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9 Country Names in Their Native Languages
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December 2, 2019
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Travel Trivia Editorial
europe

Names are how we make sense of the world around us. We use our shared understanding of names to label everything from objects to abstractions such as emotions. One thing that may slip our minds is that our understanding of the global world is shaped through our own language lens. Many of the countries that we know by their English names are actually called something quite different in the native languages within that country. Here are 9 countries around the globe and the names native speakers use to refer to them.

India

Boats in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, India
Credit: Dmitry Rukhlenko/ Shutterstock

India has an immense population, the second-highest in the entire world with a mind-boggling 1.34 billion people. The Indian people are spread across the country's diverse geographic regions, which can be roughly divided into three main areas: a mountainous northern region, an agricultural plain, and the central and southern plateau region.

Cultural variance is also the norm in India. The region includes Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, and other religious practices. Also, the people speak 22 officially-recognized languages other than English, which is often used for commercial and political purposes. These languages include Hindi (the most popular), Bengali, Marathi, Telugu, and Tamil.

With all of this language variation, it makes sense that India would go by many names. It is called Bhārat, Bharôt, Bhāratadēsam, the Republic of India, and Bhāratam. India is also part of the nickname for Sri Lanka.

Armenia

Tatev Monastery in Syunik Province, Armenia
Credit: G3V/ Shutterstock

Armenia is a small country with a complicated history. In many ways, both geographically and politically, it can be aligned with either Europe or the Middle East. With a land area smaller than the state of Maryland, Armenia is a landlocked country home to only around 3 million people.

The official language of Armenia is Armenian, and it has near-universal status due to 97.9% of the population using it. Armenians would not refer to themselves as Armenians, however. They call themselves Hayastani. The familiar Persian suffix "-stan" simply means "place" or "land" and is a common ending for many country names, including Pakistan, Kazakhstan, and Afghanistan. The name pays homage to a legendary folk hero, Hayk. Legend has it that Hayk rebelled against a repressive ruler to return to his homeland in Ancient Armenia. His descendants are the Hay people, and Hayastan is the  "Land of the Hay."

Spain

Tossa de Mar, Costa Brava, Spain
Credit: kavalenkau/ Shutterstock 

Spain is another country with a rich cultural swirl of languages. While most people are familiar with Spanish as a language, a significant portion of the 47 million inhabitants of the country speak something else as their primary language. Catalan is the official language of Catalonia and the Valencian community (though the language itself has a different name and is called Valencian by these speakers). The people of Galicia speak Galician. The Basque region also has its own eponymous language.

Each of these languages has a slight variation on the name of their country, and none of them call it Spain. The Spanish translation is España, and the Catalan version is Espanya. Meanwhile, the Basque language refers to the land as Espainia.

Maldives

Aerial view of a island in the Maldives with turquoise waters
Credit: Sven Hansche/ Shutterstock

Maldivians call a group of islands in the Indian Ocean their home. The entire country is only slightly larger than Washington, D.C. Known for its white sandy beaches and tropical weather, the Maldives is a tourist destination. In fact, its highest point (which is only 5 meters in elevation) is the 8th tee of a golf course.

The official language of the country is Dhivehi, which is a dialect derived from a mixture of Arabic, English, Hindi, Sinhalese, and Urdu. In Dhivehi, the name of the country is Dhivehi Raajje, which means simply the "country of the Dhivehi people."

Japan

Mt. Fuji and skyline of Tokyo, Japan
Credit: yongyuan/ iStock

The country known as Japan in English is certainly not called that by its native speakers, but there is some dispute over the "correct" pronunciation of the local name. Japan has a population of 126 million people. It is among the least ethnically diverse countries, with 98.1% of its population identifying as Japanese. Japanese is, understandably, the national language.

Native speakers refer to the country as either Nippon or Nihon. Nippon is the older of the two names and is widely considered the original name. However, 61% of Japanese people surveyed admit to reading it as Nihon, and the younger crowd favors it disproportionately. It looks like Nippon may be on its way out.

Why is the name so different in English? Blame Marco Polo. He heard about the name from people he met in China, and the dialect of the region had them pronounce "Rìběn" (the name the Chinese then used for Japan) as "Jipen." His mistranslation morphed and spread.

Ireland

O'Brien's Tower on the western Atlantic Ocean coastline of Ireland
Credit: PhotoFires/ Shutterstock

The official language of Ireland is English, and it's generally used throughout the land. However, about 40% of the population also speaks Irish. In regions along Ireland's western coast, Irish (or Gaelic) is the most prominent language in use.

The Irish word for the country's name is Éire, and the term is even written into the constitution for the nation. The same document makes both Ireland and Éire interchangeably acceptable terms for the country. The name of the country has been a source of some dispute, as the British have — at some points in history — refused to recognize "Ireland" as an acceptable term. The country, after all, does not inhabit the entire "land" of the island since Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom. After a long dispute, though, the country has claimed both Éire and Ireland as its own.

South Korea

Seoul city skyline
Credit: CJ Nattanai/ Shutterstock 

South Korea is home to about 51 million people, and the official languages include both Korean and English. We, again, have Marco Polo to thank for our English-language version of this country's name. Korea came into use during the Silk Road dynasty and was a transliteration from the word Goryeo, which was the name of the dynasty in Korea at the time.

South Koreans refer to the entire undivided region as Han-guk. The North Koreans call the undivided region Choson.

Iceland

Northern Lights over Mount Kirkjufell in Iceland
Credit: Thampitakkull Jakkree/ Shutterstock

You may think that Iceland gets its name for its ice, but it's a little more complicated than that. The island is home to an ethnically mixed group with Norse and Celtic ancestry. The official languages include Icelandic, English, and some Nordic languages.

The story goes that a Norwegian Viking named Hrafna-Flóki Vilgerðarson set sail from Norway with the hopes of settling in a new land. When his livestock died, he and his family decided to move on. But before they left, he hiked up into the mountains and saw ice all along the land. He gave it the name Iceland, which was Ísland in his native tongue. To this day, the name is the official title of Iceland for native speakers. Hrafna-Flóki did, legend has it, return to the land as a permanent settler.

Greece

White church in Oia town on Santorini island in Greece
Credit: spooh/ iStock

Greece is home to almost 11 million people, and Greek is overwhelmingly the most common language of the country. The native term for the country is Hellas. This word should make sense to English speakers as the word Hellenic means "something Greek." How did the English language version come to be? It's a Latin translation. "Greece" comes from the Latin word "Greacus." All the way back in the days of Aristotle, the inhabitants of the land were referred to as "Graiko." Today, the people of Greece still refer to their country as Hellas.