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Most words starting with Landes- that I have encountered are about regions or states. For example: Landesbank, Landesbehörde, Landesbeamte,...

But here is Landesindex: Switzerland's national consumer price index.

Is there a way to know when the attribute being described is regional or national? Or is it a country-specific thing, e.g. in Germany Landes- means regional and maybe in Switzerland it means national?

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    I am no expert, but I suspect this confusion is due to political history, where in Austria and Germany, there were originally a many Länder, individual principalities, that later got united into larger empires, and finally federal states (more or less gradually). So Land can both refer to "the whole political entity" = "country, nation" and "a region which was historically a Land" = "federal state". – phipsgabler May 27 '20 at 8:23
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    The Swiss, having formed an Eidgenossenschaft for 700 years, deviate from this significantly, and can therefore use Land in a broader sense. – phipsgabler May 27 '20 at 8:24
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    And then there is also Land as opposite to Stadt (as in rural vs. urban). Language tends to be ambiguos wherever it can - while Kirschkuchen contains cherries, Hundekuchen does not contain dogs and Mutterkuchen does not conain mothers. – Hagen von Eitzen May 27 '20 at 13:46
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    @Hagen von Eitzen: as a matter of fact, baby oil does not contain babies either, so English speakers should be acquainted with cases like this... – rob74 May 27 '20 at 14:18
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    It's the same in English. A "state highway" in New Zealand is operated by the nation state. In the USA, it would be the individual state of the union. – Rich May 29 '20 at 3:50
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I can comment on the usage in Austria and I think most of Germany will follow the same logic. In Austria you would refer to organisations on a regional (state) level with "Landes-". In politics, you would use "Ländersache" to describe issues that are dealt with on the level of a state (or Land) as opposed to "Bundes-" or "National" on a country level. In Austria and Germany the regions are called "Bundesländer" or "Länder" whereas in Switzerland they are called "Kantone" which would explain what you referred to in your post. In other contexts you might see Austria and Germany as whole referred to as "Land" as in "im ganzen Land", so you might want to look for context as well.

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    AFAIK the situation in the US is similar - they use "state..." for things referring to the individual states ("state law", "state prison" etc.) and "federal..." to refer to the "national" level. That's almost exactly the same thing as "Landes..." and "Bundes..." in Germany and Austria. – rob74 May 27 '20 at 14:22
  • @SBFin except, ironically, in "Bundesländer" and "federal states", which neither belong to the Bundesebene nor to the federal level! – henning -- reinstate Monica May 27 '20 at 19:11
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    @henning: exceptions prove the rule, most probably. Since, the Bundesländer make up the Bund, we may call them Bundesland, the same way as we call pieces of cake (making up the whole cake) Tortenstück. – Dohn Joe May 28 '20 at 8:12
  • @henning--reinstateMonica which neither belong to the Bundesebene nor to the federal level!: Apart from the fact that Bundesebene and federal level denote the same, the Länder constitute the Bundesebene, so I find it hard to say that they don't belong to it – amadeusamadeus Jun 13 '20 at 20:24
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Germany, Austria and Switzerland are federal states like USA or Mexico too. This means, that all of the named countries are unions of a couple of former individual countries.

The USA is well know to be a federation of 50 states, and many people might also have learned that Mexico too is a federation that consists of 31 states.

  • Germany is a federation ("Bund") of 16 states (singular: "Land" or "Bundesland", plural: "Länder" or "Bundesländer")
  • Austria is a federation ("Bund") of 9 states (singular: "Land" or "Bundesland", plural: "Länder" or "Bundesländer")
  • Switzerland is a federation ("Bund") of 26 states (singular: "Kanton", plural: "Kantone")

You see, that the Swiss federal states are not called "Länder" or "Bundesländer" but "Kantone", which makes it a little bit easier.

But also the federations themselves (Germany, Austria, Switzerland, USA and Mexico) are "Länder" (countries)

So, you have the situation, that in Germany and Austria the category-name is the same for the federal states as well as for the federation.

So, this all is correct:

Deutschland ist ein Land. - Germany is a country.
Das Saarland ist ein Land. - Saarland is a state.
Das Saarland ist ein Bundesland Deutschlands. - Saarland is a federal state of Germany.

Österreich ist ein Land. - Austria is a country.
Das Burgenland ist ein Land. - Burgenland is a state.
Das Burgenland ist ein Bundesland Österreichs. - Burgenland is a federal state of Austria.

And so, when you talk about a Länderspiel, then this is an international match (in sports).

A Ländervergleich is an international comparison, but is also might be a comparison between federal states within one federation.

But a Länderkammer always is a federal cabinet.

So, some terms beginning with Länder- always mean something that is international, some other always mean something that belongs to federal states of a federation, and some of these terms can mean both, depending on the context.

How can you know? Do the same that native speakers do: Learn it for each word, and if you are not sure, pay attention to the context.

  • Fun fact: From 1947 to 1957 the Saarland was a country (Land ), but now it's a state (Land) ^^. – mtwde May 27 '20 at 15:52
  • Ah and don't forget that "Deutschland ist ein Staat". How would that be translated? Germany is a nation? – keuleJ May 28 '20 at 18:35
  • @keuleJ: Possible translations of the German word "Staat" are (in brackets: back-translations): country (Land, Staat, Gelände, Gegend), nation (Land, Nation, Staat, Volk), state (Zustand, Bundesland, Staat, Nation, Status, Land, Stand, Stellung, Lage, Stadium), government (Regierung, Führung, Leitung, Obrigkeit, Staat). As you can see, for non of the English terms is the German "Staat" the most preferred way to translate it back into German. If you feed "Staat" into the google translate you get "country", and if you translate it back you get "Land". ... – Hubert Schölnast May 29 '20 at 8:10
  • ... This means that "Staat" is one of those words, that are hard to translate into English, because there is no English word, that has exact the same meaning as the German "Staat". So, "German is a nation" is a valid translation, but it's not perfect. The same is true for "German is a land", "German is a country" etc. These are all valid translations, but none of them is perfect. A perfect translation doesn't exist. – Hubert Schölnast May 29 '20 at 8:14
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In Germany, as a rule of thumb, when »Land« is in the definite, especially in plural or in combined terms, it means “state”. In the indefinite, it usually means “country”. (»Staat« meanwhile never means “state” within Germany, it generally refers to country-level political structure or else to a state within the USA.)

  • »Die Länder haben beschlossen...« – the federal states have decided
  • »Der Landesgerichtshof« – the state court
  • »Die Schulen sind Sache des Landes« – schools are a state affair
  • »Ein schönes Land« – a beautiful country
  • »Viele Länder sind ärmer« – many countries are poorer

This is not a hard rule. Especially, if you're mentioning a definite country, and saying exactly which one, then this obviously overrides it

  • »Das Land Usbekistan ist berühmt für...« – the country Uzbekistan is famous for...

vice versa, you can also have an indefinite collection of states, but then it's usually made explicit:

  • »Mehrere Bundesländer haben dagegen gestimmt« – multiple federal states have voted against
  • »NRW is ein großes Bundesland«

Furthermore, »Land« in the definite can also have the different meaning of countryside, i.e. somewhere rural. This is more typical in an informal or poetic context.

  • »Am Wochenende fahren wir aufs Land« – on the weekend, we go to the countryside
  • »Das Land ist weit« – it is a vast/great landscape
  • I am not sure about the distinction between definite=state and indefinite=country. I think it depends always on the context and the author. – mtwde May 27 '20 at 16:05

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