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Barbarian Europe

Indo-European River Names

by Edward Dawson, 17 June 2023

The biggest two groups of Indo-Europeans to arrive in southern Central Europe during the Yamnaya horizon were the proto-Italic peoples and the proto-Celtic peoples.

They originated from a population which had not long before occupied the Pontic steppe (see A History of Indo-Europeans, Migrations and Language via the 'related links' in the sidebar).

That population was part of a group of languages and cultures which appear to be related, originating from a single source.

A name in Indo-European tongues which was used for a river, or the often-associated river goddess, was 'tan, dan, don'. Rivers all over Britain have a form of this name, and the same is true of Russia and Ukraine.

It seems to derive from the proto-Indo-European root 'da', meaning 'to flow', extended to the thing which flows, the river itself.

The fact that it survives as a river name - such as the Dee (Latin Deva) in Wales, or the Dnipro and Don in Russia and Ukraine - supports the well-trodden concept that the original inhabitants of the Pontic steppe in Ukraine and southern Russia were the ancestors of Celts and Italians, who were later to head west as part of the Yamnaya horizon.

The River Dee
The River Dee probably formed the border between northern Powys and south-western Rheged during the sixth century

The people who replaced them on the steppe - Indo-Iranians, initially in the guise of the Agathyrsi, and then the Scythians and Sarmatians - would have continued using the same river names just as Slavs maintained river names in areas in which they later took control from Balts, or Angles and Saxons in territory which they took from Romano-Britons in the fifth to eighth centuries AD.

Given this usage, the 'da' which forms the root of this usage is more of a centum-speaking word (West Indo-European) than a satem-speaking word (East Indo-European).


Online Sources

Indo-European Chronology - Countries and Peoples

Linguistics Research Center, University of Texas at Austin

Pokorny, J - Indo-European Etymological Dictionary

Proto-Bulgarian Runic Inscriptions

Studies in the History and Language of the Sarmatians



Images and text copyright © P L Kessler & Edward Dawson. An original feature for the History Files.