God save the König

Throughout September there has understandably been a lot of international news coverage of the British Royal Family. The passing of Queen Elizabeth II on 8th September has meant that news outlets everywhere are publishing stories not only about her, but also about her family. And it is clear from the way the Queen in particular is referred to that she held a very special position in the minds of people not just in the UK, but across the world.

Take the Austrian news, for example, and how the Queen is named. Unlike most other monarchs, the Queen isn’t often translated into German (Königin); even in German-language texts, the Queen remains die Queen. King Charles III, on the other hand, is pretty much exclusively König Charles III.

Headline from an ORF article (11th October 2022) [2]

In this article[2] by the ORF, published on 11th October 2022, Elizabeth is referred to as Queen three times, once as part of the whole Queen Elizabeth II and once in the phrase zur Beisetzung der Queen. She is referred to as Königin twice, this being when the article talks about her position rather than her name, for example:

So war Queen Elizabeth II. zwar seit dem Tod ihres Vaters König George VI. am 6. Februar 1952 Königin.


Charles, on the other hand, is referred to as the König four times in this article, but not a single time as der King or King Charles III. Only Queen Elizabeth II seems to enjoy the privilege of keeping the English term Queen. More on this later.

It’s not uncommon for the first names of prominent historical figures to be translated into different languages. This has happened a lot in German, for instance. King Henry VIII is usually referred to as König Heinrich VIII (pronounced “der Achte”). In fact, the monarchy in general is a source of an abundance of translations of names: a King Edward in English is typically a König Eduard in German, a King George would be a König Georg, a King William would be a König Wilhelm – and a Queen Elizabeth would be a Königin Elisabeth.

Such translations used to be more common than they are nowadays. This is likely thanks to Latin – the name of a prominent figure, for example a monarch, would exist in Latin and from there would have equivalents in other languages where the monarch would be referred to. You can see this happening up to this day with the name of the Pope, whereby the pontifical name is given in Latin and then translated into other languages.

Henry VIII has different names in different languages…
…as does Pope Francis [3]

This practice of translating names of prominent figures has become quite inconsistent, though. Queen Victoria seems to be predominantly (but not exclusively) referred to as Victoria and not Viktoria in German, whereas the Georges and Edwards that came after her seem to appear more often as Georg and Eduard respectively.

And then we come to Queen Elizabeth II. In German articles, I’ve seen both Elizabeth (the English way) and I’ve seen Elisabeth (the German way).

And then we come to the current King, King Charles III. So far, I’ve only seen him referred to in German as König Charles III; if I search for König Karl III in Google, I only get Charles III of Spain, and Charles III of the Carolingian Empire (otherwise known as Charles the Fat). So far, the current King Charles only really appears to be referred to as Charles in German, and not as Karl.

I think this has a couple of reasons. Firstly, the names of monarchs are being translated less and less across the board. For example, the more recent Spanish monarchs retain their Spanish names in English: Felipe VI, Juan Carlos I, and even as far back as Alfonso XII and Alfonso XIII. Go even further back than that, though, and you’ll see Isabel II as Isabella II, you’ll see Fernando VII as Ferdinand VII. This shift to retaining the original names could be down to these names being taken directly from the source language rather than via Latin.

Another reason why I believe Charles is likely to stay Charles is the simple fact that we’re talking about the British monarchy. English as a language enjoys great status and prominence within German anyway, so English names don’t stand out as being unusual or out of place. But it’s also down to the fact that the British monarchy has simply caught the imagination of people overseas in a way that other monarchies haven’t quite been as able. If you ask anyone in Austria, for instance, about the Königsfamilie, they are most likely to jump to the British Royal Family, and particularly to the Queen.

And this brings me back to the word Queen itself. It’s one thing to translate or not translate the monarch’s name. But the word Queen is not a name as such, at least not in the same way. It’s a word that has its own translations in every language where there is a concept of a ‘queen’. As such, regardless of whether a monarch’s name is translated, the ‘king’ or ‘queen’ part of the name will appear as König or Königin in German. Queen Margrethe II of Denmark is Königin Margrethe II in German, not Dronning Margrethe II, as she would be in Danish.

Queen Margrethe II of Denmark tends to be called Königin in German, not Dronning

A queen is called Königin in German almost every time. Almost. The Queen is the exception here. Why? For the very reason that I didn’t have to mention which queen I was referring to when I just wrote The Queen. “The Queen” is and always will be Queen Elizabeth II.

The times I have seen the word Königin used to refer to Queen Elizabeth II tends to be when reporters are writing about her position as opposed to the figure of “The Queen”. You might see “die britische Königin” or “die am längsten regierende Königin” – in such instances, Königin could be anyone. The Queen is just one of multiple queens, and we’re identifying which queen we’re talking about. In other cases, Queen Elizabeth II is predominantly die Queen.

Anecdotally I can also say that people (in Austria) in their everyday spoken language use tend to talk about the Queen as die Queen and not, for instance, die Königin, again because a Königin could be any queen, but there is only one Queen. We also can’t forget that for the vast majority of people, Queen Elizabeth II is the only British monarch of our lifetime; the Queen is the British monarchy.

Queen Elizabeth II is synonymous with the British monarchy

Now this all begs the question as to what is happening with the new king, and what will happen going forward. So far, King Charles III is being referred to as König Charles III in German, and not as der King. The English name Charles is being retained, but the King part seemingly isn’t travelling with him.

A Google search for “der King” gave me songs, TV shows, TikTok influencers, but no Charles.

A search for “der neue King” gave me “der neue King of Rap” and “der neue King of Doubletime”, alongside a few references to King Charles.

A search for “der britische King” resulted in “Der britische King Charles Spaniel” and “Denco ist wohl der britische ‘King‘ der Kühlsysteme”.

Why are people not using King in German? We’re in the age of the overabundance of anglicisms, where people seemingly take every opportunity to use an English word instead of a German one to seem cool and relevant. Why isn’t Charles der King?

I have a theory. I think it’s because we know Charles as a prince. He’s not (yet) synonymous with his role as king. Whereas with the Queen, most of us never knew her in any other position, Charles has become king, and through this becoming king, the air of the immortal and the permanence is lost. For now, Charles is another king, among a list of other existing kings. And I think the moment he shakes the image of him being a prince, he is fully accepted as a symbol for Britain and the monarchy, and he truly captures the imagination of the population over here, that’s the moment King will start to take off. Whether that will happen sooner or later, or at all, we’ll have to see.

Final thought: The word “Queen” was also transferred to German with The Queen Mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who is widely known as “Queen Mum” – notably often without an article!

“Queen Mum”

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[1] Copyright House of Lords 2022 / Photography by Annabel Moeller, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Queen%E2%80%99s_Speech_-_52063897843.jpg. License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode.

[2] https://orf.at/stories/3289310/ (11.10.2022)

[3] Copyright Presidenza della Repubblica. Original source: www.quirinale.it. Retrieved from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Portrait_of_Pope_Francis_(2021).jpg.

[4] Photo by Johannes Jansson. CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Drottning_Margrethe_av_Danmark_crop.jpg. License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/legalcode.

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