Lake Chad.

I’m finally bracing myself to read Ben Taub’s New Yorker essay “Lake Chad: The World’s Most Complex Humanitarian Disaster” (that’s the online title — in the physical magazine it’s called “The Emergency”), but I was stopped cold and forced to post by the opening:

Chad was named for a mistake. In the eighteen-hundreds, European explorers arrived at the marshy banks of a vast body of freshwater in Central Africa. Because locals referred to the area as chad, the Europeans called the wetland Lake Chad, and drew it on maps. But chad simply meant “lake” in a local dialect.

Nothing surprising in that, of course, but I don’t trust etymologies from journalists, so I tried to find out more. Wikipedia says the same thing (“a local word meaning ‘large expanse of water’, in other words, a ‘lake'”), but its source is Adrian Room, whose books are lots of fun but not entirely reliable. I tried Google Books and found this in the CIA World Factbook 2017 (page 169):

etymology: named for Lake Chad, which lies along the country’s western border; the word “tsade” means “large body of water” or “lake” in several local native languages

So everyone’s agreed on the basic story, but I’d like to know where it came from — what languages are involved, who documented the word, and is the information reliable? All theories, references, and anecdotes are, as always, welcome.

Comments

  1. Kanuri language.

  2. marie-lucie says:

    One of the Chadic languages, themselves a subgroup of Afro-Asiatic.

  3. Looked at Kanuri dictionary (sort of, wasn’t really big), couldn’t find that word.

    There is however word ‘tsedi’ which means ‘land, country, earth’

    I imagine it went like this:

    Western traveller, making a sweeping gesture in general direction of the lake Chad: “Could you tell me the name of this place?”

    Native: “Our planet is called Earth, o traveller from afar.”

  4. Norbert Cyffer’s 1994 English-Kanuri dictionary (Maiduguri variety) has Sáde for Lake Chad, kulúwu or njî kúra for ‘lake’ (from njî ‘water’ and kúra ‘big’). It feels like Kanuri itself got it from some other language.

    Cyffer’s dictionary has a remarkably long appendix on ideophones.

    Blench’s dictionary of Manga Kanuri has cádù for Lake Chad.

  5. Nachtigal’s grosse Wasseransammlung.

  6. In short: no one seems to be entirely sure what Chad originally meant, but European explorers and their mistakes had nothing to do with it. Kanuri originated rather further north, so it would be expected to have gotten the name from a local language – presumably a Central Chadic one. Nachtigal’s suggestion that it comes from Buduma is plausible a priori, but there doesn’t seem to be much published lexical data on Buduma.

    There is a rather nice online reconstruction of Proto-Central Chadic, http://protocentralchadic.webonary.org , but it doesn’t help in this case.

  7. David Marjanović says:

    Nachtigal’s grosse Wasseransammlung.

    Very considerate of him to spell Sahărâ!

    “The name Tsâde, which is its form among the Kanûri, presumably means ‘large accumulation of water’ in the dialect of the former inhabitans of its western shore, the Sô and related tribes; in the language of the current inhabitants of its islands the lake is called Kulû*.

    * The Budduma call water in general “amei” and [any?] large accumulation of water ‘kulû’, so that they also designate the Schâri with this latter word. According to Barth, in the Kûri dialect the word amei is used for ‘valley’ and tschade-n-amei for ‘river’. The word tschâde [with sudden vowel length] stands without doubt in a very close relation to sâge of the same meaning in Măkări dialects and to schâri, which appears in the language of the Fâli as schêre, in Sonrhaï as hari, in the Logon dialect as suri and likewise means accumulation of water.”

    I don’t feel like looking up the regular sound correspondences today…

    BTW, no discussion of Lake Chad is complete without mentioning Lake Megachad.

  8. David, “Megachad” sounds like a death metal band consisting of software developers.

  9. Lake Chad is far and away the largest lake for many hundreds of miles, and the only true lake in the vicinity – that is, not a marsh. (Lake Chad is not a “wetland,” as Taub asserts. It is a lake,) So it would have been perfectly reasonable for the local people to call it “The Lake.”

  10. Taub is not denying it’s a lake (he uses that term in the very next sentence after the passage I quote: “To the lake’s east…”); I suspect the term “wetland” (which I agree is inappropriate) was dragged in for purposes of elegant variation, so beloved of journalists. As for whether it would be reasonable for the local people to call it “The Lake,” I’m not sure that makes sense to me — if it was “the only true lake in the vicinity,” why would they even have had a word for “lake”? And in any case, don’t most geographical entities have actual names, even if they’re the biggest such entity around?

  11. David Eddyshaw says:

    Repeated efforts on my part to discover a proper name in Agolle Kusaal for the White Volta were fruitless, and I concluded that it really was just called “The River”, not altogether unreasonably given that it actually is the only real river within the Kusaal-speaking area.

    So the thing is possible.

  12. Interesting, thanks!

  13. David Eddyshaw says:

    Si parva licet componere magnis: Now that I think of it, in Ancient Egyptian, the Nile, too, is just jtrw “the River”; ειοορ in Coptic.

    Thinking about it, I suppose there’s a grey area between proper names and common nouns which happen to refer to something unique in your mental universe. And the boundary can change as knowledge expands (e.g. English “moon.”)

  14. Also ocean.

  15. Trond Engen says:

    The river through my town is really just called elva “the river”. When the cartographers needed something unique, it became Skienselva, a decision which the citizens of nearby Porsgrunn have tried to overturn, with some (but not full) success. It’s still Skienselva on a national or regional scale, but ithe name Porsgrunnselva is used on maps that are detailed enough to specify a local name.

  16. Trond Engen says:

    A lot of editing there. I’m thumbing my way on my phone.

  17. David Marjanović says:

    Isn’t the Rhine supposed to be just “river” in some kind of Gaulish?

    “Megachad” sounds like a death metal band consisting of software developers.

    I see your death metal and raise you a hanging megachad in an American election.

  18. Those stories about simple tribesmen innocently giving the word for “mountain” or whatever, instead of the proper name, never quite rang true. If a visiting Masai pointed at the Thames and said “what is that thing?” I would not reply “a river”. I’d know what he wanted to know.

  19. Rivers Avon and Tyne, too.
    While we’re at it, here’s a paper on the distribution of lake names in the US preposing or postposing the word “lake”:

    “Analysis of available databases of lake nomenclature in Europe and Canada suggests that these geographical shifts in lake names may be due to the main European colonist source countries that settled these regions, with Lake Name predominating in countries where Gaelic and Romance linguistic influences were strongest.”

  20. David Eddyshaw says:

    Those stories about simple tribesmen innocently giving the word for “mountain” or whatever, instead of the proper name, never quite rang true.

    True; though my impression is that the point of these stories tends (rightly) to be the simplicity of the questioner rather than the tribesman.

    One of the nice touches in “Arrival” was it getting the story of “kangaroo” right, by the way.

    Also, Wittgenstein has shown us that ostensive definition is impossible anyway. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, inquisitive foreigner! What’s it to you what we call the Sacred River, anyway?

  21. Trond Engen says:

    In the sagas the Norwegian river Glomma is called simply Elv. The same is Göta Älv running through modern day Göteborg in Sweden. And die Elbe carries the name even today.

  22. The opposite is also possible. A toponym may look like a common noun while it’s in fact something else. In northeastern Poland there is a lake called Jeziorak. The name looks for all the world like a derivative of jezioro ‘lake’ or perhaps its Baltic cognate (cf. Proto-Slavic *ezero, Lith. ežeras, OPruss. assaran). It is, however, a post-war Polonisation of German Geserichsee, which in turn reflects the Old Prussian name of the lake, recorded as Geyserich in the 14th century. The second part of this compound is OPruss. rīki ‘kingdom’ (borrowed from early German), and the first part is the Old Prussian word for ‘heron’. To sum up, what looks like ‘the Lake’ is in fact ‘the Kingdom of Herons’.

  23. marie-lucie says:

    As a linguist I was once consulted by a botanist editing the almost century-old notebook of an earlier botanist, who had recorded (not very accurately) native names for a number of native plants of British Columbia. The word apparently meaning “lichen” looked odd and felt odd when I tried to pronounce it, until in a sudden flash of inspiration I realized it was quite literally “thebranchofatree”. The lichen covering the branch had no usefulness in the culture.

  24. You didn’t mentin Megachad was a paleolake: time for Gwyneth Paltrow to start bottling it as a cure-all and selling it at ridiculous prices.

  25. If a visiting Masai pointed at the Thames and said “what is that thing?” I would not reply “a river”. I’d know what he wanted to know.

    But if you were talking to someone from a truly non-riverine area, like central Australia or the Atacama in Chile (before the 21C, obviously), then “a river” would be a good answer.

    Most people know of the Internet now, but few remember what an internet is, now that the largest internet has usurped proper-name status. To avoid ambiguity in speech, those who do deal with internets often call them internetworks instead. (MMcM probably knows the relative priority of the terms.)

  26. David Marjanović says:

    “Heron realm” looks too good to be true, too. I wonder if it was a folk etymology of yet something else.

    And die Elbe carries the name even today.

    We’ve completely lost the common noun, though.

  27. “if it was “the only true lake in the vicinity,” why would they even have had a word for “lake”? And in any case, don’t most geographical entities have actual names, even if they’re the biggest such entity around?”

    Actually, if other commenters are right, they may not have a word for lake. What they seem to have is a compound meaning “Big Water,” which is a perfectly fine name for a lake. It happens also to be the Ojibwa name for Lake Superior, Gichigami, made famous as Gitche Gumee in The Song of Hiawatha.

  28. Let’s call it “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” principle. (The movie had a cat named Cat.)

  29. “Heron realm” looks too good to be true, too.

    Nevertheless, there’s an island (formerly a peninsula) in the northern part of the lake called Czaplak by the locals (Czaplakwerder [sic] until 1945, renamed Czapli Ostrów in 1958), from Polish czapla ‘heron’.

    See here, bottom of page 11.

  30. At least it doesn’t translate as “It’s your finger, you idiot”.

  31. Trond Engen says:

    David M. We’ve completely lost the common noun [Elbe], though.

    And that’s quite certainly a reason why the name was preserved in German. In Scandinavian the meaning of the noun elv (vel.sim.) was bleached from “big, important river” to just “river”, and those named Elv had to be specified.

    If the proper noun was common German at all. I think there’s an alternative etymology explaing elv (vel.sim.) as back-formed from names built on the proper name Elbe.( Göta Âlv = “the Gutian Elbe”)

  32. It is, however, a post-war Polonisation of German Geserichsee

    My first thought about “Geserichsee” is that it is Geiserich’s Sea, named after the king of the Vandals (or after someone named after him).

  33. “A toponym may look like a common noun while it’s in fact something else.”

    I was disappointed to learn that Townsville, Australia, is in fact called after someone named Towns.

  34. Taub is not denying it’s a lake (he uses that term in the very next sentence after the passage I quote: “To the lake’s east…”); I suspect the term “wetland” (which I agree is inappropriate) was dragged in for purposes of elegant variation, so beloved of journalists.

    Well, it may not be totally inappropriate. Wikipedia says (emphasis mine):
    The size of Lake Chad greatly varies seasonally with the flooding of the wetlands areas. In 1983, Lake Chad was reported to have covered 10,000 to 25,000 km2 (3,900 to 9,700 sq mi),[3] had a maximum depth of 11 metres (36 ft),[3] and a volume of 72 km3 (17 cu mi).[3] …

    Referring to the floodplain as a lake may be misleading, as less than half of Lake Chad is covered by water through an entire year. The remaining sections are wetlands.[17] A wetland is an area of land with its soil saturated with moisture either permanently or seasonally. Such areas may also be covered partially or completely by shallow pools of water.[18] Wetlands include swamps, marshes, and bogs, among others.

  35. Trond Engen says:

    There are a few toponyms of the “Cat” type in Norway: A district called Land, hamlets called Bygd, farms called Gard. Homesteads called By or are all over the place, and in common scholarly opinion they are generally the oldest agricultural settlement in their parish,. When new farms were settled around it, and around them again, people kept referring to the big, central place as “the settlement”.

  36. mollomooly,

    That must be some Strine thing, since they also have Mount Hill, named after a certain John Hill, in the Eyre Peninsula.

  37. Lake Tahoe, from Washoe dá’aw ‘lake’.

  38. Apparently, Morocco has “la source de Ain Aghbalou”, in which source, Ain, and Aghbalou each mean “spring” in, respectively, French, Arabic, and Berber.

    More famously, Madinah is the proper name of a religiously important town, as well as the Arabic word for “town”…

  39. Well, that’s short for Madīnat an-Nabī ‘city of the Prophet’ (its earlier name was Yathrib).

  40. And of course there’s η Πόλις ‘the City’ for Constantinople/Istanbul.

  41. David Marjanović says:

    See here, bottom of page 11.

    Thanks! Another gem on that page: there’s a little village called Bensee, next to a lake called Bensee-See.

    That situation was successfully avoided in Austria, except that Zeller See and Zell am See – reciprocally named after each other – are almost homophones.

  42. marie-lucie says:

    Over two millennia the city of Paris has grown from a small Gaulish village on an island in the Seine river to the current metropolis, named after the original local tribe. The island in question (on which were built Notre-Dame and other important monuments) is called ïle de la Cité ‘City island’.

  43. Well, it may not be totally inappropriate.

    Now it may not be totally inappropriate, but I don’t think the same situation held in the 19th century.

  44. Michael Hendry says:

    Lameen:
    Not quite the same thing, but another triple-language combination is (or was – I think it’s defunct) the Green Mountain Monteverdi Festival in Vermont.

    marie-lucie:
    If ïle de la Cité is insufficiently specific, they can always go back to calling it Lutetia.

    Everyone:
    Not at all the same thing as any of these, but I can’t resist mentioning it. Most people assume that the name of Coalinga, California is of vaguely Spanish origin (it’s quadrisyllabic) but it began as the first of three coaling stations on a railroad line: Coaling A, Coaling B, and Coaling C.

  45. marie-lucie says:

    MH: Lutetia (now known as Lutèce) was the name of the ancestor of the modern city, it was and is not the name of the island itself, which was the land on which Lutèce was built. L’île de la Cité is quite specific enough in its context.

  46. Green Mountain Monteverdi Festival in Vermont wow!

    To me Coalinga sounds not Spanish, but vaguely Tongva (Gabrielino), like many Los Angeles place names: Cucamonga, Cahuenga, Tujunga, Topanga. Of course Coalinga is far beyond Tongva territory.

  47. >the Ojibwa name for Lake Superior, Gichigami

    In Minnesota, they’re said to have 10,000 words for lake.

    >And that’s quite certainly a reason why the name was preserved in German. In Scandinavian the meaning of the noun elv (vel.sim.) was bleached from “big, important river” to just “river”, and those named Elv had to be specified.

    And do the Welsh think of Shakespeare as the Bard of River?

  48. Reminds me an etymology of the Buzawa tribe of Kalmyks.

    The name, so utterly un-Mongolian, baffled scholars until the mystery was solved by Russian military archives. In 18th century, the Russian army set up a chain of military outposts or bases as they were called across the Kalmyk steppe frontier and assigned small detachments of Kalmyks to each base. These ‘base Kalmyks’ were called ‘bazovye kalmyky’ in Russian and by next century a new tribe of Buzawa Kalmyks was born.

  49. Trond Engen says:

    In a situation of language shift, I can easily imagine a name like Avon becoming a proper name. Local people always talk of their river as “the river”. In a new language, the specifying element may be lost because it’s unnecessary, or young people or newcomers may simply not pick up the real name.

  50. That must be some Strine thing, since they also have Mount Hill, named after a certain John Hill, in the Eyre Peninsula.

    But they also have Shark Bay and the Great Sandy Desert, so a certain toponymical directness is not unknown to the Strine.

  51. And do the Welsh think of Shakespeare as the Bard of River?

    Not likely. Bardd in Welsh is just ‘poet’, without necessarily carrying any of the special overtones of bard in English. The Welsh WP says that Shakespeare was born in Stratford-on-Avon, which it says is a town on the banks of Afon Avon. I assume this is pronounced Afon Eifyn by modern cymrophones.

  52. From Mario Pei, sometime in the Pliocene, I learned of Torpenhow Hill in England: Hillhillhill Hill.

  53. Most people assume that the name of Coalinga, California is of vaguely Spanish origin (it’s quadrisyllabic) but it began as the first of three coaling stations on a railroad line: Coaling A, Coaling B, and Coaling C.

    The “Coaling” part is accurate, the rest dubious. Erwin Gudde, the Great Cham of California lexicography, says:

    The place was known as Coaling Station after the Southern Pacific built a branch line to the district in 1888, when deposits of lignite were widely publicized as great coal seams. According to local tradition, the sonorous name was created by an official of the Southern Pacific who added an a to “coaling” (Laura Lauritzen).

    “According to local tradition” = “unverifiable,” and there’s no mention of any B or C. (The “Coalinga coal boom” was a bust.)

  54. I have to be skeptical on Torpenhow Hill: this investigation in 2003 found no such feature on local maps, although the village of Torpenhow does exist, pronounced Britishly “trepenna”. Mario Pei probably fell for an urban legend, especially considering he got the location wrong. But wait… Google Maps (which launched in 2005) does have an index entry for Torpenhow Hill, near the village, complete with photograph. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone stuck that in as a prank. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the village didn’t originally have any such name for the small hill, but is now willing to call it that if it draws tourists. I’ll certainly go if I manage to get to the UK.

  55. Ye olde long-retired toponymist here:

    I beg to differ with the limnologists who concluded that lake names in North America in which the generic (eg. lake) precedes the specific (name) indicate that the original colonists were speakers of languages other than English, eg. Gaelic or Romance.
    This is only partially true. One exception is the 19th C. mindset of English Protestant settlers. On southeastern Vancouver Island I can cite two names. One is Jordan River. Since at one time (the ‘glory days’ of logging) there was a post office called River Jordan I concluded that the river was originally called that in reference to the river in the ‘Holy Land’. And since the post office was located on the far bank coming from Victoria (the source of the only road then) the name was a reference to the Israelites entering the Pomised Land from the wilderness (even though it could be argued that the loggers crossed in the opposite direction).
    The other name is Cowichan Lake, on the east end of which is the town of Lake Cowichan. The lake name had been switched about by newcomers who didn’t share the poetic mindset of the 19th C. settlers.

  56. Shark Bay, Australia is not today known principally for it sharks, but for being the only place left on Earth with living stromatolites. Shallow, very salty water keeps them from being over-grazed by invertebrates.

  57. …the Great Sandy Desert.

    Who was the Great Sandy it was named after? Alexander the Great?

  58. Trond Engen says:

    It might well be that the name Chad never has been analysable in any language. The lake is so anomalous in size and shape, and so central to the life of everyone around it, that it could be one of those entities that just is, like the sun and the moon.

  59. ə de vivre says:

    Near Seattle we had Lake Washington, Lake Union, Lake Samamish, Lake Wenatchee, and Lake Chelan; but also Cle Elum Lake, Echo Lake, and Green Lake. The Wikipedia article for the lake qualified by “Ozette” alternates between Lake Ozette (which is what I grew up saying) and Ozette lake. Despite a gallic -ette ending, the first white settlers were of Scandinavian origin. Direct Romance or Gaelic influence was vanishingly small, but Chinook Jargon at least carried words of French origin, such as the town of LaPush (<La Bouche), which is situated at the mouth of the Quillayute River. Seems like settlers of the Northwest Coast were pretty ambivalent about Lake X or X Lake.

  60. New York, like Paris, has a City Island. (Wikipedia tells me that it was named by an over-eager developer in 1761, who apparently thought Minefer’s Island wasn’t quite the thing.)

  61. City Island. Very nice it is, too; my wife and I spent some time there many years ago. You feel like you’re way out of town.

  62. Oliver Sacks lived there for many years.

  63. January First-of-May says:

    A weird pair: Lake Eufaula in Alabama (also known as Walter F. George Lake – in that order – in Georgia; it’s right on the border and the two states call it differently) and Eufaula Lake in Oklahoma (but the state park next to it is Lake Eufaula State Park).

    I have no idea which one of them is the “Lake Eufaula” referred to in Bryant Oden’s song Paula the Koala supposed to be, however.
    (That song always sounded weird to me, incidentally, because its rhymes imply a full cot-caught merger – which means that there’s a lot of weird rhymes that make me think that those words are not supposed to rhyme that way.)

  64. And of course, London proper, within the invisible lines of the long-vanished walls, is The City. Quite a few Roman cities are just someone’s Forum, and I am sure that the pagani often left off the founder’s name when they told someone that they were going to market. Persepolis did not have a name distinct from the name of the dominant local ethnic group: it is just Parsā- “the district of Fars in the southern Zagros.”

  65. Then there’s Arabic Shām ‘Syria; Damascus.’

  66. I’ve also read that Maṣr can be used to mean Cairo as well as Egypt.

  67. ə de vivre says:

    And al-Jazā’ir/Algeria/Algers.

  68. David Eddyshaw says:

    There are also any number of ethnic groups throughout the world whose name for themselves is “People.” Starting with “Inuit”, and carrying on for as long as you like.

  69. Mexico is the capital of Mexico, Guatemala is the capital of Guatemala, Brasilia is the capital of Brazil and San Salvador is the capital of El Salvador.

    Very neat and orderly.

  70. David Marjanović says:

    Salzburg is the capital of Salzburg. Vienna, however, is Vienna…

  71. And Moscow is the river in Moscow

  72. marie-lucie says:

    DE: There are also any number of ethnic groups throughout the world whose name for themselves is “People.”

    Or, often, “the Real People”.

  73. @stedak: Thanks. I recently reread The Story of Language for the first time since I was a youngster and was surprised (for about a second) at the number of misstatements it contained.

  74. David Marjanović says:

    And Moscow is the river in Moscow

    Same for Vienna.

  75. marie-lucie says:

    In France too there is a river la Vienne and a town Vienne in the same area. And we call the capital of Austria Vienne as well.

  76. David Marjanović says:

    Fun fact: the city in France was actually Vienna in Roman times; but the one in Austria was Vindobona, later Vindomina.

  77. Quite a few Roman cities are just someone’s Forum…

    And Chester dropped its official name of Deva Victrix and became simply ‘the Camp’.

  78. January First-of-May says:

    The river in Vilnuis is Vilnia(le) – the one that isn’t Neris, anyway (apparently that one is also known as Vilia, but in regions well away from the city).
    It Is sometimes said that the city was also originally named Vilnia, after the river, and didn’t become “Vilnius” until relatively recently. (Apparently this is still the Latvian name.)

    It is generally rather often the case – in Russia, at least (not sure about the other places) – that the larger river in a town doesn’t share the town’s name but the smaller one does (or at least is obviously related).
    This is usually because the town in question was basically founded at the mouth of a river and named for the river it is at the mouth of (which then naturally turns out to be the smaller river in said town).

  79. So, Kolomna should be called Moscow and Moscow should be called Yauza?

  80. Michael Hendry says:

    There are a lot of American cities and towns with essentially the same names as the rivers they are on, starting with the first English settlement Jamestown, near the mouth of the James River. On the far side of the same penninsula is Yorktown, on the York River. On the far side of Chesapeake Bay (the Eastern Shore), Pocomoke City, Maryland is on the Pocomoke River. I’m sure there are dozens more. Of course, most of these have -town or City to distinguish them from their rivers.

    Coming up with unique names can be difficult. Also on the Eastern Shore are Mardela Springs, near the Maryland-Delaware state line on the Maryland side, and Delmar, which straddles the line.

  81. A certain city on river Dnipro (I will use Ukrainian variants here) was first christened Katerynoslav (namesake of Catherine II) then changed to Novorossiysk (New Russia) then Katerynoslav again, then Dnipropetrovsk (the last part because of a certain revolutionary named Petrovsky) and finally just Dnipro. Naming a city after the river is always a safe bet.

  82. Of course, using “lesser rivername principle”, it should be called Samara instead.

  83. January First-of-May says:

    So, Kolomna should be called Moscow and Moscow should be called Yauza?

    Well, more like Neglinka for the latter. Yauza wasn’t originally right in the center like it appears to be today.

    I guess it breaks up when both rivers are relatively small…

  84. -certain revolutionary named Petrovsky

    It’s kind of depressing that the only town in Russia named after Peter the Great is tiny Peterhof (and apparently from Dutch).

  85. David Eddyshaw says:

    It Is sometimes said that the city was also originally named Vilnia, after the river, and didn’t become “Vilnius” until relatively recently. (Apparently this is still the Latvian name.)

    ווילנע “Vilne” in Yiddish, of course. It’s where Gaons come from. I always think of it as Vilna, though I’m prepared to concede that the Lithuanians are entitled to call it whatever they like.

    I would guess that “relatively recently” actually reflects the fact that the city was Polish- and Yiddish-speaking up until Lithuania became a modern state. It may well have been called Vilnius in Lithuanian well before that. Someone here will know …

  86. Ethnic Lithuanians became majority of population of Vilnius in 1988 or so. (census of 1979 showed that Vilnius was 42.8% Lithuanian, census of 1989 showed 50.5% Lithuanian)

    Lithuania regained independence in 1991.

  87. January First-of-May says:

    It’s kind of depressing that the only town in Russia named after Peter the Great is tiny Peterhof

    Doesn’t Petrozavodsk count?

    (Okay, it’s apparently extremely indirect, but at least it’s still the right Peter.)

  88. @D.O.: I preferred the idea of taking the “palatable” parts of the tzarist and communist names and calling it Dniproslav. Dnipro alone seems a little lacking.

  89. -at least it’s still the right Peter.

    More likely both the works and the town were named after St.Peter and Paul’s cathedral.

    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e3/Petrochurch2.jpg?uselang=ru

  90. -I preferred the idea of taking the “palatable” parts of the tzarist and communist names and calling it

    Yekaterinopetrovsk sounds about right

  91. David Marjanović says:

    Apparently this is still the Latvian name.

    This is what Wikipedia is best for: Viļņa.

  92. David Eddyshaw says:

    @SFReader:

    I was thinking of the foundation of the Soviet Republic primarily, along with all the onslaughts on the populations resulting from the Second World War; though in retrospect the Republic of 1918 is when it would be most natural to describe Lithuania as having become a “modern state.” Either way, the Lithuanianization of Vilna/Vilnius was evidently decades in happening, and was the longer-term result of all this. But I hadn’t realised quite how late it was that the majority in the city became Lithuanian. Thanks!

  93. It was mainly Polish for a long time, and in fact part of Poland between the wars (and officially Wilno). There’s much discussion of the history and languages involved in this LH thread; fave fun fact from one of the comments:

    Stalin almost gave Vilnius/Vilna/Wilno/Vil’nya to Belorussia instead of Lithuania! He seems to have changed his mind at the last moment and had all the Belorussian activists sent to the Gulag instead of put in high official posts.

  94. David Eddyshaw says:

    Thanks, Hat; and your citation of Snyder p92 from that thread pretty much answers my question:

    after WWII, when [the Lithuanians] were determined to turn Vilnius into a Lithuanian city: they refused to allow ethnic Poles from the countryside to resettle to Poland (which had empty fields that needed farming), but expelled Poles from the new capital: “In Vilnius every Pole was forced to register for repatriation, and 80 percent of those who registered as Poles were actually resettled. The result was the de-Polonization of Wilno, and a turning point in the history of Lithuanian nationality.”

  95. Kind of like Sarajevo which was surrounded by Serb villages, but the city itself was mainly Muslim. Didn’t end well.

    Lithuania dodged the bullet in 1991. Came very close to ethnic civil war back then – in those eight months from January to August.

  96. For a different take on the changing nationalities of Vilna/Vilnius and its surroundings, there’s Czeslaw Milosz’s The Issa Valley, a wonderful novel. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you whether Issa means valley, nor even what language it might be from. Given the location, there may even be some question what language family it might be from.

  97. Issa means Jesus in Arabic.

    Won’t serve as an etymology for any real river, but it’s a mythical river in mythical Lithuania in a novel by a homesick Catholic emigre, so I guess it’s as good explanation as any.

  98. According to Miłosz himself, he chose the name Issa because it sounded like a respectable “Old European” river name* and because it resembled Dubissa, the Polish name of the River Dubysa, as it is called in Lithuanian (apparently from dubus ‘deep, hollow, spacious’, perhaps with reference to its spectacularly large postglacial valley). The real-world model for the Issa, however, was the Niewiaża (Lith. Nevėžis).

    * Indeed, Theo Vennemann would love it. It’s “of course” the Vasconic word for water, *is plus the Vasconic definite article *a.

  99. “Isa” happens to be the Songhay word for river (by default, the Niger river), though I doubt that Miłosz would have known that.

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