History Files



What's in a Name - China

by Zoltan Szilard, 3 April 2018

While Europe was largely unknown territory full of barbarian tribes, and the only civilisations were Mediterranean, China was steadily building a unified empire.

It was also an empire with a wide variety of dialects and languages that, even today, show great variance. How these people referred to their new state at this time is unknown - probably they didn't at all yet - but the dynasty which forcibly reunited them after decades of warfare became known to outsiders.

It seems to have been the name of this dynasty that was used to refer to the state itself - then and now. The dynasty was the Qin, and the name stuck as 'China'. (The Chinese themselves have a different name for their country, but that's another story...)

Differences in pronunciation

That name, however, is pronounced in some languages with a 'k', as in Hungarian (Kína), Finnish (Kiina), Croatian (Kina), or Romanian (China). In others, it uses a 'ch' sound - as in English 'cheese' - such as with English and Spanish (China), or Italian (Cina).

German is a little strange in this regard, pronouncing it as 'keena', 'heena', 'sheena', or 'cheena'.

So far there's nothing particularly unusual in all of this, since one of the most common sound changes is one that is referred to as palatalisation before the front vowels, such as 'k' > 'ch'.

It could be supposed that some languages borrowed it from a language that conserved the velar 'k' sound before 'i', while in others it comes from another language that shifted it to 'ch'. But the truth is that something else happened here.

First of all, the modern forms of the name are attested only from the sixteenth century and, as far as is known, there was no language prior to this in which 'China' was spelled with a 'k'. For example, in Old Greek it is Σῖναι, 'seenay', while the Late Latin form is Sīnæ, 'seenay', the source of the prefix sino- in words such as Sinology, the study of the history, language, and culture of China.

Map of Qin China 221-209 BC
In 221 BC the Qin controlled the entire former imperial territories of the north, plus the recently-incorporated Shu and Ba, but expansion beckoned to the north (a little, largely constrained by the construction of the Great Wall - shown here as a general border rather than specifying all of its different construction phases and locations) and to the south, where several campaigns between 221-209 BC greatly increased the empire (click on map to view full sized)


This probably arrived through the Arabic aṣ-ṣīn, 'the Chinese'. Originally it referred to an ancient people of East Asia who have been identified as the southern Chinese, but its origin may be the same as the name 'China' itself.

From origins to Europeans

From the sources it is certain that the name 'China' was brought to Europe through one of the Indo-Iranian languages (Hindi, Sanskrit, or Persian). We also know for sure that the original form was something like 'Cīna', pronounced 'cheena'.

The initial source is uncertain though. According to the most widespread theory, it may come from the name of the Qin dynasty, pronounced 'chin'. This was then transcribed by Portuguese - the first European explorers to reach the region - as China, retaining the sound 'cheena' in Old Portuguese.

However, when late medieval Italians learned the name, they pronounced it 'keena' since in Italian - unlike Portuguese - the 'ch' digraph stood for the 'k' sound when used before 'e' and 'i'. Then some European languages which were in contact with Italian borrowed the name with the 'k' sound before the early modern Italians corrected it to Cina, 'cheena', but by then it was too late.

In short, the existence of the current double denomination form is due to early modern European languages and writing forms: the 'ch' digraph, representing different consonantal sounds in Portuguese and in Italian.

This is why in languages in which the name was borrowed from early modern Italian it is pronounced with a 'k'. Others, which took it from Portuguese or the later form of Italian, pronounced it using the English palatal 'ch' sound. Modern Greek probably also re-borrowed it from Italian and for this reason they now know it as Κίνα, 'keena', unlike the ancient Greeks.


Main Sources

Harper, Douglas - Online Etymology Dictionary website (2001–2017)

RAE, ASALE - Diccionario de la lengua española, 23rd Edition (2014, available online)




Original Hungarian text copyright © Zoltan Szilard. Translation into English copyright © Zoltan Szilard, and text reviewed in both languages by Hungarian linguist, Laszlo Kalman PhD, CSc. An original feature in the English language for the History Files.