A Mystery of Languages Solved?

After more than two decades studying and travelling in the Balkans there was one recurring question. I can honestly say that I had the same vexing conversation with dozens of people throughout the former Yugoslavia over the years, from acquaintances at cafes to various professors, intellectuals, artists, historians and a philosopher or two. Is it possible that the answer lay right under our noses, or more specifically, under our tongues?

For all of my Slavic friends, family and acquaintances: I have long wondered where the Serbo-Croatian and overall Slavic languages designation for German and Germany come from, Nemački, Nemačka, respectively in Serbo-Croatian. travel back in time to the 3rd through the 6th Centuries AD when Slavic tribes migrating into Europe came into fuller contact and competition with Germanic tribes whose language they could not understand. The S-C word for mute is Nem or Nemy. Possibly the term was a bit of a perjorative by Slavic nations as they came into contact with Germanic tribes. It is the best theory to the origin of the word whose derivations extend to the Hungarian német, who arrived in Europe around the time of the Slavs, the Turkish, Nemçe and Almanca, who borrowed from the Bosnian/Serbian in the 12th and 13th centuries as the Ottoman Empire occupied souther Europe to the gates of Vienna.


2 thoughts on “A Mystery of Languages Solved?

  1. Interesting. If I remember my studies correctly, in Muscovy/Peter’s Russia, the word “nemets”, “nemchina” referred to more or less any foreigner/ non-Russian speaker, not just a Germanic one – much the same way as Greek “bárbaros” meant “strange, foreign” via the onomatopoeia “somebody who talks blah-blah”. It would make complete linguistic sense for “nemets” to be related to “mute” – “nemets” can be construed as a noun derived from “nemoy” (“mute”), and it could also be said that the foreigner “neymyot” – “doesn’t catch/ doesn’t understand” – Russian. Why the word wound up attaching itself to Germans exclusively I’m not sure. My (wild) guess was that majority of foreigners in Russia after Peter were either German (or Dutch, close enough) or French, and French, being the language of diplomacy, didn’t seem quite as foreign, so…

    However, seeing as the same meaning seems to have attached itself to that root in the Balkans, I wonder if the connection between *němъ and Germanic people happened earlier, before the languages diverged. Which would break my theory above apart.

    Darn, I’m so curious now.


    1. After years of talking with folks and research, I found this the most plausible. Indeed, however, there is some differences between South Slavic dialects, like Serbo-Croatian, and North Slavic dialects such as Russian.


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