TL;DR: are there any cases of nations/ethnic groups, whose name for themselves comes from a language that is foreign to them? [I feel like I am missing a term here]

Many nations have a name for themselves, in their native language, that then gives rise to what they are called in foreign languages, or at least predates the ethnic group and its language. For example the French call themselves, in French, "français", the English call themselves, well, the English - with other major languages' names being derived from these. The term "English" presumably comes from the Angles tribe (as in Anglo-Saxon), so not from English as such, but from an ancestor of the English language. And the origin of "français" is ultimately from the tribe of Franks, who predate the French language, but the Frankish empire is actually an ancestor to the French state. So, if you excuse my wonky explanation, the term for the ethnic group used by themselves and by others originates from an indigenous word.

In some cases, nations call themselves differently to what the outside world calls them. Fins call Finland Suomi, Hungarians call themselves Magyars, as far as I can tell. Inuit people used to be called "Eskimo" (I understand this is now considered an outdated term, but was once in common use). But in these cases, the term used by these ethnic groups is indigenous to them.

My question is about people who call themselves by a term coming from abroad. Does that happen often? The context to my question are Slavs, or Slavic people. One proposed etymology is that the term comes from slave trade, which at one time Slavs were victim to. But that would imply that the name that Slavs use for themselves is in fact a (unglamorous) loan word - as far as I can tell, in Slavic languages unfree people are not called by a word similar to "slave". There are alternative etymologies that derive the name from Slavic languages themselves. But for context, I was curious if it is in fact common that people call themselves by, what is to them, a loanword.

I realise that some concepts in the question are somewhat nebulous or anachronistic, such as "nation", but hopefully the gist of the question is clear enough.

  • 10
    at least two of your examples seem to count. French is a Romance Language, but francais comes from a Germanic word, originally referring to the Germanic Franks. Suomi is likely related to Slavic zemľà "land" (note the l here is not original, and not present in Baltic) and so an Indo-European loan. Regardless, the claim about the etymology of Slav is backwards. Whilst the precise etymology of Slav is unclear, it is uncontroversial that the word slave derives from Slav, rather than vice versa
    – Tristan
    Feb 13 at 16:13
  • 9
    I think the terms you’re missing are endonym and exonym. // @Tristan The thing that makes French not really count here is the fact that it is an indigenous name that was already in use in the area it describes when the language currently spoken there took over. It’s more of a substrate-like relic than an actual exonym (≈ loan word). Feb 13 at 16:40
  • 4
    @Lambie I've just posted several examples, some were native names previously in use in the area, but far from all. Imo the clearest cut example are Ethiopians, who switched to using the Greek-derived name Ethiopian rather than the previous native name Habesha (whence Abyssinia) with the fall of the Empire as a way of "modernising"
    – Tristan
    Feb 13 at 17:00
  • 1
    @Tristan That is not clear cut. Wikipedia has this: This Greek name was borrowed into Amharic as ኢትዮጵያ, ʾĪtyōṗṗyā. An alternate theory suggests that Αἰθιοπία was derived from a native word ዕጣን (ʿəṭan, incense), of which Ethiopia was an important source
    – Lambie
    Feb 13 at 17:22
  • 1
    @Bennet To be clear: Are you asking for the names of nations or ethnic groups? Those are very different things. Feb 13 at 19:38

8 Answers 8


Europe, West Asia, and North Africa is where I'm most familiar with things, so I'll largely restrict myself to those regions, but there is no shortage of peoples or nationalities whose endonym is (originally) a loan from some other language. I have bolded the best example.

  • Assyrians: an Aramaic-speaking group drawing their name from the earlier Akkadian city (and empire), itself of uncertain, but doubtless not Aramaic origin.
  • Azeris: a Turkic-speaking group drawing their name ultimately from the ancient kingdom of Atropatene. The name is of unclear origin, but matches features of several other kingdoms north of Syria and Assyria. Given the late arrival of Turkic speakers in the area it is certainly not of Turkic origin.
  • Belarusians: the first component is of native Slavic origin, but the second is almost universally agreed to be of Germanic origin originally referring to men who row, in reference to the Norse Varangians travelling along the rivers of Russia and Ruthenia.
  • Belgians: a predominantly French & Dutch speaking nation (plus some German), their name is borrowed (not descended) from Latin, which in turn got it from a local and now extinct Celtic language.
  • Britons: almost universally English-speaking (speakers of minority languages tend not to describe themselves as British), but the name derives from a Brythonic Celtic language via Latin.
  • Bulgarians: a Slavic-speaking people who get their name from the Bolghar Turks they migrated with.
  • Corsicans: a Romance-speaking people whose name is borrowed into Latin from the unknown (but certainly non-Romance) language of the original Corsicans.
  • Eritreans: largely Semitic and Cushitic speaking, their name is borrowed from the Greek name for the Red Sea, literally meaning "red" in Greek, with a clear Indo-European etymology.
  • Ethiopians: largely Semitic and Cushitic speaking, their name is borrowed from Greek. It is often claimed to be a native coining within Greek, but this may be a folk etymology. Regardless, it is unlikely to originally be Afro-Semitic or Cushitic in origin.
  • Finns: a Finnic-speaking people whose name (Suomi) is likely of Balto-Slavic origin.
  • French: a Romance-speaking people whose name is of Germanic origin, referring to the Franks who conquered Northern (and later Southern) Gaul as Rome collapsed.
  • Gascons: speakers of a Romance (Occitan) variety, but whose name for themselves derives from Basque (a name it is cognate with), a non-Indo-European language.
  • Kalmyks: a Mongolic-speaking people whose name is of Turkic origin.
  • Irish: the English speakers use an Irish (Celtic) name. Irish-speakers call themselves by a native name, but refer to their language "Gaeilge" by a name borrowed from Brythonic.
  • Italians: a Romance-speaking people whose name is borrowed, via Greek, from a different Italic language, Oscan.
  • Libyans: predominantly Arabic-speaking, but with a name that vastly predates Arabic presence in the area, being attested in 13th century BCE Ancient Egyptian.
  • North Macedonians: a Slavic-speaking people named for the ancient Kingdom of Macedonia. The name originates in Ancient Macedonian, which is likely either a divergent Greek dialect, or a language closely related to Greek, and certainly not Slavic.
  • Maltese: a Macro-Arabic-speaking people, their name is first unambiguously attested in Greek, either a native word there, or a borrowing from Punic (a Central Semitic language like Maltese, but more closely related to Hebrew and Aramaic than to Arabic).
  • Russians: largely Slavic-speaking, but with a name almost universally agreed to be of Germanic origin, originally referring to men who row, in reference to the Norse Varangians travelling along the rivers of Russia and Ruthenia.
  • Saami: a Uralic-speaking people whose name is cognate with that of the Finns, and is likely of Balto-Slavic origin.
  • Sardinians: a Romance-speaking people whose name is borrowed into Latin from unknown (but certainly non-Romance) language of the original Sardinians.
  • Scottish: largely English- or Scots-speaking, using a name derived from Latin, possibly of Celtic origin. The Gaelic-speaking population does use a native name for themselves though, "Albannach".
  • Sicilians: a Romance-speaking people whose name is borrowed into Latin from Sicel, a poorly understood language of Pre-Roman Eastern Sicily that is certainly not Romance.
  • Spaniards: a Romance-speaking people whose name is derived from Latin, however the Latin is itself a borrowing, usually attributed to Punic, but the Punic may instead itself be a borrowing or adaptation of a native Iberian word.
  • Swiss: there are three Romance languages spoken in Switzerland, alongside Swiss German. The name for Switzerland in all those languages is derived from the name of the canton of Schwyz, likely of Germanic origin, making the Romance names loans. The country is also sometimes officially known by its Latin name "Confoederatio helvetica" where the adjective helvetic "Swiss" is of Celtic origin.
  • Syrians: generally Arabic speakers drawing their name from the earlier Akkadian city (and empire) Aššūr, itself of uncertain, but doubtless not Arabic origin.
  • Walloons: the Romance-speaking population of Belgium. Their name is derived from a Germanic word for "inhabitant of the Roman Empire, foreigner" also found in the English names for Wales, Cornwall, and Wallachia, and the French word Gaul. This Germanic word is itself a borrowing from Latin, but the Latin is a borrowing of a Celtic tribal name.

There are several other examples that are less certain.

  • 1
    I doubt any of those people in their own languages consider their country or language names as "foreign" to them. What I mean is: One thing is that the country or people's name came from a "foreign" word and another is perceiving it as such. Also, it depends on the language one is speaking: Wallon in English is Flemish. But do the Flemish (les wallons) perceive the word wallon as foreign? Not to mention that with three official languages, it can get complicated.
    – Lambie
    Feb 13 at 18:23
  • 1
    Gaeilge is the name of the Irish language, not the people. The words for the country (Éire) and the people (Éireannach, pl. Éireannaigh) are both indigenous, but related to the English words (which is ultimately from Goidelic). The demonym that’s related to Gaeilge is Gael, which has much the same meaning as in English. Feb 13 at 19:47
  • 7
    @Lambie sure, the names are now largely nativised and no longer recognised as the loans they are. Regarding Walloon, the Flemish are decidedly not the Walloons, they are the two main groups in Belgium, the former being Dutch speakers and the latter Romance speakers. All three official languages use cognate terms for the Walloons, but that term is of Germanic origin, so is not native to the language spoken by the Walloons themselves
    – Tristan
    Feb 14 at 10:33
  • 2
    Though no longer in use, Prussian is another paradoxical endonym similar to Briton in that it referred to a Germanic-speaking polity that took over the name of a non-Germanic people after invasion of their lands. The Old Prussians spoke a Baltic language, related to Lithuanian and Latvian. Feb 15 at 0:03
  • 2
    You might add Gascon to the list. This is the name of an Occitan dialect but Gascon has its roots in Basque, definitely a non romance language.
    – jlliagre
    Feb 15 at 15:16

America has its name from the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, whose first name is of Germanic origin.

Việt Nam is Middle Chinese, meaning “Southern Yue”.

Iraq is (probably) from Middle Persian ērag, “south”.

I am sure there are a lot more.

  • 3
    日本 Nihon (or Nippon) is also a Chinese loan word, as are the current endonyms for both North and South Korea (though, oddly, the English name Korea, despite now being an exonym, is potentially an inherited Korean name). Feb 13 at 16:33
  • Should America even count? The country was founded by immigrants from numerous European countries. Since it wasn't founded by native Americans, any language origin would be foreign.
    – Barmar
    Feb 14 at 15:19
  • 1
    I'm not sure Korea's modern names (조선 joseon for North Korea and 한국 hanguk for South Korea) should count here, apart from -guk(國; nation). As far as I know, both "joseon" and "han" had been used to refer to Koreans since the beginning of any recorded history on Korea, and it's unclear what they meant. For all we know, they could be native names whose meaning was lost in time.
    – jick
    Feb 14 at 20:33

I don’t know that they qualify as nations or ethnic groups, but a number of US states have names that are derived from local Native American languages, and thus their associated demonyms are etymologically not English. Most of these originated by borrowing names of major features of the region, or of the people who lived there, into English, sometimes through one or more intermediate languages. This process is one of the more common ways that such loaned endonyms develop.

Examples of such states include:

  • Ohio: From the Seneca ohiːyo', which references the Ohio River.
  • Michigan: From the Ojibwe mishigami, which references the Great Lakes.
  • Nebraska: From either the Omaha-Ponca Ní Btháska or the Chiwere Ñí Brásge, both in reference to the Platte River.
  • Hawaii: From the Hawaiian Hawai'i, in reference to the largest island in the state.
  • Alaska: From the Russian Аляска, which in turn is from the Aleut alaxsxaq, both referring to the peninsula itself.
  • Arkansas: From the French Arcansas, a pluralized transliteration of the Algonquian akansa, which referred to the Quapaw peoples who lived in the region (among other places).
  • North/South Dakota: Named after the Dakota peoples who historically inhabited the region.
  • Tennessee: Named after Tanasi, an Overhill Cherokee settlement located in the east of the state.
  • 2
    Note this list isn't complete. (Not that you said it is, but I just wanted to forestall any confusion.) Feb 14 at 16:02
  • If you want to include all state names, then New-York, District Columbia, Puerto-Rico, Texas, Carolina, Florida, Virginia, Cincinnati are also non-English.
    – Anixx
    Feb 14 at 18:11
  • 1
    @Anixx Cincinnati is a city, not a state, and Peurto-Rico is a territory not a state (though it probably should be a state). And if you want to argue that New York (named after a city in England) is not English, then it could be argued that none of the states have English names except Washington and New Hampshire. Feb 15 at 2:31
  • 1
    @AustinHemmelgarn Puerto Ricans speak Spanish, so it wouldn't be a "foreign" etymology anyway.
    – gormadoc
    Feb 15 at 4:46
  • 1
    @Anixx The question really comes down to when a word is considered ‘native’. For example, I would argue that ‘York’ is long since naturalized as an English word despite it’s Brittonic origins, and it’s usage as part of ‘New York’ has nothing to do with the Brittonic origins of the name because it’s named after the city in England, not after the original Brittonic meaning of the name. Similar arguments could be made for New Jersey, Georgia, and possibly Maryland. Feb 15 at 12:43

Origin of the name "Canada"

The name “Canada” likely comes from the Huron-Iroquois word “kanata,” meaning “village” or “settlement.” In 1535, two Aboriginal youths told French explorer Jacques Cartier about the route to kanata; they were actually referring to the village of Stadacona, the site of the present-day City of Québec. For lack of another name, Cartier used the word “Canada” to describe not only the village, but the entire area controlled by its chief, Donnacona.

So it's not technically foreign etymologically, it's it's actually the opposite: named using one of the languages that evolved there. However I think it fits this question because they were foreign words to the Europeans that started to use it and the Huron-Iroquois language is not one of Canada's official languages (English, French) today, or one that a large portion of its citizens speak.


The Marshallese name for the Marshall Islands is Majõl Aelõñ--at least in one spelling system.

Despite the orthography, "Majõl" is pronounced quite similarly to a non-rhotic English pronunciation of "Marshall" and must certainly be derived from it. Historically, the Marshallese people would have distinguished between the Ralik and Ratak chains, and not the Marshall Islands as a whole.

"Aelõñ" is pronounced quite similarly to the English "island." However, I presume this is coincidental, since it would be incredible if a people group living on many small islands would need to borrow a word for "island" from English.

  • 1
    It does seem rather unlikely that Marshallese speakers would need to borrow an English word for the – to them presumably quite basic – concept of ‘island’ … but stranger things have happened at sea. It may be that the word is indigenous (it also means ‘country, kingdom, state, nation’), but at least from a quick Google attempt, I can’t find any similar words in related languages that mean ‘island’. Feb 14 at 19:27
  • But English is an official language of the Marshall Islands and so is not "a language foreign to them" (as requested by OP).
    – user103496
    Feb 15 at 4:53
  • 2
    ‘Aelõñ’ may be a case of the natives hearing what the colonists called the Marshall Islands but assuming that the second word didn’t have a meaning on it’s own (or simply completely misunderstanding the meaning, like seemed to happen with Canada). Feb 15 at 12:36
  • @user103496: English may be an official language in the Marshall Islands, as it is in a number of other countries with significant outside/colonial influence. But Marshallese people vary in their actual English fluency and normally speak to each other in Marshallese, so English is, in fact, a foreign language. While they have borrowed a lot of words from English, so have Koreans, but few would argue that English isn't a foreign language in Korea. Feb 15 at 21:45
  • Australia from the Latin australis (southern).

  • Cameroon from the Portuguese "Rio dos Camarões meaning 'river of shrimps' or 'shrimp river', referring to the then abundant Cameroon ghost shrimp."

  • Dominica from Latin Dominica.

  • Estonia from Latin Aesti.

  • Gabon from Portuguese gabão ("a coat with sleeve and hood resembling the shape of the Komo River estuary").

  • Grenada from Spanish/Arabic Granada.

  • Indonesia "from the Greek words Indos (Ἰνδός) and nesos (νῆσος), meaning 'Indian islands'."

  • Jordan: "most plausible that it derives from the Hebrew word Yarad".

  • Liberia from Latin liber "free".

  • Mauritania from Greek/Latin for Mauri people (also root for Moors).

  • Mauritius named after a Dutch Prince Maurice van Nassau.

  • Micronesia from Greek small + island.

  • Monaco from "the nearby 6th-century BC Phocaean Greek colony. Referred to by the Ligurians as Monoikos, from the Greek 'μόνοικος', 'single house', from 'μόνος' (monos) 'alone, single' + 'οἶκος' (oikos) 'house'."

  • Mozambique probably from the name of an Arab trader.

  • New Zealand after the Dutch province of Zeeland (initially Latin Nova Zeelandia).

  • Palestine from Ancient Greek/Ancient Egyptian/other ancient languages.

  • Papua New Guinea. Papua is probably a local term, but Guinea is from Spanish/Portuguese and possibly ultimately from West African languages.

  • Philippines after a Spanish King.

  • Sierra Leone from Latin/Spanish/Portuguese.

  • 1
    Egypt is incorrect, as it isn't "Egypt" in Arabic. In Arabic the correct name is of Semitic origin and old enough that we're unlikely to determine it's definitely not Arabic.
    – gormadoc
    Feb 15 at 4:44
  • @gormadoc: Thanks for pointing that out, now corrected/deleted
    – user103496
    Feb 15 at 4:52

There is a distinction to be made between (1) where the name of a country (or region, ethnic group, etc.) has an etymology that is ultimately foreign, i.e. having a name built from loanwords or foreign word roots, and (2) where the country adopts a foreign name for them, i.e. an exonym becoming an endonym.

Case (1) is quite common. For example, the Japanese name for Japan, Nihon, is composed of the onyomi (Sino-Japanese reading) of the characters 日本. (A similar story applies for the names of Korea and Vietnam.) Also, by this definition, "United Kingdom" is 50% foreign (the word united being of Latin/Romance origin), and "United States of America" is foreign (Latin) except for the word "of".

Case (2) is probably more rare, but some examples are described in the other answers here.


Possibly most of them? Here are some examples of the origins of some common ethnonyms in Pakistan:

  • Muhajir - (Urdu speakers) from Persian (< Arabic)
  • Punjabi - from Persian
  • Saraiki - from Sindhi
  • Brahui - from Balochi (< Saraiki)
  • Balochi - from Armenian
  • Hindkowan - from Pashto
  • Sindhi - from Sanskrit
  • Afghan, Pashtun - both most likely ultimately from Sanskrit

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