Theodiscus (the Latinised form of a Germanic word meaning "vernacular", "of the common people", or "native") is a Medieval Latin adjective referring to the Germanic vernaculars of the Early Middle Ages. It is the precursor to a number of terms in West Germanic languages, namely the English exonym Dutch, the German endonym Deutsch, and the Dutch exonym Duits and endonym Diets.

The word theodism, a neologism for a branch of Germanic neopaganism, is based on the Old English form of the word.


It is derived from Proto-Germanic *þiudiskaz. The stem of this word, *þeudō, meant "people" in Proto-Germanic, and *-iskaz was an adjective-forming suffix, of which -ish is the Modern English form. The Proto-Indo-European root *tewtéh₂ ("tribe"), which is commonly reconstructed as the basis of the word, is related to Lithuanian tautà ("nation"), Old Irish túath ("tribe", "people") and Oscan touto ("community").[1] The various Latin forms are derived from West Germanic *þiudisk and its later descendants.[2]

The word came into Middle English as thede, but was extinct in Early Modern English (although surviving in the English place name Thetford, 'public ford'). It survives as the Icelandic word þjóð for "people, nation", the Norwegian (Nynorsk) word tjod for "people", "nation", and the word for "German" in many European languages including German deutsch, Dutch Duits, Yiddish דײַטש daytsh, Danish tysk, Norwegian tysk, Swedish tyska, Spanish tudesco and Italian tedesco.

Proto-Slavic borrowed the word as *ťuďь with the meaning "not one's own" (the opposite of *svojь), giving rise to modern Polish cudzy, Czech cizí, Serbo-Croat tuđi, Russian чужой etc.

Relation to "Teutonic"

While morphologically similar, the modern term Teutonic is a direct derivation from Teutones and seems to be more distantly related.

Starting with the publication of Julius Caesar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico (c. 50 BC), a report on the Gallic War supplemented with various ethnographic remarks, Latin scholars generally considered the Teutones as the epitome of a wandering Germanic tribe.[3] In later years, Roman writers would sometimes use the term Teutonicus as a poetic pars pro toto synonym for their existing adjective Germanicus. Both linguistically and ethnographically, while the Teutonic ethnos and the term from which their name was derived are generally identified as Germanic, some modern scholars consider the Teutones to be more closely associated with the Celtic Helvetii than with Germanic groups. The IE root *teutā ("people") is well attested in both the Germanic and the Celtic lexica.Around the year 900, Germans writing in Latin started to use the more learned teutonicus to replace the earlier theodiscus.[4][5]

The term Teutonic was used by the economist William Z. Ripley to designate one of the three "races" of Europe, which later writers called the Nordic race. Due to related abuses down to the first half of the 20th century, the term "teutonisch" has since fallen out of favour amongst German-speaking scholars, and is restricted to a somewhat ironical usage similar to the archaic teutsch, if used at all. While the term is still present in English, which has retained it in some contexts as a translation of the traditional Latin Teutonicus (most notably the aforementioned Teutonic Order), it does not correspond with German "teutonisch" except when referring to the historical Teutones.


In its first recorded sense "Theodiscus" was used within a clearly clerical context. Around the year 786 the Bishop of Ostia writes to Pope Adrian I about a synod taking place in Corbridge, England; the decisions were later read aloud elsewhere "tam Latine quam theodisce" meaning "in Latin as well as the vernacular".[6][7][8][9] In 788 "quod theodisca lingua ... dicitur" is recorded meaning "known in the vernacular as".[10] In most Germanic languages of the time the native form of "theodiscus" referred to the vernacular of the common people. A notable exception to this general rule are the Gothic tribes among whom "þiudisko" took on the meaning of "pagan".[11]

Starting in the 9th century, the term "diutisk" is used in the Frankish Empire to denote the vernaculars spoken by the general populace, in opposition to speakers of the Romance dialects.[12] In doing so "theodiscus" effectively became the antonym of "walhisk", which referred to the speakers of Romance and Celtic languages and which forms the root for modern terms such as Welsh, Walloon, Wallis and welsch.


In Middle Dutch, there were two principal forms of the word, a southern variant ("duutsch/duitsch") and a western variant ("dietsch"), which could be used in a narrow sense as well as in an very broad sense. In its narrow sense, "dietsch/duitsch" referred to the Dutch language, while in its broader meaning it referred to the Germanic as opposed to Romance-language area. In its narrow sense "Dietsch" was used alongside "Nederlands", which referred exclusively to Dutch and would become the modern Dutch autonym, while "Duits" (though not "Diets") would increasingly come to refer to German dialects as opposed to Dutch.[13][14]

During the 16th century, when the process described above had not completed itself, some Dutch linguists and scholars used the term "Nederduits/Nederduyts", combining both words, to refer to the Dutch language. A practice which ended in the 19th century but which can still be found in Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa which calls itself the "Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk". "Nederduits" is to be translated as "Dutch" in English, not as "Low German" which would be the literal translation in Modern Dutch.[15]


In German, a large amount of dialectal forms of "theodiscus" existed throughout the Middle Ages and which all referred to either the broader Romance/Germanic dichotomy in the West and South or the Slavic/Germanic bipartition in the East. However, in German, the use of the term referring to Germans specifically as opposed to people speaking Germanic languages in general evolves during the Early Modern Period and it is in the late 17th and 18th century that the modern meaning of "Deutsch" is established.[16]


The first recorded use of "theodiscus" referred to Old English, but in Great Britain the term "Englisc" was already common from the Early Middle Ages onwards, with the Angles, Saxons and Jutes being collectively referred to as 'English' as early as 731 .[17] The word would show inconsistencies during most of the Middle Ages, with Robert of Gloucester making a distinction between "Þe englisse in þe norþ half, þe saxons bi souþe" ("the English in the North, the Saxons in the south") around the start of the 14th century, but its use as a term to describe a unit surpassing the tribe, county or distant cultural affiliation predates the use of comparable terms on the European mainland.[18][19][20]

The Old English variant "þeodisc" was subsequently influenced by the Middle Dutch form of "Duutsch/Dietsch" during the Middle Ages and was then mainly used to refer to the inhabitants of the Low Countries, with whom there was extensive trade. Though initially also encompassing a broader definition signifying "speakers of Germanic languages on the continent / Non-Romance speakers" the use of the word "Dutch" in this sense was rare and would become obsolete following the growing and intensive rivalry between England and the Dutch Republic during the 17th century.[21][22]

In the United States the German autonym "Deutsch" would sometimes be rendered as "Dutch", due to the perceived similar pronunciation of both words. A well known example are the Pennsylvania Dutch, who were originally German immigrants, speak a German dialect and refer to themselves as "Pennsilfaanisch Deitsch".[23][24][25][26][27][28]

See also


  1. Mallory, J. P.; Adams, D. Q. (2006), The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World, USA: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-929668-5, p. 269.
  2. W. Haubrichs, "Theodiscus, Deutsch und Germanisch - drei Ethnonyme, drei Forschungsbegriffe. Zur Frage der Instrumentalisierung und Wertbesetzung deutscher Sprach- und Volksbezeichnungen." In: H. Beck et al., Zur Geschichte der Gleichung "germanisch-deutsch" (2004), 199-228
  3. BG 1.33.4; BG 1.40.
  4. Birkhan, Kelten, 993.
  5. teutonic - Definitions from
  6. Dümmler, Ernst. Epistolae Karolini Aevi 2, MGH 3 (Berlin: Weidmann, 1895), pp. 20-9 at 28
  7. M. Philippa e.a. (2003-2009) Etymologisch Woordenboek van het Nederlands [diets]
  8. Alice L. Harting-Correa: Walahfrid Strabo's Libellus de Exordiis Et Incrementis Quarundam in ...
  9. Cornelis Dekker: The Origins of Old Germanic Studies in the Low Countries
  10. M. Philippa e.a. (2003-2009) Etymologisch Woordenboek van het Nederlands [diets]
  11. J. de Vries (1971), Nederlands Etymologisch Woordenboek [diets]
  12. M. Philippa e.a. (2003-2009) Etymologisch Woordenboek van het Nederlands [diets]
  13. M. Philippa e.a. (2003-2009) Etymologisch Woordenboek van het Nederlands [Duits]
  14. J. de Vries (1971), Nederlands Etymologisch Woordenboek
  15. M. Philippa e.a. (2003-2009) Etymologisch Woordenboek van het Nederlands [Duits]
  16. L. Weisgerber, Deutsch als Volksname 1953
  17. Farmer, David Hugh (1978). The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19282-038-9.
  18. M. Philippa e.a. (2003-2009) Etymologisch Woordenboek van het Nederlands [diets]
  19. Alice L. Harting-Correa: Walahfrid Strabo's Libellus de Exordiis Et Incrementis Quarundam in ...
  20. Cornelis Dekker: The Origins of Old Germanic Studies in the Low Countries
  21. M. Philippa e.a. (2003-2009) Etymologisch Woordenboek van het Nederlands [Duits]
  22. L. Weisgerber, Deutsch als Volksname 1953
  23. The Pennsylvania Dutch Country, by I. Richman, 2004: "Taking the name Pennsylvania Dutch from a corruption of their own word for themselves, "Deutsch," the first German settlers arrived in Pennsylvania in 1683. By the time of the American Revolution, their influence was such that Benjamin Franklin, among others, worried that German would become the commonwealth's official language."
  24. Moon Spotlight Pennsylvania Dutch Country, by A. Dubrovsk, 2004.
  25. Pennsylvania Dutch Alphabet, by C. Williamson.
  26. Pennsylvania Dutch: A Dialect of South German with an Infusion of English, by S. Stehman, 1872.
  27. Powwowing Among the Pennsylvania Dutch, by David W. Kriebe, 2007.
  28. The Pennsylvania Journey, by J.A. Davis, 2005.
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