Blue-Green Iranian "Danube"

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A curious phenomenon of Old European hydronymy that I've noticed for a long time is that many of the most important rivers in Central and Eastern Europe — Danube, Don, Donets, Dnieper, Dniester, and others — all have names that derive from the ancient Iranian (Scythian) word for "river" (cf. don, "river, water" in modern Ossetic).  Source

Focusing on the most romantic and best known of all these Iranian-derived names, Danube, which flows 2,850 km from the confluence of the Breg and Brigach at Donaueschingen, Germany, into the Black Sea in Romania, we may plumb more deeply into their origins.  The name "Danube" was borrowed from Latin Dānubius, from Proto-Celtic *Danuvios (compare Welsh river name Donwy) or *Dānouyos, an extended form of the river-name *Dānu, from Proto-Indo-European *dʰenh₂- (run, flow). Cognate with Latin fōns (spring), Persian دنیدن(danīdan, to hasten, run), Ossetian дон (don, water), Sanskrit धन्वति (dhánvati, it flows, runs)Source

Danube is an Old European river name derived from a Proto-Indo-European *dānu. Other river names from the same root include the Dunaj, Dzvina/Daugava, Don, Donets, Dnieper, Dniestr, Dysna, Tana/Deatnu and Tuoni. In Rigvedic Sanskrit, dānu means "fluid, drop", and in Avestan, the same word means "river". In the Rigveda, Dānu once appears as the mother of Vrtra, "a dragon blocking the course of the rivers". The Finnish word for Danube is Tonava, which is most likely derived from the word for the river in Swedish and German, Donau. Its Sámi name Deatnu means "Great River". It is possible that dānu in Scythian as in Avestan was a generic word for "river": Dnieper and Dniestr, from Danapris and Danastius, are presumed to continue Scythian *dānu apara "far river" and *dānu nazdya- "near river", respectively.

The river was known to the ancient Greeks as the Istros (Ἴστρος) a borrowing from a Daco-Thracian name meaning 'strong, swift', from a root possibly also encountered in the ancient name of the Dniester (Danaster in Latin, Tiras in Greek) and akin to Iranic turos 'swift' and Sanskrit iṣiras (इषिरस्) 'swift', from the PIE *isro-, *sreu 'to flow'. In the Middle Ages, the Greek Tiras was borrowed into Italian as Tyrlo and into Turkic languages as Tyrla, the latter further borrowed into Romanian as a regionalism (Turlă).

The Thraco-Phrygian name was Matoas, "the bringer of luck".

In Latin, the Danube was variously known as Danubius, Danuvius or as Ister. The Latin name is masculine, as are all its Slavic names, except Slovenian (the name of the Rhine is also masculine in Latin, most of the Slavic languages, as well as in German). The German Donau (Early Modern German Donaw, Tonaw, Middle High German Tuonowe)[9] is feminine, as it has been re-interpreted as containing the suffix -ouwe "wetland".

Romanian differs from other surrounding languages in designating the river with a feminine term, Dunărea. This form was not inherited from Latin, although Romanian is a Romance language. To explain the loss of the Latin name, scholars who suppose that Romanian developed near the large river propose[ that the Romanian name descends from a hypothetical Thracian *Donaris that shares the same PIE root with the Iranic don-/dan-, with the suffix -aris also encountered in the ancient name of the Ialomița River, Naparis, and in the unidentified Miliare river mentioned by Jordanes in his Getica. Gábor Vékony says that this hypothesis is not plausible, because the Greeks borrowed the Istros form from the native Thracians. He proposes that the Romanian name is loanword from a Turkic language.

The modern languages spoken in the Danube basin all use names related to Dānuvius: German: Donau (IPA: [ˈdoːnaʊ] (About this soundlisten)); Austro-Bavarian: Doana; Silesian: Důnaj; Upper Sorbian: Dunaj; Czech: Dunaj (IPA: [ˈdunaj]); Slovak: Dunaj (IPA: [ˈdunaj]); Polish: Dunaj (IPA: [ˈdunaj] (About this soundlisten)); Hungarian: Duna (IPA: [ˈdunɒ] (About this soundlisten)); Slovene: Donava (IPA: [ˈdóːnaʋa]); Serbo-Croatian: Dunav / Дунав (IPA: [dǔna(ː)ʋ]); Romanian: Dunărea (IPA: [ˈdunəre̯a]); Bulgarian: Дунав, romanizedDunav (IPA: [ˈdunɐf]); Ukrainian: Дунай, romanizedDunaj (IPA: [dʊˈnɑj]); Portuguese: Danúbio (IPA: [dɐˈnuβju]); French: Danube (IPA: [danyb]); Greek: Δούναβης (IPA: [ˈðunavis]); Italian: Danubio (IPA: [daˈnuːbjo]); Spanish: Danubio (IPA: [daˈnuβjo]); Romansh: Danubi; Albanian: Tunë, definite Albanian form: Tuna.  Source

The ubiquity of Iranian-derived names for "river" in large parts of Central and Eastern Europe begs the question whether the highly mobile Scythians and their Iranian ancestors may also have spread their word for "river" to Central Asia and beyond, where we know they ventured.  These masters of the horse and chariot, whose homeland lay between Crimea, the Pontic Steppes, and the southern Urals, ranged all the way to the Northern, Central, and Southern parts of East Asia (in preceding and succeeding posts, we have been and will be examining some of the evidence for these movements of early Iranian peoples and their cultures).

There is a river in East Central Asia, the K[h]aidu, that empties into Lake Bosten and has its source in the Tian Shan 天山 ("Heavenly Mountains"), which perhaps derives from the allegedly Xiongnu (Hunnish) word Qilian 祁連.  Compare the Turkic name, Tengri Tagh ("Sky-god Mountain"), for these mountains and Sumero-Akkadian word dingir / DIĜIR ("sky, heaven; god"), which may be connected with Qilian, etc. through Yuezhi (Guti [?], Tocharians [?], etc., etc. — source).  I mention the Kaidu because it is called the Dàn 淡 (lit., "light; weak; pale; bland; tasteless; thin; dull", but the character is most likely being used for transcriptional purposes here, so its superficial meaning is probably irrelevant) in the Xīn Táng shū 新唐書 (New History of the Tang [Dynasty]), completed in 1060.  See Václav Blažek and Michal Schwarz, Early Indo-Europeans in Central Asia and China:  Cultural relations as reflected in language, Innsbrucker Beiträge zur Kulturwissenschaft, Neue Folge, Band 13 (Innsbruck:  Institut für Sprachen und Literaturen der Universität Innsbruck, Bereich Sprachwissenschaft, 2017), pp. 185-186.

Unfortunately, neither the semantics nor the phonetics of dàn 淡 match very well with the Iranian forms cited above.

Middle Sinitic:  /dɑmX/, /dɑmH/

Old Sinitic:

(BaxterSagart): /*[l]ˤamʔ/
(Zhengzhang): /*l'aːmʔ/, /*l'aːms/


There is a Tamsui River in northern Taiwan that is written with the same character, 淡水, meaning "fresh water". The name is pronounced Tām-chúi in Hokkien POJ, Tām-tsuí in Hokkien Tâi-lô, and Dànshuǐ in Modern Standard Mandarin (Hanyu Pinyin).  It is not my intention to make any necessary claim of relatedness with the name of the Dàn 淡 River in medieval East Central Asia referred to above.

The only other name in East Asia that I have considered thus far is Tang 唐, which is sometimes said to have the etymological underpinning of "canal; channel; course of a river", but I was unable to find a specific river with this name that I could locate on a map.  Moreover, the Middle and Old Sinitic reconstructions don't match well with the Iranian forms cited above.

Middle Sinitic:  /dɑŋ/

Old Sinitic:

(BaxterSagart): /*r̥ˤaŋ/, /*[N-]rˤaŋ/, /*[N].rˤaŋ/
(Zhengzhang): /*ɡl'aːŋ/

Cf. Wu daan.


One thing we need to keep in mind when studying ancient mobile peoples such as the Indo-Iranians and their languages is that where we find them in their historical seats is not where their homeland was.  The Indians were originally not in India and the Iranians were originally not in Iran.  Rather, before they split into two separate peoples and language groups, they were a single entity, Indo-Iranian, located in the Pontic Steppes between Crimea and the southern Urals.

This further prompts us to ask what the mechanisms for the transmission of these Iranian hydronyms were.  We must consider the fact that these Iranian river names did not just float through the ether by themselves, but they must have been carried by people who spoke relevant languages, and that they went along with other aspects of culture, including art, religion, dress, burial customs, and so forth.



"Grue and bleen: the blue-green distinction and its implications" (10/4/19) — with a comment on blue and green in Persian and the Persianate world.

"Greeks in ancient Central Asia: the Ionians" (10/20/19)

"'Tocharian C' Again: The Plot Thickens and the Mystery Deepens" (9/25/19)

"Thai 'khwan' ('soul') and Old Sinitic reconstructions" (1/28/19)


[Thanks to Sanping Chen, Axel Schuessler, Tsu-Lin Mei, and Fangyi Cheng.]


  1. David Cameron Staples said,

    October 26, 2019 @ 7:28 am

    Also the Don in England (thus Doncaster), and one theory is that the root went as far as Ireland. The Irish Gods are called the Tuatha Dé Danann. where Danann is the genitive of the feminine proper name Danu.

  2. David Marjanović said,

    October 26, 2019 @ 8:36 am


    The river was known to the ancient Greeks as the Istros (Ἴστρος) a borrowing from a Daco-Thracian name meaning 'strong, swift', from a root possibly also encountered in the ancient name of the Dniester (Danaster in Latin, Tiras in Greek) and akin to Iranic turos 'swift' and Sanskrit iṣiras (इषिरस्) 'swift', from the PIE *isro-, *sreu 'to flow'.

    Oh, that part is outdated. A cognate of iṣiras does occur in European hydronymy, but it's the Isar in Bavaria. Start from an adjective *ish₂-ró-, then send it on the one hand through the Celtic sound changes (*h₂ between consonants becomes *a) and have the Celtic name borrowed into West Germanic, on the other hand send it through the Indic ones (*h₂ between consonants becomes i).

  3. Chris Button said,

    October 26, 2019 @ 11:31 am

    天 has somewhat plausibly been compared to Tengri in the past. Unfortunately the recent erroneous reconstructions of the original form of 天 with a lateral have tended to obscure that possibility.

  4. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 26, 2019 @ 12:29 pm

    It's curious that while the Slovenian name for the Danube is Donava, the Northwest Slavic Dunaj is the Slovenian name of Vienna.

  5. Peter Erwin said,

    October 26, 2019 @ 1:30 pm

    OK, I'm a bit confused. You start off, in the title and the first paragraph, claiming that "many of the most important rivers in Central and Eastern Europe", including the Danube, "have names that derive from the ancient Iranian (Scythian) word for 'river'".

    And then in the next paragraph you give the (standard, as far as I'm aware) etymology for Danube (Latin from Proto-Celtic from PIE), with nary an Iranian in sight.

    And then it's back to "The ubiquity of Iranian-derived names for "river" in large parts of Central and Eastern Europe…".

  6. Chris Button said,

    October 26, 2019 @ 1:53 pm

    Regarding Qilian 祁連, it might be worth mentioning Lin Meicun's article in Prof. Mair (ed) "Central Asia at the Dawn of History". The article takes up Pulleyblank's (1966) earlier suggestion of a Tocharian origin, but Pulleyblank (1999) in his review of Mair's book is not convinced. Interestingly, in his 1966 article, Pulleyblank also proposed as possible connection with 麒麟. It's a rather different tack from the etymology proposed here on LLog:

  7. Chris Button said,

    October 26, 2019 @ 2:05 pm

    Compare the Turkic name, Tengri Tagh ("Sky-god Mountain"), for these mountains and Sumero-Akkadian word dingir / DIĜIR ("sky, heaven; god"), which may be connected with Qilian, etc. through Yuezhi (Guti [?], Tocharians [?], etc., etc. — source).

    To be clear, presumably you're just suggesting a "heavenly" semantic link between Tengri and Qilian and not a phonological/etymological one?

  8. Victor Mair said,

    October 26, 2019 @ 3:05 pm

    From Sunny Singh:

    Interesting. Is this related to the word “Darya”?

    VHM: There are plenty of rivers in Asia with this designation: Amu Darya, Syr Darya, Kara Darya, Surxondaryo, Fan Darya, Iskander Darya (that would be "Alexander Darya")


    From Persian دریا‎ (daryâ).

    دریا • (deryâ)

    (geography) river
    (geography) sea

    Proper noun

    دریا • (Deryâ)

    A female given name, Derya, Darya


    Redhouse, J. W. (1884), “sea”, in A Lexicon, English and Turkish, 3rd edition, Constantinople: A. H. Boyajian, page 667

    Persian Wikipedia has an article on:
    Alternative forms

    دریاب‎ (daryāb)


    From Earlier Persian دریاب‎ (daryāb) from Middle Persian [script needed] (dlydʾp̄ /drayāb/, “sea”), from Old Persian (draya, “ocean, sea”), from Proto-Iranian *jráyah, from Proto-Indo-Iranian *ȷ́ráyas. Cognate with Avestan ‎ (zraiiaŋh, “sea”), Sanskrit ज्रयस् (jráyas, “expanse”).

    IPA(key): /dæɾˈjɒː/
    (dialectal, Bushehr) IPA(key): [deɾˈjɒː]

    Dari Persian دریا
    Iranian Persian
    Tajik дарё (daryo)

    دریا • (daryâ) (plural دریاها‎ (daryâ-hâ))




  9. James Todd said,

    October 26, 2019 @ 4:39 pm

    To Cory's point: I always wondered what the origin of Hungarian/Croatian 'Bécs/Beč' for 'Vienna' was.

  10. Peter B. Golden said,

    October 26, 2019 @ 7:21 pm

    On "blue" as the name of the ruling clan of the Türk, see 阿 史 那) A shi na EMC*ʔa şi’ na’, LMC ʔaʂŗ´na’ (Pulleyblank, Lexicon:23, 283, 221) < Khotano-Saka âşşeina-âššena “blue” (H.W. Bailey, Dictionary of Khotan Saka (Cambridge: CUP, 1979: 26-27, Rastorgueva, Édel’man, Étimologičeskij slovar’ iranskix jazykov, I: 284-286: *axšaina “sinij, goluboj, zelenyj, sizyj” also āṣaṇa , āṣeṁ) = Turk. kȫk “blue,” (Clauson, Etym. Dict.1972: 708-709). Cf. also Tokharian A āśna “blue”. The linkage of Ashina with Khotano-Saka was proposed by S.G. Klyashtornyi, “The Royal Clan of the Turks and the Problem of Early Turkic-Iranian Contacts” Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae XLVII/3
    (1994), pp. 445-447. Türk . kȫk “blue,” would be the Türk translation of Khotano-Saka âşşeina-âššena. The name Ashina does not appear in the Turkic texts (with one possible exception – no need to plunge into the thickets here). It is overwhelmingly (and perhaps only) noted in Chinese and Sogdian sources. Some recent new readings of the Bugut Inscription (in Sogdian with a brief text in an early form of Mongolic [Rouran/Avar?] written in Brahmi script), suggest a reading as : ’’šyn’s *Ašinas with a possible Indo-European ending (-s) or Late Proto-Mongolic that has a plural in –s (with stems ending in vowels) and –t (<-d) with stems ending in consonants I should add that there is no shortage of other etymologies for Ashina.
    Axšaina also lies at the root of the Classical Greek name for the Black Sea: Πόντος Ἄξεινος Póntos Áxeinos, which became, more “hospitably” Εὔξεινος Πόντος Eúxeinos Póntos..

  11. Peter Grubtal said,

    October 27, 2019 @ 2:30 am

    As David M. points out, we have the Isar in Bavaria, which, I have been told, derives from Celtic "fast flowing". There's also an Isère in France, which points to a widespread celtic substrate.

    As with the Danube, It may be fruitless to speculate whether the ultimate roots are celtic or Indo-Iranian: both groups may have originated, or at least occupied overlapping areas in eastern Asia:

  12. Scott P. said,

    October 27, 2019 @ 11:34 am

    The Thraco-Phrygian name was Matoas, "the bringer of luck".

    This is based on Kretschmer's analysis of the passage of Stephanus of Byzantium. Stephanus translates "Matoas" as ἄσιοϛ in most of the manuscripts save one where the form is αἴσιοϛ ("lucky"), and Kretschmer preferred the latter reading. However, Robert Dyer argued that the more common ἄσιοϛ, related by Byzantine etymologists to ἄσιϛ ("silt"), is in fact the correct reading, and that "Matoas" means "The Muddy River".

  13. David Marjanović said,

    October 27, 2019 @ 4:27 pm

    both groups may have originated, or at least occupied overlapping areas in eastern Asia:

    *sigh* Science journalism strikes again.

    Yes, the Tocharian languages are Indo-European. No, they're not Celtic, not even close.

  14. Kenny Easwaran said,

    October 27, 2019 @ 5:44 pm

    Peter Erwin already noted that this post seems to have some inconsistencies in the origins of the "don" word – is this from proto-Indo-European, or is this from some Iranian language? Both seem to be claimed at various points.

    There's also some inconsistencies in the etymology given for "Dniestr". In one place it seems to be "danu nazdya" for "near river", but a sentece or two later it is said to be "don istros" for "strong river".

  15. Chandra said,

    October 27, 2019 @ 6:52 pm

    There's a Don River in Toronto as well, though likely named after the one in England.

  16. Andrew Usher said,

    October 28, 2019 @ 10:56 pm

    More carefully I suppose he should have said: that come from the same Indo-European root, which specialised to 'river' in Iranian. Perhaps 'Danube' itself is an exception, but it seems that that indicates Iranian origins for most of them, anyway.

    k_over_hbarc at

  17. Fred said,

    October 29, 2019 @ 9:54 am

    @ James Todd: Hung. Bécs 'Vienna', Pest (= Budapest) and Pécs (city in southern Hungary) are all ultimately of Slavic origin, where Bécs is probably a loan via Turkic from Old Russian peč', Pest must be from Bulgarian pest 'oven; cave' (cf. older German Ofen 'Budapest') due to the metathesis of tš > št (or possibly directly from Old Church Slavonic peštь), whilst Pécs is from Slovenian or Kajkavian Croatian peč 'oven, stove'. Serbian/Croatian Beč is a loan from Hungarian. Notwithstanding the Latin (Quinque Ecclesiae), Croatian (Pečuh), Slovak (Päťkostolie) etc names for Pécs the name probably has nothing to do with either Turkic 'five' (cf. Turkish beş '5') or South Slavic pet 'id.' etc.

  18. stephen said,

    October 30, 2019 @ 12:11 am

    I've been wondering about something related. There don't seem to be any family or personal names which are geographic features. Why not?

    We have Joan Rivers and Katie Hill, but not Joey Thames or Henrik Danube. Why isn't Dniester a family name? Or Alp, Pyrenees, Baltic, Adriatic.

    Wikipedia has an article on Joseph Banks Rhine, a paraphychologist. Was his family actually named after the river? Or is it a re-spelling of something else?

    Star Trek's Sulu was named after that sea, and he's fictional. Wikipedia lists a German-Turkish soccer player named Sulu, but that's apparently a coincidence. There doesn't seem to be anybody else named Sulu.

    I might as well mention Nicolae Carpathia from the Left Behind series.

    And from Wikipedia:

    The name "Carpates" is highly associated with the old Dacian tribes called "Carpes" or "Carpi" who lived in a large area from the east, north-east of the Black Sea to Transylvanian plains on the present day Romania and Moldova. The name Carpates may ultimately be from the Proto Indo-European root *sker-/*ker-, from which comes the Albanian word karpë (rock)… etc.

    Do people with the last name of North have any ancestral connection with the North Sea?

    Do any Chinese people have the same name as places in East Asia?

    Or do any Native Americans share a name with Native American place names?

  19. Sven said,

    October 30, 2019 @ 3:13 am

    Let me "beg" the question as to why comments on that topic are deleted with no explanation. All readers are now aware of it, and you certainly aren't doing yourself any favours.

  20. Philip Taylor said,

    October 30, 2019 @ 7:22 am

    Well, ther may not be a Henrik Danube but there is certainly an Alex Danube, and I very much suspect that many geographical names will also turned up as family names if one searches hard enough …

  21. ~flow said,

    October 30, 2019 @ 8:22 am

    FWIW all (?) of the Don- names for rivers seem to be male in German; there's even a book called "Der stille Don" so this is widely known. On the other hand there are plenty of other male rivers like 'der Potomac', 'der Yangtse' and so on.

    It's a bit mysterious to me on what grounds German speakers choose genders for new words and names, and not unfrequently I happen upon a usage that I do not fully agree with, such as 'der' vs 'die' Tsunami.

    For overviews see e.g. and; a similar picture seems to exist for French.

  22. Rube said,

    October 30, 2019 @ 8:29 am

    And there may not be a Joey Thames, but Eric Thames is a veteran Major League Baseball player.

  23. Andreas Johansson said,

    November 1, 2019 @ 8:12 am

    "Der stille Don" would be the German title of Sholokhov's And Quiet Flows the Don.

  24. Slumbery said,

    November 4, 2019 @ 7:42 am

    @James Todd & Fred
    About Wien/Bécs

    The Slavic origin presented by Fred is one opinion, but it is debated by many, because Slavs in the region were known to use the Vindobona…Wien related version of the name and there is another possibility.

    In historical and present Hungarian speaking area there are 8 other settlement names that contain the word "becs" (although only the the name of Wien/Bécs use the long vowel, but it is also the only one were the word stands alone) and all of them are identified as former Avar settlements. Wien/Bécs fits that pattern because there were Avar settlements there too. So a popular idea that the name of from Avar and etymologically is Turkic, related to an old Turkic word for jewels and treasures and by association to fortified places to guard them.
    In this theory the Southern Slav forms (that include an early Medieval Bulgarian form that is not used in modern Bulgarian) could be borrowings either directly from Avar or from Hungarian or mixed in that regard.

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