Re: [tied] Who named the rivers of Europe?

From: x99lynx@...
Message: 15885
Date: 2002-10-02

Piotr wrote:
<1. How do we know what the Slavs called the Elbe if they were
pre-literate? Because the name Laba exists. If see fresh snow in the morning,
I assume that it snowed during the night. Some philosophers might rebuke me
for that, but I somehow get along with this kind of deductive reasoning. The
form Laba was produced by liquid metathesis -- an early process in
word-initial position. It can't have taken place in "literate" times (which
begun in the tenth century at best for the western Slavs) but predated them
by about three centuries. >

Actually I think you are assuming that it snowed last week. When is your
first evidence of liquid metathesis among Western Slavs? It can't be before
literacy. When is Laba first recorded among Western Slavs? It can't be
before literacy. A very good field linguist once said to me that the most
difficult question in historical linguistics is not how a sound change came
about, but how it spread. Two very different questions. Unless you believe
that liquid metathesis fell from heaven one night, you have a dating problem
before literacy.

However, if the name Elbe underwent metathesis in a single Western Slavic
linguistic community and then spread in that new form to other Slavic
speakers, then what what was really spreading was the concept of that river
with a standardized name -- a pre-existing "Classical" name that underwent
metathesis. Rivers with many names are an anthropological commonplace in
areas much smaller than Europe. The leap is to formalize a single name along
the whole river and, just as importantly, to those beyond contact with the

If a German speaker would have referred to the Elbe in speaking to a
Pomeranian in 1000BC, would that Pomeranian have recognized it as the Laba?
Would he have even have heard of the Laba? Would he have thought they were
different rivers? Would he have recognized the metathesis and connected the
two names? Or would getting this whole matter straight mean going to
"learning" -- and would it have to await the written word?

My own notion is that these Slavs were stubborn about using what they took as
native words -- they had no idea of what the source of Laba was, but that it
sounded Slavic and was their name for the Elbe. So the SPREAD of Laba may
have happened LONG AFTER metathesis. Long before that learned men --
directly or indirectly -- probably introduced the standardized name of a
river called the Elbe to a fringe group of Slavs along the Elbe itself or
perhaps in Moravia. That introduction did not have to happen in Slavic

I'm pretty sure this whole process was not as simple as you are making it. I
think it is a mistake to act as if these river and place names were universal
and agreed upon from day one. Anthropology tells us this isn't so. What
writing hides is that among pre-literate people common place names are not
standardized. But because writing is the only source you have for these
early names -- and because writing standardizes -- it only looks like
preliterate people had a common, universal or "official" name for such
geographical formations.

I wrote:
2. When the Slavs did become literate enough to leave us their name for the
Elbe, they must have gotten that literacy from folks who would have also
informed them of the "proper name" of the Elbe. 

Piotr wrote:
<<No, they got their literacy from Christian clerks a long time later. >>

But that does not change the fact that they may have gotten the name --
directly or indirectly -- from or because of the same folks that brought them

<<When settling in depopulated Central Europe they surely found some remnants
of the local Germanic population, but I doubt if there were any readers of
Pliny among them. >

Look over at the the European Archeaologist archives, where you can find a
long lists of posts from German archaeologists who would place scattered
Slavic settlements in the vicinity of the Elbe NOT before 700 AD. You have
no way of knowing what those scattered settlements called the Elbe or if they
had ten different local names for it. And you have no way of knowing what
"remnants of the local Germanic population" called the river. What we do
know however is that by @800AD, Charlemagne has Slavic troops at his court
and is settling disputes among Slavic princes. You have no way of knowing if
the standardization of the name did not begin and spread to various Slavic
tribes at that time.

If there were Slavs far from the Elbe at that time who knew of the "Laba"
before that time, it would indicate that they learned it from sources who
themselves knew of the "official" name Elbe via the written word.

I wrote:
<3. Well before the Slavic name for the Elbe was first recorded, Slavs living
on the Elbe were in contact with Franks and their clerics who were aware of
everything from Theodoric to the Latin name for the Elbe.  In Charlemagne's
court, western Slavic princes were already called "ancient allies" of the

Piotr wrote:
<That was political courtesy.>

Well, that's not a linguistic judgment, is it? Not that it matters, but this
is a little bit of double standard. You take some ancient texts literally,
but others you conveniently re-interpret. I think that the first clear
mention of Wends or Slavs is in Frankish texts is the early 600's and that
contact would have been with traders or others who had knowledge with the
well-established and standardized name (through writing) for the Elbe. How
that word would have then spread among the Slavs who had never seen the Elbe
is another question. But the Western Slavs would become voracious traders
and its not impossible they were already in Frankish marketplaces much
earlier than that. No need to posit remnant Germanic populations as the only
western Slavic contact with western Europe.

Piotr wrote:
<Beside, Frankish/Slavic contacts did not mean that the Slavs invited
Frankish clerics to lecture them about their own toponymy. Classical
learning came to the Slavs centuries later, with Christianity.>

No need to put it that way. If the contacts communicated that the official
name of the lenght of the river was the Elbe, that would not require
Classical learning from anyone but the people who gave the river its official
name. Classical learning is what standardized the name of the Elbe. All the
Slavs had to do was get it second hand. Before they got it, they could have
called the Elbe fifty different names, each local and each native.

I wrote:
<<4. German clerics were well established among the Western Slavs well before
the first recording of the Slavic name for the Elbe. 

<<That's not enough. You'd need some German clerics teaching Slavs hydronymy
before the metathesis of liquids.>>

Well, then you will need to give an absolute date to the metathesis.
However, scribes were already standardizing the name of the Elbe long before
contact. When the Slavs first heard it, it was already standardized.
Whatever native non-Germanic/Latin names they had for the Elbe disappeared.
And of course the ultimate source of that standardized name for the Elbe
would be clerics/scribes/the written word. The carriers would be anyone who
had adopted those standardized names. This could mean traders or soldiers or
people at marketplaces (like Hedeby). Or it could be Slavic princes educated
at German courts or monasteries who returned with the concept of the
standardized, non-local river or place name. In other places, river names
appear to be native Slavic names (also standardized by writing.) We'd have
good reason to think that
the Slavs had either their own diverse, local names for the Elbe until they
were introduced to the standardized, official non-Slavic name -- a name
standardized by writing and the people who were doing the writing, clerics.

Steve Long