Monday, January 4, 2010

A River Runs Through It

(A necessary Preface, I believe:  Please do not cite this in any professional manner as all this information was taken off Wikipedia.  Use a nice, verifiable, able to be referenced encyclopedia.  This is mostly cocktail trivia I provide on this site.)

No, I have not seen the movie of the same name, but I think it's a rather epic title, if I don't say so myself.  This post came about because of a discussion in the car on the way to Tours this weekend.  We were taking my niece back to school there, and she mentioned about how the river in Tours is called "La Loire" while the river in the town where I am staying is called "Le Loir."  Now, this is something I never really thought about, but I was really confused by the fact that now not only were rivers feminine, but they could also be masculine, should they so choose.

Now, of course, my original thought was that it would logically follow with the "e" as quite a few feminine endings occur on words that end in "e."  There was "La Seine" in Paris as well as "La Garonne" in Bordeaux.  Ok, so we had a logical pattern.  Of course, that plan was quickly put to rest when "Le Rhône" was brought to my attention. 

Another thought was maybe it was the size of the river.  Maybe because the word for a smaller river carried a different gender, therefore it would require that different particle.  So what were the words in French for rivers?  The first word, "La Riviere," can be used for any smaller river that runs into another river, so what we'd call a tributary in English.  Examples of tributaries would be the rivers that empty into the Loire.  There's the "La Loir" and "La Cher."  The other word, "Le Fleuve" is used for a word that empties into an ocean.  So for example, the Seine empties into the English Channel, and therefore would be "un fleuve."  The same could be said for the Rhône and the Loire, which respectively empty into the Mediterranean Sea and the Bay of Biscay.  However, that idea was shot down because the word "Le Fleuve" is masculine, and "La Seine" kills that theory for one.  So that's two down.

So I spoke with my brother in law, who is knowledgeable on these conundrums.  He said he did not think there was rhyme nor reason for the genders of the rivers.  He thinks it was most likely chosen by the early inhabitants who imbued the river with gender.  For me, being that I am very much a good little Indo-European boy, my only solution is to give the river a feminine article.

I immediately had to go back to my only other familiarity with foreign languages to check this phenomenon myself.  I was remembering back to German class with "die Donau," "die Havel," und "die Spree."  However, I was amazed to realize that it is "der Rhein," and "der Main."  So it appears as though most nations don't have hard and fast rules about the genders of rivers.

Now, of course to me, nothing is more fascinating than where the names of these rivers come from.  As we all know in the US, something like ninety five percent of all rivers are from Amerindian languages: Ohio, Mississippi, Chattahoochee, Allegheny, Monongahela, Missouri, Rappahannock, etc.  (I am sorry for not going further west but the only river I can think of out West right now is the Columbia, and I doubt that's anything in any Amerindian language.)

Some French river names are sometimes very simple.  One my brother in law explained to me is that the Rhône River comes from a Greek root, meaning "to flow."  Van Gogh also did a painting called Starry Night Over the Rhône. Additionally, the Loire river comes from a Latin root, Liger, which is a transcription of the Gaulish Liga, meaning silt or deposit.  The Seine, it is said, is from a Latin root "sequana" which is said to be a transliteration of a Gaulish word, "sicauna."  It is said to mean "sacred river."

Of course, to me it's just amazing to be able to see the history here, even in place names.  Then again, I am kind of an historical linguistics geek like that.  It's amazing to think that some of these rivers and places have had people for centuries before the US even existed.  Even more bizarre is that I share DNA with them, most likely.  So here's to hoping you had a great Holiday, and unfortunately for all; it's time to get back to work.  I hope Monday was kind to you.

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