The Rivers Of France

A river is a beautiful thing. It runs along, its sings, it laughs, it glints in the sunlight and becomes darker beneath the trees.

Sometimes one may see the bottom, where there are stones and grasses, while at times it is a sombre abyss that fills one with shudders. The river comes from afar and goes no one knows whither. True, people say that it has a beginning and that its source lies yonder, in the mountains, but that is not at all so certain. What is a source? When you see a river, it is already a river and it never occurs to you that it may ever have been only a tiny ribbon of water trickling down from a rock. In olden days, when the world was happy, things were far different. Rivers flowed from a marble pitcher which was held in the hands of an eternally youthful, drooping maiden. But the wicked god of the Christians, who is not fond of maidens? beauty, broke those marble pitchers; the mothers of rivers died of grief and now the rivers are born by accident, as best they may be. If we are not so well informed about their birth, we know their life and their death. Their life is to bound along or to flow nonchalantly on, to prattle over the pebbles and dream amid the rushes. Often, when traversing the blooming meadows they love to spread across the grass. If dikes or tree-trunks bar the way they are provoked and even wax furious. But if it is a mill that rises before them, they turn its wheels with docile promptness, and continue on their way unperturbed. The river is the mother of men and trees, of beasts and plants. Without the river there are no fish; there are no birds. There are no crops, no flowers, no wine, no cattle, and man flees, parched by the sun. After having given life, the river has two ways of dying; either it expands into the bosom of a larger river or flows directly to mingle with the sea; the sea is the vast cemetery of all the rivers,—of the smallest as well as the greatest. But the river that dies is nevertheless just as eternal as the ocean that receives it into its depths. The clouds are born of the sea, and the wind wafts them toward the forests, where they make rain and swell the streams. There is in the world a circulation of water as in our bodies there is a circulation of blood. All this is well regulated. The sea loves the river. It comes to meet the stream and sends it as greeting the salt tang of its waves. The river fears this infinitude. For a long time it resists. At last, the sweet waters yield and melt under the powerful kisses of the brine: the swell of the waves lulls the wedded waters to rest.

The river is a person. It has a name. This name is very ancient, because the river, although perpetually young, is very old. It existed before men and before birds. Ever since men were born they loved the rivers, and as soon as they learned how to speak they gave them names. Even when we no longer understand them, the names of the rivers are the most beautiful in the world. There is the Gironde and the Adour; the Loire and the Vienne, the Rhône and the Ariège. But perhaps it is possible to understand these names. Let us try, by having recourse to the studies of a geographical scholar, M. Raoul de Félice. Our rivers have received their names from the various races that anciently occupied Gaul: The Iberians, an unknown people, the Ligurians, the Celts. At the moment of the Roman conquest, almost all the streams of France possess a name. So that modern names are very rare. The Iberians were probably Basques, if not in race at least in language. Even if this is contested, that would not prevent us from tracing the word Adour back to the Basque word iturria, which means spring, source. It is to the Iberians that we likewise owe names such as the Aude, the Orbieu, the Urugne. Here probably came a people yet unknown, but of Indo-European language, which was perhaps the godfather to many of our rivers. To this people it may be we owe the names Somme, Sèvre, Herault,—names that are derived from various roots signifying water, liquid, source. According to the same theory, Durance, Drône, Drot, Drac might be translated by “the running water,” and the same idea would be found in the name Rhône, while the Loire would be “the stream that waters;” the Meurthe, “she who moistens.” As to the Garonne, that would be, “the rapid one”; but the matter is still under discussion: the Garonne has not given up its secret, any more than the Gironde. We may note, in passing, that there are in France three other Garonnes, without taking into account a Garon, a Garonnette, and a Garonnelle; there are seven or eight Girondes, of which two are in the environs of Paris, tributaries of the Orge and the Marne. The Oise and the Isdre stand for the same thing, namely, “the rapid one,” which seems rather hazardous to me in the case of the Oise. Certain rivers flow in a deep-cut bed; thus they have received a name which would signify something like case, vase or sheath: these are the Couse, the Cousin, the Cusom, the Cousanne, the Couzeau, and the names Couzon.

We now come to the part played by the Ligurians. In their language they called the alder-tree that grows along the banks of so many rivers, alisos, alsia or alison. They gave this name to a number of streams; Alzon, Alzou, Alzau, Auzon, Auzonne, Auzonnet, Arzon, Auze, Auzenne, Auzelle, Auzotte, Auzette, Auzigue, Auzolle, Auzone,—all of which would signify the rivers of the alder-trees. There would also be left to be explained the origin of names ending in enque, such as Allarenque, Laurenque, Durenque, Virenque, but it is not known what they mean. Finally, one could not deny to the Ligurians the name Ligoure, which seems to be the name of the people itself. The Aude and the Orb probably owe their designation to the Phoenician settlers; the second of these is perhaps Greek. With the Celtic period the etymologies become a trifle less uncertain. The Celtic word for water, dour, is clearly found in the Dourbie, the Dourdene and the Dourdèze, the Dourdon, the Dore and the Doire. Another Celtic name for water, esca is seen in the Ouche, the Essonne. They called a river avar; hence, the Abron, the Jabron, the Aveyron, the Arveiron, the Auron; hence probably also the Eure, the Auterne, the Authre, the Automne, the Autruche. Aven means river in the present Breton dialect; now, we find rivers called: Avène, Avon, Avègne, Avignon. From glanos, meaning brilliant, gleaming, are perhaps derived the Gland, the Glane; from vernos, alder-tree, they have like the Ligurians christened many rivers: the Vern, the Vernaison, the Vernazon; from der, oak, came the Dère. It should be added that all these words came down to us through the Latin form before acquiring their French form. Thus Bièvre and its derivatives Beuvron, Brevenne, Brevonne, derive from the Latin bibrum, itself borrowed from a Celtic word meaning beaver. Is it to the Gauls or the Romans that we owe the names Dive, Divette, Divonne? Does this mean here the fairy, or the divine one? It is difficult to ascertain. There were great resemblances between the tongues.

French and its dialects have naturally named a large number of rivers, either by rechristening them or modifying the old names to give them a French meaning. In this class we have the names suggested by the appearance or the qualities of the river: the Blanche, the Claire, the Brune, the Noire, the Brillant, the Hideuse, the Vilaine, the Furieuse, the Rongeant, the Sonnant, the Creuse, the Sensée. At other times the names come from plants, such as Fusain, Orge, Viorne, Liane, Gland, Orne, Oignon, Trèfle, Rouvre, Lys, Aunes, Bruyère, Troëne; names of animals: Oie, Loir, Louvette, Chèvre, Heron, Ourse, Lionne, Autruche; names of every kind: Mère, Cousin, Sueur, Coquille, Oeil, Oeuf, Rognon, Brêche, Vie, Automne, Blaise, Armance, Abîme. Some proudly bear absolute names: le Fleuve (the Stream), la Rivière (the River); it so happens that they are only rivulets, the one in la Manche, the other in the Alps. And finally, a little river that is probably very wise is called la Même (the Same). The majority of these later names I have taken directly from the map, but a good part of my learning I have borrowed from M. de Félice, who has given us a great deal, free from all pedantry, in his book upon les Noms de nos Rivières (The Names of our Rivers.) Is it not pleasant to know that the Seine means “the gushing one?” Those who wish to learn more may consult the source I have indicated. It is with pain that I wrest myself away from the charms of the rivers of France, for

La rivière est la mère de toute la nature.

The river is the mother of all nature.


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