2019, Volume 16, Issue 4

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Valery L. Vasilyev
Novgorod State University
Veliky Novgorod, Russia

Revisiting Great Rivers’ Names: Volga, Zapadnaya Dvina, Dnieper

Voprosy onomastiki, 2019, Volume 16, Issue 4, pp. 9–32 (in Russian)
DOI: 10.15826/vopr_onom.2019.16.4.043

Received 1 November 2019

Abstract: The paper considers the names of the three largest rivers of Eastern Europe — Volga, Zapadnaya Dvina, and Dnieper — in terms of etymology and ethnic history. The names of these great rivers are examined jointly since their headwaters belong in the same micro-region, previously called the Okovsky Forest. The introductory section of the article touches upon the specificity of hydronyms related to large rivers. It substantiates that such names are formed (or borrowed from other languages) in different parts of the river channel and then spread down or upstream in the course of the region’s colonization by ancient settlers who used these large rivers as major means of communication. Names of upper reaches and headwaters are often overlooked in hydronymy studies; however, these sections of the channels were very significant for migrants moving to other river basins. The following sections of the article provide critical reviews of the numerous etymologies of the hydronyms Volga and (Zapadnaya) Dvina and argue for new versions of their origin. The author assumes that the name Volga is a substrate Balticism, originally related to the lake source of the great Russian river (Lake Volgo) and then extended to the rest of the river. The name Zapadnaya Dvina is considered against the backdrop of numerous hydronymic and other toponymic units and terms beginning with Dvin-. This is to testify that (Zapadnaya) Dvina is a hydronym of early Eastern Slavic origin with the meaning ‘double river’. The Slavs originally used the name Dvina for the headwaters of the upper reaches of the Western Dvina, from where they settled along two main routes leading to different river basins: one went to the system of Lovati, Ilmen, Volkhov, the other to the Volga (along the Mezha River or along the Western Dvina to the source). Unlike the hydronyms Volga and Dvina, the name Dnieper is neither Slavic nor Baltic, coming from the south, upstream. The final section of the article sets out conclusions regarding the formation and distribution of the names Volga, Dvina, and Dnieper in the context of the Slavic colonization of Eastern Europe.

Keywords: Russian hydronymy, names of large rivers, Volga, Western Dvina, Dnieper, hydronyms distribution, toponymy, etymology, Slavs, Baltic, colonization of Eastern Europe, waterways.

The study is supported by the Russian Foundation for Basic Research grant within the framework of the project No. 18-00-01583 (K) “Created Lands: The History of Medieval Natural and Cultural Landscapes on the Valdai Watershed” (No. 18-00-00838 “Historical and Toponymic Reflection of Landscape Objects in the Volga, the Pola, the Western Dvina, and the Dnieper Interfluve (from the middle of the 1st millennium AD to the 18th century”).


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