Tuesday, April 07, 2015

River River

Now that I know we have an actual geographer reading along, I reprint a fun post on geographical names from 8 years ago.  I will note that since that time I have become interested in Theo Vennemann's theories about naming in Europe.


I mentioned at work that hydronyms, particularly river-names, are among the oldest names in any location. Many American rivers have kept their Indian names, or even the name from the tribe preceding the one we encountered here. England has Brythonic (Breton) river-names everyhere, and Romania retains some Dacian river-names. That would be, uh, from the people before the people before the people before the people who are there now.

Naming does not seem to be particularly original in any culture. "Big River" and "Dark River" covers a lot of ground worldwide. Rio Grande and Mississippi sound very charming, but are just "Big River." Compare also Lake Superior. There is also the Yangtze, "Long River" - not much different; and Yukon, "Great River." Under the category of "Dark River" we have the Susquehannah, the Thames, and about a hundred others.

But this is nowhere near the worst of it. The word for river is related to the word "flow" in many languages: German Fluss, Anglos-Saxon Floss, Latin flumen. I don't want you to get the idea that river names built off this mean something charming like Flowing River. They just mean "flowing," or "flows" or "flowing water." Very concrete, our ancestors were. Most rivers that empty into the Danube just mean "flow" in various languages.
The most common name, actually is just "river." Danube, Don, Donets, Dniester, Dniepr, and Tyne from the same root that just means "river." The Rivers Avon in England - there are at least three - all mean "River River." Potomac River means "River River"

We do this today without a thought. In New England, if you are going to The Cape, there is only one, even though there are dozens. In Jersey you go to The Shore. Wherever you are, if you say "We're going to The Lake," people know what you mean.

You can find a few bright rivers, white rivers, fast rivers, fish rivers and the like, but Big, Dark, or River pretty much covers it.

Most groups just call themselves "The People," or "The Human Beings," or "The Folk."


Old Sourdough said...

Here in Alaska, most river names end in "na," which means "river" in Athabaskan. We have "Chitina," "Tustumena," "Gilahina," etc. We even have "Nana."

Assistant Village Idiot's wife said...

So I'm river river in Athabaskan to my granddaughter!

Grim said...

King Arthur is said to have fought many battles by the Black River: "Dubhglas" in Gaelic, which Anglicizes to "Douglas."

Sam L. said...

There's a Nana B up the street from me--that's on her license plate.

Texan99 said...

Was it here, or in one of McWhorter's books, that I ran across an English location that was three old words for "pretty good-sized hill" all run together? Something with Tor in it. Wiki suggests that I'm thinking of Torpenhow.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

As McWhorter is one of my most-admired people, it inflates me greatly to think I might have been confused with him, however briefly. It was indeed here: http://assistantvillageidiot.blogspot.com/2011/09/toponomy-myth.html

SJ said...

The comment about "Lake Superior" spurred me to do a little research.

Lake Superior; from French for "Upper Lake". However, the geographers who anglicized the named mentioned that it was the largest lake they knew of.

Lake Michigan, from an Ojibwe word "mishigami", "Large Lake"

Lake Huron, named for one of the tribes of Natives in the area.

Lake Erie, from the name of another tribe in the area.

Lake Ontario, from a Huron word meaning "shining waters".

So they're not all "big lake", but two of them are, after a fashion. And a third is "shining water"; while the other two are tribal names.

iOpener said...

While traveling in Spain a few months ago I was struck by the thought that the Guadiana, Guadaira, Guadalope, Guadalete, Guadiaro, Guadalfeo, Guadalhorce and Guadalquivir rivers have a lot of Agua in them and their names. Maybe the Arga and Ega too.

Perhaps a lot of such names just mean 'water'.