The Name of the Danube

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What's in a name?

"A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet.."

The Danube river passes through Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Moldova.

Its name in each of the countries languages is:

  • German: Donau
  • Slovak: Dunaj
  • Hungarian: Duna
  • Serbo-Croatian and Bulgarian: Dunav/ Дунав
  • Romanian: Dunarea
  • Ukrainian: Дунай

The name of the river originates from the a mythological source, from a Latin Roman river god, known as Danubius, or Danuvius. Additionally, the meaning can actually be derived from the ancient indigenous Slavonic tribes who called it the Great Water.

Legends have it that Danubius was very keen to colonise the places and peoples who lived along the Danube and to extent the boundaries and influences of the Roman empire to encompass this great watercourse. In an allegorical name.

Both in the past, as well as presently, it represents a major source of trade and connection, transporting people and goods across mainland Europe, and connecting the middle and northern countries with the south, the Balkan peninsula, and the Black Sea.

His vision was to exploit the different cultures and regions from which the Roman empire could prosper and annex the various riches that the basin possesses.

Was it a name that was given to the river because of its potentials, or because the people wanted it to represent, or evoke, its divine nature? The geopolitical structure of the region has significantly changed over times, and it significantly reflected on the economic changes in the region as well.

Although names do tend to remain untranslatable, the form and terms under which dialects take on a certain name makes linguistic sense.

In the geography of languages, it is a rule to see that linguistic varieties have a dialectic continuum, in which case the language spills across geo-political and cultural dividers, as bordering regions take on dialects that transcend those limits.

Further down the course, where it meets the Black Sea it is known as Istros, which is also based on a mythological river god, as he was known in Ancient Greece.

"The largest of the rivers of Europe, the Istros, rises from only a few springs and moves in a direction facing the first assaults of the sun. Later, many Rivers rise with one accord as though they were escorting him--for he is the King of the Rivers of that country--and flow perpetually, and those who live on their banks know each one by name. But as soon as they discharge into the Istros, the name which they had at their birth ceases to be used, they surrender it in his favour, all are called after him, and together pour their waters into the Euxeinos".
- Aelian, Greek natural history C2nd to 3rd A.D.

It is not uncommon to name natural splendours using mythological or divine function, in order to instil protection, guardianship, but mostly the magnificence of the setting by equating it to divinity and sanctity of legends. The Greeks put these practices to good use with their geographical entities and the renowned mythological figures.

If looked more in depth, one can find that the root of the word Istar, in ancient Greek, means flow, or flowing, and so on. One can see how these names take shape.

Moving along the way, linguistically and geographically, one can find an entire variety of meanings. It is said that Celts have given it a name Danuvius, based on their derivatives of the word danu, which means strong, or loud, ie. a loud river, or a river which makes noise.

On the other hand, In the Germanic languages, dune means wind-swept sand or sediment which have formed a bank, or a sandy bank. This could also be one of the possibilities.

For example, the gradual transformation of the name along the different cultural and linguistic regions signifies this language continuum. From German Donau to Hungarian Duna, and the Slavic languages Dunaj/ Dunai/ Dunav. This shows the variation of phonetics and how they are mutually intelligible.

It is interesting to note that the English designation, Danube, bears the closest resemblance to the actual root of the name, Danubius. The Romanian, the closest to Latin idiom, is the farthest from the root: Dunarea.

And, just as the river links other major waterways and a variety of regions which all have their own unique characteristics and appeal, so does the language along all the geographic and linguistic points.

The name has possibly changed and developed, just as the languages and dialects to, as generations modify their communication through cultural and geo-political development.

It often represents the relation between several factors: regional, social, and time variables. The results become quite obvious when the economic pursuits come into play, in particular in the past.

Overall, as it can be discerned, the variation is quite subtle. It manifests the separate languages developed from distinct dialects in the area, due to socio-cultural state of the region.

The most pronounced difference is the use of either Cyrillic or Latin alphabet and the variation of scripts, in accordance with religion and ethnicity.

It is evident that past settlers and colonizers of the region have left marks on cultural, social, and linguistic activities, in particular major powers - the Roman Empire, the Ottoman and the Hapsburg rules and eras. In addition to the main forces, regional differences in culture and tradition, along with social implications, all tend to powerfully shape the use of language and variables.

These idiom continua can contribute to creating geographical continua in cases when no geographical or geo-political boundaries matter, and the Danube is the perfect example of this. It is useful in expressing the individuality of the geographic entity, but more so, its greatness and contribution to the communities it flows through. Thus, it approximates the locales and makes for a moor integrative exposure, no matter the point in its course.