Some of the sounds humans make are universal. According to researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, pretty much everyone says ‘huh’? around the globe. This sound marks a question or a moment of confusion across borders and is the first “universal word” studied by modern linguists.
Apart from mild, questionable grunts, what else do many of our languages have in common? ‘Ah’s’ and ‘umm’s’ also seem to top the list. In light of this, it is somewhat unsurprising to learn there are a total of 11 countries and three territories on Earth that start with the letter A. Here is a quick look at where each nation got its name.
The 11 Countries starting with A:
- Antigua and Barbuda
The territories starting with A:
A landlocked country located between Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and China, Afghanistan has a name that is ancient. The word translates to “Land of the Afghans." It is said the Pashtun people who live in the country began calling themselves ‘Afghans’ during the Islamic period which dates from about the year 800 to 1258.
The word “Afghan” first appears in written history in the Hudud-al-Alam, a 10th-century geography book written in Persian, in 982. "Stan" means "land" or "country" in Persian. And so, we have "Afghanistan."
People have lived on the land that is today called Afghanistan for about 100,000 years, and different settlements have been uncovered from the Bronze Age. It was ruled by the Achaemenids, Alexander the Great, at least part of it by the Greeks, and the Seleucid empire of Babylonia. Afghanistan passed through numerous empires, kingdoms and princedoms, including an invasion by Genghis Khan and the Mongolians. After undergoing a period partially ruled by the British, it emerged as an unstable kingdom. In 1973, a military coup overthrew the monarchy, establishing the Republic of Afghanistan. Today, the country still struggles to find its footing among civil and political unrest, war, and poverty.
Found in Southeastern Europe, Albania is famous for its beaches and beautiful mountains. Lesser known is the fact that the country really has two names. There is one that is used inside Albania, and the other, by outsiders. If you are not from there, you likely know this country by just that label: Albania. People living there call it Shqipà«ri, Shqipni, however.
On a practical front, it is easy to see why the general public outside Albania does not use the country’s traditional name as it’s difficult to know just how to pronounce it. Linguists say that Shqipà«ri, Shqipni has its roots in the period of Ottoman rule, which took place after some Albanian people moved into Italy and Greece. "Shqip" is thought to be the original name of the people’s language. The ethnic Albanian communities in Italy and Greece do not use this name.
The word "Albania" is considered to be the country’s old traditional name. Texts from the 16th through 18th centuries call the nation Arbà«nà«. This word is said to come from the Latin word arvum which means "farmland" or "field," as well as the Greek word aroura meaning "farmland."
The land today known (by foreigners) as Albania was ruled by the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, and finally the Ottomans. With the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the land it occupied was divided by ambassadors from the great powers of the time such as Great Britain, Germany, and Russia, but in doing so did not pay sufficient attention to the ethnic and demographic realities of the area, paving the way for future instability in the region with the rise and fall of the Yugoslavian state. Following World War II, Albania was a communist country until 1992, and it is still undergoing democratic reform to this day.
On the northern edge of Africa facing Spain across the sea, Algeria is a country with an Arabic name. The word is literally "al-Jazair" and means "the islands," referring to four islands that used to be off the country’s coast but have been part of the mainland since 1525. Africa’s largest country, Algeria is rich in oil and was conquered by the French during the 19th century, after having been partially ruled by the Ottomans.
The French named their colony after Algiers, the city they chose as its capital, after they invaded in 1830. Algeria was France's longest-held overseas territory, and an important possession in their empire. Gradual dissatisfaction among the Algerians due to their lack of political and economic power grew, leading to increased autonomy granted by France as they worked to quell civil unrest. Finally, Algeria gained its independence in 1962, and maintains close cultural and economic ties with the French.
You might not hear much about this landmass, but it does exist. American Samoa is an unincorporated US territory in the South Pacific. It covers seven South Pacific islands and atolls, and its capital is Pago Pago located on the island of Tutuila. Originally settled by Polynesians around 1000 BCE, it was first sighted by the Europeans in 1722, with contact beginning when beachcombers and missionaries visited.
In 1878, the United States signed a treaty in order to establish a naval harbour on the islands, then in 1899 they were divided between the US and Germany before the US took control of the whole area in 1900. It remained a strategic local for a US naval base, and under the country's control, though the people of American Samoa fought for the ability to control their own affairs. In 1977 they elected their own first governor, in 1981 their first nonvoting delegate for the House of Representatives, and finally their first congressman in 1988.
The word Samoa is said to mean "people of the sea" but American Samoans do not have a consensus on this. Linguists who have attempted to trace the origin have been met with multiple explanations for the meaning of the word, but none have proven conclusive.
If you are looking for tiny countries with lots of skiing, this is your spot. Andorra is a minuscule independent principality located between Spain and France in the Pyrenees mountain range. There is some debate surrounding the origins of the country’s name. Some say "Andorra" comes from the Basque word Andurrial meaning "shrub-covered land," but others feel the name comes from the Spanish word Andar which means "to walk." These are two of multiple possible explanations coming from Basque, Arabic, or Spanish.
Andorra has strong ties to Catalonia, the region in northern Spain, and the main language spoken in this tiny state is Catalan along with Spanish and French. Following control of the Roman empire and then the Visigoths, it escaped the rule of the Arabs as it was protected by the Franks to the north. In the year 988, the land was given to the Diocese of Urgell by the Count of Barcelona in exchange for land elsewhere. Since then, the Bishop of Urgell has remained the co-prince of Andorra along with the Crown of France, and later the President.
Located close to the southern tip of Africa, Angola borders Namibia, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and the Atlantic Ocean. "Angola" comes from the word Ngola, which refers to an iron object representing kingship in the Lunda and Mbundu people.
It was originally the roaming lands for noadic tribes like the Khoi and the San, until the Bantu migration starting around 1000 BCE. Different kingdoms and city-states were established and occupied the lands on Angola until the arrival of the Portuguese. The country was colonized by Portugal for about 400 years beginning in the 1500s, up to its independence in 1975. As a result, it is a Portuguese-speaking country, although another 46 unofficial languages are spoken within its borders, mostly Bantu languages.
Anguilla is a British Overseas Territory located in the Eastern Caribbean. Full of sunny beaches and blue skies, the territory gets its name from the Italian or French word for "eel" in reference to the country’s long, skinny geographic shape. Known for an important salt industry before its collapse in the 1980s, Anguilla is a tropical paradise populated largely by people of African descent.
It was not always this way, however. The country was first inhabited by Arawakan-speaking people from the Orinoco River basin of South America around 2000 BCE, who called the nation Malliouhana. Later, in 1650, British settlers from Saint Kitts came and colonized the land, with great difficulty as they were often attacked by Indigenous people and other colonizers. The British joined the colony together with Saint Kitts and later with Nevis, which the Anguillan people protested. Following drought, widespread poverty and labour disturbances, the British quickly began a process of democratization on Anguilla and other surrounding colonies in the 1930s. Anguilla was part of an associated state with Saint Kitts and Nevis set up by the British in 1967, but Anguillans flat out refused, declaring themselves independent. This brought the return of British rule, and today it is a politically stable British Territory.
Antigua and Barbuda
Located in the Caribbean, this nation is an independent Commonwealth country with a name that refers to its two main islands. Antigua and Barbuda is located where the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Ocean meet and is a popular tourist destination with beaches, reefs, and rainforests in abundance.
Antigua is said to be named by Christopher Columbus in 1493 after the Church of Santa Maria de la Antigua found in Sevilla, Spain. Barbuda was called "Wa’omoni" by its original Indigenous settlers, which is believed to mean "Island of Herons." It was likely Portuguese cartographer Diego Ribero who named the area "Barbuda" in the 1500s, possibly referring to the nation’s wild fig-trees, whose aerial roots make them look like they have beards.
Like other islands in the Caribbean, the British and French both attempted to colonize, with great difficulty at first, with the British succeeding by the end of the 17th century. It became part of the Leeward Islands colony, a group of islands under British rule, until that colony's dissolution. Antigua entered into associated statehood with the United Kingdom, with Barbuda as a dependency of Antigua. An independence movement overtook the islands in the 1970s, and finally in 1981 they achieved independence.
Home to Buenos Aires, the "Paris of South America," Argentina’s name refers to the Latin word for silver, Argentum. Shipwrecked Spanish conquerors were given silver presents by Indigenous peoples in what was to become Argentina in the 1500s. Both the Portuguese and Spanish discovered the country was rife with silver, and the name stuck.
The land was occupied by various Indigenous peoples prior to the arrival of the Europeans, such as the Incas in the Northwest highlands. It was a Spanish colony starting in 1580, and because of the migration of Spaniards and Italians, the population today mostly has European ancestry with a smaller portion with Indigenous heritage. The independence movement in Argentina began in the 1800s, and they declared their independence in 1816. It took many years to defeat Spanish royalists in the northern part of the country who refused the Independence of Argentina. Today, Argentina has come out of political and economic turmoil from the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st.
As a landlocked country in Eurasia with a deep history, Armenia is a former republic of the Soviet Union and now considered to be part of Europe, although it sits right on the border between Europe and Asia and so is sometimes considered transcontinental. Interestingly, Armenians do not call their country Armenia but rather Hyastan, and themselves Hayq (plural. Singular, "Hay"). These words hearken back to a folk hero named Hayk, who legend says was a great-great-grandson of Noah, from the Bible’s Old Testament. According to Armenian legend, he is the forefather of the Armenian people.
The name Armenia was given to the land by the surrounding states, possibly because of a tribe who lived in the lands, the Armens. However, other theories exist as to the origin of the name Armenia.
Armenia was ruled by the Persians and later by Alexander the Great's Macedonians, the Seleucids, the Romans, the Persians and the Byzantines, but even so, the Armenians were known throughout those times as a fiercely autonomous and individualistic people. Their culture and language were heavily influenced by the Franks, and later they fell under Ottoman rule. During this period, the Turkic Ottomans committed a genocide of the Armenians, and the death count of ethnic Armenians during this time is estimated anywhere between 600,000 and 1,500,000. They became part of the Soviet Union in 1918. After a long period of struggle, the Armenians declared independence in 1991.
Located in the Caribbean Sea, the origins of Aruba’s name are debated. Some say the name comes from Spanish. "Oro huba" can mean "there was gold." Unfortunately, this was not true in Aruba, as it is without gold and the Spaniards did not regard Aruba as having any value. The name could also come from two Carib Indigenous words. Ora means "shell’ and Oubao means "island."
The island was first inhabited by the Arawaks, an Indigenous population before it was claimed by the Spanish in 1499. It was a hub for piracy and illegal trade. It became part of the Dutch West India Company in 1636. Little economic development took place until an oil refinery was constructed in 1920, which considerably improved living standards on the island as the population saw profit. It was under the administration of the island of Curaçao for much of its history as a Dutch colony, and in 1986 it became an autonomous state following protest from its population over the control of Curaçao, and not the Netherlands itself. While it was originally on a path towards independence, that goal has been postponed indefinitely.
Known as the "Land Down Under," Australia lies in the southern hemisphere and is the largest country in Oceania. Its name is said to come from the Latin word Australis which means "Southern." Australia was named by the English explorer Matthew Flinders in the early 1800s.
Australia is a collection of former British colonies and is today part of the Commonwealth. Interestingly, it had actually been previously named New Holland by the Dutch. Before becoming a colony, Indigenous peoples inhabited the land for centuries. Britain first came into contact with the land when explorer James Cook arrived in 1770, and it became an official colony in 1788. As a prison colony, it was largely populated by convicts as an alternative to capital punishment. In 1900, the six colonies of Australia became an independent nation, but as part of the Commonwealth, they maintain a link with the United Kingdom.
Landlocked in Europe, Austria is a small country whose name refers to the fact that it sits east of Germany. The name is related to the ancient high German word Ostarrichi, which means "Eastern realm," and it was used as early as the year 996 to reference the region that bordered Bavaria.
Around the year 700, the land was settled by the Bavarians and the Slavs, and there is evidence of Frankish influence at that time. A family called the Habsburgs ruled the area of Austria from their capital, Vienna, starting in 1526. They also ruled Bohemia, today part of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Serbia, and Slavonia, now part of Croatia. As with many other empires throughout history, it became unsustainable for the Habsburgs and conflicts with other monarchies, the industrial revolution, mobilization by the population to become more involved with politics all proved strenuous. The people began a revolution in 1848, and Austria became a short-lived dual monarchy with Hungary before that crumbled as well. Austria became a republic in 1918.
Surrounded by the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus Mountains, the origins of Azerbaijan’s name is disputed. Many think the country was named after an Iranian governor named Atropatene, who ruled over a region now located in modern Iranian Azarbaijan. The word Atropates comes from Old Persian and means "protected by fire."
Early inhabitants of this area were Iranian speakers, Turkic tribes, and Kurds and the Arabs and Persians heavily influenced the area. After wars between Russia and Iran, the Azerbaijani had their land divided between the two states as they sat between the border. Russian Azerbaijan became part of the Soviet Union when it formed, and it remained under Soviet control until its dissolution.