Saturday, September 15, 2012

On Hydronyms

The river that flows through the village is called the Alarconcillo. The river we went to to look at the salt mines a few days ago is the Pinilla. They both play a role in feeding the lakes and their two lines join up near the start. A couple of weeks ago I went to a village further south, on the river Cañamares. There is a stream that flows into the lower lakes, called the Magdalena, one of many that appear on the maps in the innumerable little valleys that the crumpled scenery here creates. This one is particular well known because it gives it name to a stretch on hill on the road to somewhere else where a lot of motorcyclists have met an unhappy end. It tempts you to go faster than the curves will allow.

All of this makes for a verdant-sounding countryside filled with the chatter of babbling brooks and the mating calls of happy and abundant fish. But all these rivers are dry. None of them deserves the name of river at all, as they are little more than mud channels baked in the sun. On the occasions when they do have water in them, it is a kind of sludge so narrow you can jump across it.

The city I live in is on the Guadiana, which at least is a proper river you can get wet in. It flows north-east, through Mérida and Badajoz, then goes south, forming the border between Spain and Portugal for about 70 miles and flowing into the Atlantic at Ayamonte. The name is Arabic and it somehow manages to keep its identity for several hundred miles, despite joining with many other rivers and passing through complex multi-feed drainage systems.

You would expect most people to call the river that waters their town or village ‘The River’. Why would you need a name for it at all? ‘And even if you did, to distinguish it from some other river that passed nearby, perhaps, why would the people in the village a few miles downstream give it the same name? There comes a point where the distance is so great, and it needn’t be more than a dozen or so miles, that it is not even recognised as the same river.

People identify their local river with some divinity, or event, or specific feature that characterises it, because they like giving an identity to the important things in their lives. Geographers give themselves the task of tracing rivers, then they need to define criteria for choosing names and deciding which has precedence, so the idea that a river has an identity over hundreds of miles is an invention of modern academia.

A neat explanation, if I do say so myself, but unfortunately it isn’t true. Hydronyms, and to a certain extent toponyms more generally, are extraordinarily durable. They are handed down from tribe to tribe, from conquered to conquerors, from those who left to go West to those who moved in to replace them. Most of the place and river names of Greece are not Greek. They have survived not only three thousand years of Greek culture, the Turkish conquest/semi-replacement of the 17thC, but they even survived the original occupation of the land we know as Greece by those who came from the East and displaced those who gave them those names.

There are countless river names in Spain that are Arabic, Visigothic or Celtic in origin. Why do people who share no language or cultural identity with the namers, nor any real cultural continuity, continue to use names that mean nothing to them?

Names are sounds. The meaning of the sounds is less important than the symbolism of the thing we attach them to. I am certain there is a great deal of information about human history in the human mind contained in the way we preserve and re-interpret names that have become meaningless, but try as I might, I can't find it.


James Higham said...

The city I live in is on the Guadiana, which at least is a proper river you can get wet in.

And thus sweep you away. ;-)

CIngram said...

Well, there are places near here you can wade across it, but in other places it has currents and fish and everything. Almost like a real river (you take what you can get around here).

CIngram said...


Being a bit slow on the uptake, I just got that ;-)

James Higham said...

It takes me far longer.