*Navis ‘river’

A dozen or so river names across Europe may descend from something like *navis.

While discussing Φλαουιοναουια, Garcia Alonso (2001:218) wrote:   “Navia is frequent as a river name, and as a place name, with examples in the Iberian Peninsula, France, Britain, Germany and Lithuania ... and fits well in the Alt-europäisch hydronymy ... It could be the same root we see in Sanskrit navya , ‘navigable’, Old Persian naviya ‘fleet’, Greek νηιος ‘concerning a ship’, all from Indo-European *naus-‘ship’ ... It is possible to relate this to nava ‘valley’, widely used throughout the Iberian Peninsula ... and in other areas of Western Europe (the Dolomitic Alps, Corsica). The metaphoric use of a word meaning ‘ship’ to designate a valley has parallel examples: Barco in the toponymy of Castille  .....  Navia is almost unanimously considered pre-Celtic Indo-European Alt-europäisch in fact.”  Another example of that metaphor is English and French combe ‘valley’, related to Latin cumba ‘boat’ and to words in Greek, Sanskrit, etc meaning ‘bowl, bottom of ship’.  (It is unlikely that Welsh cwm existed early enough to be the source of English combe.)  In Latin, navis could mean female genitals, but more often a womb (Adams 1982:89).

While discussing Navio, Rivet & Smith cited PIE *sna- ‘to flow’, hence Welsh nawf, nofio , ‘to swim’ and Latin no, nare, so they proposed a British river-name *Nav- ‘fast-flowing water’, related also to the German river Nahe (from Nava) near Bingen.  It is surprising that no one mentions Greek ναω ‘to flow’.

For Ptolemy's Ναβαρου, the modern Naver in northern Scotland, Watson (1927: 47) proposed an origin in PIE *nebh- ‘cloud’, hence νεφος, or Sanskrit nabhas, or nebula or nimbus.

The most interesting possible root is *nobh- ‘navel’ or ‘central nob’, which was used for the boss of a shield or the hub of a wheel, and also shows up with M instead of N in Latin umbilicus, Greek ομφαλος and Irish imbliu.  Scottish Gaelic inbhir, which is usually anglicised into Inver- in place names (like Welsh aber and oper) meaning ‘river mouth, confluence’ looks suspiciously similar but is usually etymologised differently.  Delamarre (2017) is keen on the idea of sacred rivers flowing from navel-birth in the earth towards the sea, and lists various rivers in support: the Naab (Danube tributary in Bavaria); Ptolemy's πολις of Ναυαλια (Essen, on the Ruhr) = Latin for ‘docks’; Nabao in Portugal, allegedly formerly Nabantius; Nablis in about AD 600 somewhere in Thuringia; Nabéran somewhere in France; and the Nevern in Wales (a late-attested name that Owen and Morgan 2007 cannot readily explain).

Early names in Britain that may contain *navis include Anava (river Annan), Brinavis (Brentford), Naurum (Barnstaple Bay), Navione (Brough-on-Noe), Purocoronavis (?Bude), Κορναουιοι (tribe with towns at Chester and Wroxeter), Κορναουιοι (tribe in north-east Scotland), and Manavi (near Clackmannan etc).

With a change of vowel from A to O there are Durocornovium, the Νοουανται tribe in Galloway, the Τρινοαντες or Trinobantes tribe in East Anglia, Durnonovaria (Dorchester), Novitia (river ?Nith), and Novia (?Pevensey).

Less likely cases include Anderelio nuba (?Pevensey), Navimago Regentium (?Chichester), Noviomagnus (?Old Sarum), Noviomagus (West Wickham), Panovius (?Inveresk), and Vinovium (Binchester).

Overseas examples include Αναβον/Αναυον (Komarno, Danube/Vah confluence, Slovakia); Nabalia mentioned by Tacitus as a river in Batavian territory; Νουαισιον/Ναυαισιον (Melsungen, on the Fulda), Ναβιου (river Eo, Spain), Νηβιος (river Cavado, Spain).

You may copy this text freely, so long as you attribute it correctly to www.romaneranames.uk and promise to feed back any suggestions for improvement.
Last edited 13 October 2022     To main Menu