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Where was the Original China, and What is Yemen Called in Yiddish?

Why do we say 'יפן' in Hebrew, what's the origin of the word 'צרפת', and which of Ben-Gurion's requests was not accepted?



Have you ever wondered why we call the countries of the world by such names in Hebrew? In most cases, the answer is simple: because that's what they are called in Yiddish. Yiddish was the mother tongue of most early Hebrew speakers, and these names remained as they were. That's why, for example, we say Japan (in Yiddish: יאַפאַן), Holland (האָלאַנד), and Switzerland (שווייץ). No fewer than 53 countries in Hebrew share their names with the Yiddish form.


In Yiddish, there are also countries that are written like in Hebrew but pronounced slightly differently. Yemen, for example, is pronounced תֶיְמֵן, Egypt is מִצְרַיֵּם, and Lebanon is לְבוֹנֵן. Israel is pronounced, of course, as יִיסְרוֹאֵל.


Another 33 names in Hebrew are simply Yiddish names with a different suffix. In eight of these names, the final vowel "a" is pronounced instead of the Yiddish "e", for example: Ethiopia (אֶתְיוֹפְּיָה in Yiddish: עטיאָפּיע), Lithuania (ליטע), South Africa (דרום אַפֿריקע), and North Korea (קאָרעע).


Another 25 names, which in Yiddish end in -יע and -ן, received in Hebrew the suffix -יָּה. The one who initiated this change was Shai Abramowitz (Mendele Mocher Sforim), in part two of his book "History of Nature" in 1867. For example, the country that was until then called Sweden (שְׁבֵדְן) he began to call שְׁוֶדְיָה; Norway (נאָרוועגיע‎) became נוֹרְבֶגְיָה; and many other countries followed suit.


Only 20 countries were fortunate enough to receive an original name in Hebrew. They are divided into three groups. The first includes countries whose names are a Hebrew translation of their original name, for example, the United States and Ivory Coast. The second group consists of countries whose names came from another language, like Cambodia (from Yiddish "קאַמבאָדזשע") and Jamaica ("יאַמייקע‎").


The third group includes a few countries that have an ancient Hebrew name. In the Bible, the names India (הודו) and Greece (יָוון) appear, indicating more or less the same countries known today. However, the biblical names Spain (סְפָרַד) and France (צָרְפַת) referred to other places, but have been associated with those European countries for more than a thousand years. Spain has been used to refer to the Iberian Peninsula at least since the 8th century ("Book of Zerubbabel"), following Jonathan's translation of the name appearing in the verse to "Aspamia". France has been used to refer to that country since the beginning of the period of the Rishonim (end of the 10th century), among others in letters by Meshullam ben Kalonymus and Rabbenu Gershom Meor Hagolah, as well as in Rashi's commentary. Jordan is of course a biblical name, but as a country name, it only appears since the 1940s of the previous century.


From the Talmud (Keritot 1a), we received the name Cyprus, although the island was only called by this name since the second half of the 19th century. In contrast, the name Germany ("גרמניא") has been used in Hebrew for a region we call by this name since the middle of the 10th century (in "Sefer Yosipon"). Turkey ("טורקייא") and Russia ("רוסיא") have been used in Hebrew at least since the second half of the 10th century (in the Cairo Geniza).


And what about China? Jews in the Arab world have more or less called the country by this name (only with a different initial consonant) at least since the first half of the 9th century when the name "צין" appeared in the writings of Rabbi Natronai Gaon. In Europe, Jews used the Yiddish name of the country, "חינא" or "כינא". In the 19th century, writers began to use the biblical phrase "אֶרֶץ סִינִים" (Isaiah 49:12) as a name for China, presumably because of its similarity to the Latin name, Sīnae. This phrase, which in the Bible generally referred to the Egyptian city of Syene (today's Aswan), was mistakenly attributed to China following an error by Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel in the Netherlands in the 17th century. The mistake took root, and "ארץ סינים" referred to China in the book "Shvilei Olam" (Shimshon Bloch, 1822), "Toldot Bnei HaAdam" (Mordechai Aaron Ginzburg, 1835), and often in the newspaper "HaMagid" starting from 1857. By the end of the 1880s, this designation was shortened to סִין (perhaps also influenced by the Arabic name), among others in the translation by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda of "Around the World in 80 Days" by Jules Verne (1888), and gradually this name began to replace the Yiddish "חינא" in Hebrew.


Of course, not always did the ancient name withstand the test of reality. Twenty years after the Persian Shah Pahlavi officially changed the name of his country to Iran, David Ben-Gurion, sitting as the Minister of Defense, demanded in 1955 from Prime Minister Moshe Sharett to revert to calling Iran by its biblical name. "Persia is undoubtedly aimed at in the Bible as the country that calls itself Iran," he wrote, "and the Bible decides." His request was not answered, and the government of Israel continued to call Iran by its official name.

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