern and diverse nature of the country, which includes many different ethnic groups beyond just the Persian people.

In some cases, cultural differences and linguistic barriers can also play a role in the use of different names for the same place. The country of Germany is known as Deutschland in German, which is derived from the Old High German words diutisc and diot, meaning “of the people.” The English name “Germany,” on the other hand, comes from the Latin word Germania, which was used by the ancient Romans to refer to the tribes that lived in the region. The different names reflect the linguistic and cultural differences between the German and English-spe aking worlds.

Linguistic reasons for Exonyms and Endonyms

There are also linguistic reasons for exonyms and endonyms are rooted in differences between languages in terms of their phonetics, language structures, and translations. Different languages have different ways of pronouncing sounds, which can lead to variations in how names are pronounced and written. This can result in different names for the same place or people in different languages.

There are some obvious examples. The capital of France is Paris but in English we say Paris – why this difference? The French tend to not pronounce the ‘s’ at the end of words, while in English we do.

Another example is the city of Florence in Italy. The city is known as Firenze in Italian, which reflects the Italian language’s pronunciation and structure. The name “Florence” is an exonym that has been derived from the French name “Florence” which was introduced by French-speaking merchants in the Middle Ages. The English name “Florence” has been adopted from the French exonym.

Translations can also play a role in the use of different names for the same place or people. For example, the city of Vienna in Austria is known as Wien in German. But in French it is Vienne and in Chinese it is Weiyena – each name reflecting the linguistic differences in the languages.

People in the past didn’t just stay in their villages for their entire lives – there was great movements of people through trade, religious pilgrimages, fleeing hard times, and more. And as these people with different languages and alphabets interacted with each other, new names entered languages. For example, the German town Aachen is called Aix-la-Chapelle in French – but both names have the same origin from the Latin aquae.

Another interesting example I found when researching this episode is the Welsh town Monmouth, or in Welsh, Trefynwy (Treh-van-oi). They sound really different, but they have the same origin. The town is on the mouth of the river Monnow – hence Monnow-mouth… Monmouth. In Welsh, Monnow is pronounced Mynwy (Men-oi).

Instead of adding a “mouth” at the end, they added “town” to the front – making it Tremynwy (Treh-men-oi). And a few centuries ago, the “m” somehow changed to an “f” (pronounced “v”) making the modern Welsh name “Trefynwy”. Linguistic differences explain the endonym and exonym in so many places.

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Places without Endonyms/Exonyms

While many places around the world have distinct endonyms and exonyms, there are also some places that do not have clear distinctions in different languages. In some cases, this is due to the place’s ancient history and its influence on different cultures, while in others, it is due to the place’s relatively recent establishment and lack of significant international influence.

For example, ancient cities like Rome and Athens have similar names in many languages, such as “Roma” in Italian, “Rome” in English, and “Rom” in Swedish. This is because these cities were important centres of culture and civilization in ancient times, and their names spread throughout the world through trade and conquest. As a result, their names became entrenched in many different languages, without the need for distinct endonyms or exonyms.

On the other hand, there are many modern cities that do not have many exonyms, such as Edmonton in Canada. While Edmonton is a large and important city in Canada, it has not had significant international influence throughout history. As a result, its name has not spread as widely across different languages, and there is less need for exonyms for Edmonton in different languages.

Another example of a place without distinct endonyms or exonyms is the Sahara Desert. The Sahara is the largest hot desert in the world, spanning multiple countries in North Africa. However, its name is not significantly different in different languages, reflecting the fact that it has not been subject to significant international influence or colonization. While the Sahara is an important natural landmark, its name has not become entrenched in different languages to the same extent as other places that have had greater international influence.


Implications of Exonyms and Endonyms for Language Learners

Learning about endonyms and exonyms can be incredibly valuable for language learners. It can help learners understand the cultural and historical context behind place names and people’s names, providing insights into a region’s history and traditions. By understanding the endonyms and exonyms for different places and people, learners can also improve their language proficiency, expanding their vocabulary and developing a more accurate understanding of grammar and syntax.

In addition, understanding endonyms and exonyms can help learners develop cultural competence. By showing respect for the culture and history of the people who live in a particular region, learners can communicate more effectively and appropriately in cross-cultural contexts. This can be particularly important when traveling or working in different parts of the world.

Finally, learning about endonyms and exonyms can help learners avoid misunderstandings and miscommunications. By using the correct names for different places and people, learners can ensure that they are understood by native speakers and avoid confusion. This can be particularly important when traveling or working in a foreign country, where accurate communication is essential. Overall, understanding endonyms and exonyms can help language learners develop a deeper appreciation and understanding of the language they are learning, while also improving their ability to communicate effectively in different cultural contexts.


Final Thought

I’ve always been fascinated by the names of countries – especially how names can be so different in different languages. I, myself, have had to adjust to being from the UK when I’m with English speakers, but from Igirisu in Japan and Yingguo in Taiwan.

And there are some really interesting endonyms and exonyms I didn’t have the chance to mention in this episode – like Hungary and Magyarorszag, Georgia and Sakartvelo, Finland and Suomi, or Greece and Hellas.  

Hopefully after listening to this episode you understand a little more about names of countries around the world.

What is your country’s endonym and exonym? Do you know the origin of your country’s names?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

3 thoughts on “224. Why do Countries Have Different Names in Different Languages? (English Vocabulary Lesson)”
  1. Hi Tom, there are not big differences between my country’s endonym (Italia) and its exonyms; for istance “Italy” in english, “Italien” in german, “Italie” in french, “Itaria” (イタリア) in japanese or “Yìdàlì” (意大利) in chinese.
    More interesting and curious may be the origin of the name “Italia”. It cames after the greek word “Italòi”, which the ancient greeks used to indicate the “Vitelis”, an ancient population who used to live in the south-west of Italy (nowdays it is the “Calabria” region). Greeks named in this way the “Italòis – Vitelis” (literally “calves”) because of they adorated a Calf – God.
    Practically the Italy’s name cames after to a little cow. 🙂
    Btw the endonym of Florence, Firenze, have to be pronounced “/fiˈrεnʦe/”, according to International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)

  2. endonym–>Türkiye
    exonym–>Japanese people call türkiye as toruko
    there is different theory on word of turk

    Since the origin of the word “Turk” is not precisely known, different theories have been proposed to explain its origins. However, the most widely accepted theory suggests that the term was first used by the Göktürks, who inhabited Central Asia during the Göktürk period. It is believed that during this time, “Turk” was used to describe individuals who were considered “strong,” “brave,” or “righteous.”

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