Monday, 10 June 2013

Austria and Australia: a brief etymology lesson

You may have wondered why Austria and Australia sound so similar, despite the fact that the two countries seem to have little in common with each other. They lie thousands of miles apart; Austria is a small landlocked country in central Europe, while Australia is a massive continent in the Southern hemisphere; Austria is mainly German speaking while Australia was settled mostly by the British. Convict jokes on the back of a postcard, please.

The resemblance in the names of these two countries has been noted, often with some humour. Does anyone remember the Simpsons episode set in Australia?

The idea being, of course, that the Australians stole the 'Parliament-haus' sign from the Austrians and adapted it to fit the name of their fledgling country. I've completely killed the joke but nevermind, this is a language blog.

But why do the names of Austria and Australia sound so similar? After all, Australia wasn't settled by the Austrians! The resemblance is sort of coincidental, though not quite, because the aus- root in both countries does in fact share a common origin. But we have to go a long way back in time to unearth the connection between the two roots. Are you sitting comfortably? Good.

Austria comes from Medieval Latin (Marchia) Austriaca meaning ‘eastern borderland’. Austriaca is the Latinised form of the Old High German name for the country, Ostarreich, which means ‘eastern kingdom’; ostar meaning ‘eastern’ and reich meaning ‘kingdom’ in Old High German. In Modern German, this has become Österreich.

Old High German ostar derives from the reconstructed Proto-Germanic root *aus-to-, meaning ‘east’ or ‘towards the sunrise’. The same Germanic root also produced English east, Dutch oost and Old Norse austr. So the name ‘Austria’ is Germanic in origin.

Australia comes from Latin (Terra) Australis, meaning ‘southern land’. Terra is the Latin word for ‘land’, and australis means ‘southern’. Legends of a Terra Australis Incognita, an 'unknown land of the South' date back to Roman times and were commonplace in medieval geography, although not based on any documented knowledge of the continent. Following European discovery, names for the Australian continent were often references to the famed Terra Australis. It was also called 'New Holland' before the name 'Australia' was officially adopted in 1824.

The Latin word australis is a derivative of auster, meaning ‘south wind’.

You might have noticed how similar auster looks to the Germanic root aus-to; is there any connection between the two roots?

Yes, these two words are related. They are both descended from the Indo-European root *aus- which meant ‘dawn’ or ‘to shine’. The shift in meaning to ‘south’ in Latin is understandable. The ancestors of the Romans would have known that the further south they travelled, the more intensely the sun seemed to shine (or burn, in the days before suntan lotion).

The Indo-European *aus- root is also found in Ancient Greek éōs, Sanskrit uṣā́h and Lithuanian aušra. All of these words mean ‘dawn’. The same root also turns up in Latin Aurōra (the goddess of the dawn) and Latvian austrumi (east). The Latin word for ‘gold’, aurum, also probably comes from the same root. After all, it is the metal that shines.

So, Austria and Australia have different meanings in their source languages, but the aus- root in both of these names comes from the same Indo-European source, albeit from different languages.

There you have it. Now you can tell everyone what Austria and Australia actually mean, and why they sound similar. Crikey!

A bonus fact: At the time of European settlement, Australia had between 200 and 300 indigenous languages. Today, only about 70 survive, and of these, only 18 are spoken by all age groups. This is a great shame, because Australian aboriginal languages are fascinating, at least for a language geek such as myself.


  1. I got half way John. I tried I really tried....

  2. Serious question: do you think my articles would be more readable if I broke them down with illustrations and diagrams? I think maybe they're a bit too text-heavy.

  3. I read the whole thing no problem but I am a budding linguist. Illustrations and diagrams would help too :)

  4. Hi! Thanks for reading my blog :) My later articles have more pictures and diagrams so hopefully they will be a little less dry.

  5. Good stuff here, but the Indo-European word for east morphing into the Latin word for south still intrigues me. What is the Proto-Indo-European word for south? And did orient derive from aur/aus or something else?

  6. Hi there!

    Proto-Indo-European doesn't appear to have had a word for 'south,' or for any compass direction for that matter. All of the names for compass points in Indo-European languages are later derivations of existing roots - or borrowings from other languages.

    Good question about orient. It actually comes from a completely different root. 'Orient' is the present participle of the Latin verb 'orior,' meaning 'to rise.' This verb comes from the IE root *h₃er- (where *h₃ is a laryngeal sound), which also gave Sanskrit r̩nóti ‘sets in motion,’ Greekk ornūmi ‘stir up’ and Armenian y-arnem ‘stand up.’

    1. Hi there!

      I loved reading your blog concerning the Austria/Australia explanation! It learned me why we use the word 'oost' for 'East' in Dutch (I live in Belgium, Dutch speaking region).

      I would also like to add an extra fun fact, although I'm not 100% sure if it is correct, it's up to you to decide.
      I was taught that the word 'orientation' comes from the fact that in the past many maps were made with the East direction on top (instead of the North direction nowadays). So trying to find the East direction with the map in your hands was called orientating yourself. Please let me know if you agree!

  7. You've lost me When in one instance it meant eastern, then suddenly it meant southern. Otherwise, great read! 😁

  8. Forgive me for not trying to explain in simple conclusions for those who wish for that:
    I gather:
    Austr- ended up meaning - over the passage of time - in Norse: East.
    Austr- ended up meaning - over the passage of time - in Latin: South.
    There are examples of this confusion in both Norse mythology as well as Mediterranean. Ref.: Titanomachia/Ragnarrok. Read.
    It is is common that words with cognates in other related languages take on a somewhat different meaning.
    Another different tricky case: (my theory) Est/oest/oester from * Euest-ter and Oest/vester/vesper from *Euest-per. The suffixes -ter and -ber may derive from -da-ro and -ba-ro, pertaining to father and son, or posslbly words meaning somewhat as coming and going, etc
    A blog giving final answers would deeply disappoint me. A blog opening up for intelligent discussion would catch interest.

  9. I found it very readable, thanks. I had always assumed aus meant south (given that Australia is south of those Germanic lands), but came here after I'd read that it came from the word for east.

    Marco (and other who might be confused): I think, basically, aus sort of means sunny, bright. In one language that took on the meaning of east - where the sun "comes from" - and in another it took on the meaning of south - where the sun "increases".

  10. The word for "south" in Latin is "aus", which is why the colonialists used the name "aus" for Australia. In German, Ost means East and Austria is called Ostriech.

    The term Ost probably morphed into Aus when it travelled across to English, in the same way Est and East is probably related to Ost.

  11. According to Geoffrey Blainey in Sea of Dangers a Spaniard de Quilo discovered The new Hebrides in 1606 and thought they were part of New Holland and called this country Austrialia as the Spanish at that time were ruled by the Austro-Hungarian empire. The Latin word for south is meridien and austro only refers to a south wind which is like calling the mistral in France a direction. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

  12. Wow...
    I get it know, why they're have very similar names, even they wasn't close country.
    Then, can I copied of this articel to my blog and translate it to Indonesian? Of course, I'll be placed your blog as the source and maybe not 100% same(I just "grab" the important point of articel).
    Thanks for the info...

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  14. Thank you. Great article, made it clear

  15. Years ago, we took my grandfather, who was born in Austria, to visit my brother, who was studying abroad in Australia. He was suffering from dementia at the time, but still had a great attitude and loved to exclaim, "Born in Austria, now in Australia!" I always wondered if there was any connection between the two names and thought it was probably a coincidence. Thank you for explaining that they are connected through their Indo-European roots by the shining sun.

  16. I am a person living in Australia and I still am having difficulty understanding how Austria means "Eastern Land" but Australia means "the Land in the South" rather than "the Land in the East." Thank you for the article.