Derek Watkins has created a striking map that he has posted here:

This map taps into the place names contained in the USGS National Hydrography Dataset to show how the generic names of streams vary across the lower 48. Creeks and rivers are symbolized in gray due to their ubiquity (although the etymology behind the American use of creek is interesting), while bright colors symbolize other popular toponyms.
Lite-Brite aesthetic notwithstanding, I like this map because it illustrates the range of cultural and environmental factors that affect how we label and interact with the world. Lime green bayous follow historical French settlement patterns along the Gulf Coast and up Louisiana streams. The distribution of the Dutch-derived term kill (dark blue) in New York echoes the colonial settlement of “New Netherland” (as well as furnishing half of a specific toponym to the Catskill Mountains). Similarly, the spanish-derived terms rio, arroyo, and cañada (orange hues) trace the early advances of conquistadors into present-day northern New Mexico, an area that still retains some unique cultural traits. Washes in the southwest reflect the intermittent rainfall of the region, while streams named swamps (desaturated green) along the Atlantic seaboard highlight where the coastal plain meets the Appalachian Piedmont at the fall line.

There’s more discussion at the link, and James Cheshire, impressed by Watkins’s work, has produced a similar map (posted here) that does the same for the major rivers and streams in Great Britain. It’s a wonderful use of cartography to illustrate language use.


  1. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    He wonders why brook is so much more common in Britain than in the USA. It is of course very much of a living word in Britain today, not necessarily associated with a name — maybe not as common as stream, perhaps, but getting there. Any river small enough to be jumped across is likely to be called a brook.

  2. It would be interesting to do the creek/brook analysis for Canada and Australia too. My unscientific observation is that “creek” is the more common in these countries as well. You might expect Australia to be closer to English usage, but I don’t think it is. On the other hand, all three countries were settled at roughly the same time, whereas I suppose most features in England acquired their names much earlier.
    Ireland might be an interesting comparison, since there are parts of Ireland where English placenames were bestowed by the Ordnance Survey in the early 19th century. There are some rivers with the first component in the name being “Owen” corresponding to Irish “abhainn”=river. However, I don’t recall either “creek” or “brook” being much used in Ireland. Perhaps someone who lives there could comment.

  3. The OED gives an explanation for the different uses of creek. The English used it to mean a narrow inlet by the sea or in a river estuary. This makes sense to me, there are creeks along the banks of the Thames in London. When explorers went to the colonies what they thought were creeks in the English sense turned out to be longer – i.e. streams or smaller rivers in their own right – and so the colonial usage added a meaning.
    creek, n.1
    Forms: α. 4 krike, 4–5 cryke, (kryk), 6–7 crike; β. 4–6 creke, (6 creake, crieque), 6–7 creeke, 7 creak, creick, 6– creek; γ. 6– crick.
    [Three types of this are found, viz. (1) crike, cryke (ī), usual in ME., (2) creke, rare in ME. (see sense 7), but common in the 16th c. (whence the current creek), and (3) crick, only since 16th c. The first corresponds to F. crique (14th c. in Littré); the second to earlier Du. krēke (Kilian), mod.Du. kreek creek, bay, and to med. (Anglo) L. creca (sometimes crecca) creek. The form crick resembles Sw. dial krik bend, nook, corner, creek, cove (Rietz), and Icel. kriki crack, nook (handarkriki armpit), but is prob. an Eng. shortening of crique, crike. In many parts of U.S. crick is the common pronunciation of creek in the sense ‘stream’. The earlier history is not known, but the word (in French also) is generally supposed to be Germanic. In sense 4 the word appears to be related to crack; in 6 and 7 there appears to be association with crook.
       A corresponding double form is seen in pike, peak, F. pic. It has been conjectured that the word is preserved in the OE. proper names Creacanford, Crecᴁanford, Creᴁanford, Crayford (in Kent), and Crecca-ᴁelád, Cricᴁelad, Flor. Criccelade, Cricklade (in Wilts); the former is impossible; in the latter crecca could not be the origin of either crike or creke, though some connexion is possible, if there were any reason to suppose that the meaning suits.]
    I. 1.I.1 a.I.1.a A narrow recess or inlet in the coast-line of the sea, or the tidal estuary of a river; an armlet of the sea which runs inland in a comparatively narrow channel and offers facilities for harbouring and unloading smaller ships.
       (The first quot. may be of more general meaning.)
    α    c 1250 Gen. & Ex. 2947 In euerilc welle, in euerilc crike [printed trike] Men funden blod al witterlike.    c 1300 Havelok 708 Hise ship‥He dede it tere, an ful wel pike, Þat it ne doutede sond ne krike.    c 1386 Chaucer Prol. 409 He knew‥euery cryke in Britaigne and in Spayne.    c 1440 Promp. Parv. 103 Cryke of watyr, scatera.    1542–3 Act 34–5 Hen. VIII, c. 9 §1 Dwellers next vnto the streme of Seuerne, and vnto the crikes and pilles of ye same from Kingrod vpward toward the City and Towne of Gloucester.    1626 Capt. Smith Accid. Yng. Seamen 17 A channell, a bay, a rode‥a crike, a riuer.
    β    1512 Act 4 Hen. VIII, c. 1 §1 The Frenchemen‥knowe‥every haven and Creke within the sayde Countie.    1571 Hanmer Chron. Irel. (1633) 155 The ship was by foule weather driven into a creick.    1622 Callis Stat. Sewers (1647) 38 Creek of the sea is an Inlet of sea cornered into the main Land, shooting with a narrow passage into some Angle of the Land, and therein stretching it self more then ordinary into the Land.    1694 Smith & Walford Acc. Sev. Late Voy. i. (1711) 39 A Creek two miles long, which is dry at Low Water, and not more than thirty foot broad.    1839 Penny Cycl. XIII. 187/2 (Faversham) The creek or arm of the Swale on which the town stands is navigable for vessels of 150 tons.    1846 McCulloch Acc. Brit. Empire (1854) I. 57 A long narrow saltwater creek, communicating with the sea at Portland Road.
    γ    1582 N. Lichefield tr. Castanheda’s Conq. E. Ind. 64 a, Foysts placed in euery Baye or Kricke to set upon him.
    b.I.1.b A small port or harbour; an inlet within the limits of a haven or port. c.I.1.c In the Customs administration of Great Britain, an inlet, etc., not of sufficient importance to be a separate Customs station, but included within the jurisdiction of another port station.
    α    1478 Botoner Itin. (Nasmith 1778) 125 Pertinentes ad havyn de Falmouth sunt 147 portus et crykes.
    β    1486 C’tess of Oxford in Four C. Eng. Lett. 7 That such wetche‥be used and hadde in the poorts, and creks.    1588 Act 1 Eliz. c. 11 §1 Conveying‥their Wares‥out of Creekes and Places where no Customer ys resident.    1642 Milton Apol. Smect. (1851) 298 He must cut out large docks and creeks into his text to unlode the foolish frigate of his unseasonable autorities.    1789 Ann. Reg. 133 A Creek in the language of the Customs, is a place included within the limits either of a head or member-port; as set out by the commissions of the Court of Exchequer; and at which officers competent to transact the coast business are stationed by order of the Board of Customs.    1863 P. Barry Dockyard Econ. 211 Between the fourth and fifth slip there is a dock inlet or creek, which might at any time be enlarged into a dry dock or basin for ships of the largest class.    1876 Act 39 & 40 Vict. c. 36 §11 Customs Laws Consolidation. The pre-existing limits of any port, sub-port, haven, creek, or legal quay.
    γ    1628 Digby Voy. Medit. 47 Besides the port is but a little cricke.
    d.I.1.d Applied to any similar opening on the shore of a lake.
       1810 Scott Lady of L. i. xiv, Loch-Katrine‥In all her length extended lay, With promontory, creek, and bay.
    2.I.2 As part of a river or river-system. a.I.2.a An inlet or short arm of a river, such as runs up into the widened mouth of a ditch or small stream, or fills any short ravine or cutting that joins the river. (This is merely an occasional extension of sense 1.)
       1577 [see 8].    1653 Walton Angler 147 A He and a She Pike will usually go together out of a River into some ditch or creek.    1671 Milton P.R. ii. 25 On the bank of Jordan, by a creek, Where winds with reeds and osiers whispering play.    1774 Goldsm. Nat. Hist. (1776) IV. 151 The otter has two different methods of fishing; the one‥by pursuing [its prey] into some little creek, and seizing it there.    1814 D. H. O’Brien Narr. Escape 109 On the banks of the Rhine‥I‥perceived a small Punt hauled into a creek.    1882 M. E. Braddon Mt. Royal I. vi. 151 He knew every tributary, creek, and eyot.
    b.I.2.b In U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc.: A branch of a main river, a tributary river; a rivulet, brook, small stream, or run.
       Probably the name was originally given by the explorers of a river to the various inlets or arms observed to run out of it, and of which only the mouths were seen in passing; when at a later period these ‘creeks’ were explored, they were often found to be tributaries of great length; but they retained the designation originally given, and ‘creek’ thus received an application entirely unknown in Great Britain.

       1622 in H. R. Shurtleff Log Cabin Myth (1939) 155 Creeks and Swamps as they call them‥offer all aduantages to their‥enimys.    1638 in Massachusetts Hist. Soc. Coll. 3rd Ser. VI. 42 They‥are dispersed securely in their plantations sixty miles along the coast, and within the land also, along some small creeks and rivers.    1674 Pennsylv. Archives I. 34 On the East-side of a Small Creeke or gutt on this side the Single-tree.    1748 F. Smith Voy. Disc. N.W. Pass. I. 132 Called Ten Shilling Creek, but not properly, it being a Branch of the great River.    1748 Washington Jrnl. 25 Mar., Left Cresaps and went up to ye mouth of Patersons Creek [a tributary of the Potomac].    1793 J. Hunter Hist. Jrnl. Port Jackson xxi. 516 In the afternoon a creek obliged them to leave the banks of the river, and go round its head, as it was too deep to cross.    1820 S. Marsden Let. 8 May (1932) iv. 249 There are two warm springs opposite each other, one on each bank of the creek, about ten feet above the level of the fresh water which runs between them.    1836 Backwoods of Canada 64 Besides numerous small streams, here called creeks, two considerable rivers‥find an outlet.    1840 N.Z. Jrnl. I. 292/1 A fine creek of water‥runs down from the mountains‥and wastes itself in the salt water.    1852 G. B. Earp Gold Colonies Australia viii. 131 A ‘creek’, in New South Wales jargon, means a water-hole in the interior, and not an arm of the sea, as we understand it.    1857 R. Paul Lett. Canterbury iv. 65 In the Australian Colonies, as in America, brooks are called creeks.    1879 D. M. Wallace Australas. ii. 25 The drainage of the interior is effected by numerous creeks and water⁓courses which only run after periods of rain.    c 1848 in H. Watterson Oddities S. Life & Char. (1883) 69 ‘You see that krick swamp?’ asked Suggs.    1963 B. Pearson Coal Flat iv. 59 In a little clearing in the‥young bush by the bank of the creek was Mrs Seldom’s little house.
    c.I.2.c Phr. up the creek: (a) in a tight corner, in trouble; spec. pregnant; (b) crazy, eccentric. slang.
       1941 A. Miller in Kozlenko 100 Radio Plays 22/2, I mean that if I’m killed you’re up the creek.    1943 Hunt & Pringle Service Slang 68 Up the creek, lost, either on patrol or during a night out; off one’s course.    1945 Penguin New Writing XXIV. 32 Lord, it’s my mortar lance corporal. If he breaks we’ll be right up the creek.    1960 H. Pinter Caretaker iii. 71 You don’t know what you’re doing.‥ You’re up the creek! You’re half off!    1961 H. E. Bates Day of Tortoise 52 I’m in trouble. I’m going to have a baby.‥ I’ve had it. Good and proper. I’m up the creek.    1961 J. Heller Catch-22 (1962) viii. 78 You really are up the creek, Popinjay.    1963 E. Lambert Drip Dry Man x. 51, I know a girl who thinks her bloke may have put her up the creek.    1969 I. Kemp Brit. G.I. in Vietnam vi. 134 ‘You okay?’ asked Donovan.‥ ‘I thought you were properly up the creek.’
    3.I.3 transf. senses akin to 1. †a.I.3.a Applied more widely and loosely to any narrow arm or corner of the sea. Obs.
       1635 N. Carpenter Geog. Del. ii. vi. 87 The Adriatic Sea in the inmost creeke neere Venice swels neere foure foote in hight.    1652 Needham Selden’s Mare Cl. 333 Jersey, and Garnesey‥situated within that Creek of Sea which is made by the shore of Bretaign on the one side, and that of Normandie on the other.
    b.I.3.b A narrow corner of land running out from the main area; a narrow plain or recess running in between mountains. Cf. cove.
       1649 W. Blithe Eng. Improv. Impr. (1653) 56 Certain Creeks or corners of Land running into the up-lands.    1669 Worlidge Syst. Agric. xi. §3 (1681) 233 To How the several Creeks, Corners, and Patches of your Land.    1856 Stanley Sinai & Pal. ii. (1858) 136 The plains which run into the mountains are the creeks into which they [the Bedouins] naturally penetrate.
    II.II †4.II.4 A cleft in the face of a rock, etc.; a crack, fissure, chink, crevice, cranny. Obs.
    α    1375 Barbour Bruce x. 602 Thai clam into the crykis swa, Quhill half the craggis thai clummyn had.    c 1375 Sc. Leg. Saints, Blasius 43 A kryk in to a crage he hade, & þare his dwellinge has he mad.
    β, γ    1570 Levins Manip. 54 A creke, crick, fissura.    Ibid. 120 A crick, rima.    1635 R. Brathwait Arcad. Pr. 179 To wals and portels would he lay his eare, Through creeks and crannies too, that he might hear‥desir’d applause.
    5. a.II.5.a A narrow or winding passage penetrating the interior of any place and passing out of sight; an out-of-the-way corner. to seek creeks: to seek a hiding-place. Obs. or dial.
       1573 Tusser Husb. (1878) 108 Tom Piper hath houen and puffed vp cheekes, If cheese be so houen, make Cisse to seeke creekes.    1582 T. Watson Centurie of Loue xcv. (Arb.) 131 A Labyrinth is a place made full of turnings and creekes.    1590 Shakes. Com. Err. iv. ii. 38 One that countermands The passages of allies, creekes and narrow lands.    1629 Chapman Juvenal v. 15 Is no creek void?    1681 Cotton Wond. Peak 52 The Cave‥stretching itself‥As if (past these blind Creeks) we now were come into the‥Mountains Womb.    1750 Gray Poems, Long Story 62 Each hole and cupboard they explore, Each creek and cranny of his chamber.    1808–25 Jamieson s.v. Crykes, ‘Creeks and corners’ is still a common phrase.    1878 Mrs. H. Wood Pomeroy Ab. (ed. 3) 112 We‥looked in every crick and corner for it.    1883 G. Allen in Colin Clout’s Calendar 65 To fill up all the cricks and corners between other plants.
    b.II.5.b fig. A nook, a hidden or secret corner.
       1577 tr. Bullinger’s Decades (1592) 341 And so must sounde doctrine keepe all the faithfull‥in their duetie and quiet concorde, without creake or creauise.    1587 Fleming Contn. Holinshed III. 1296/1 Throughlie view the hidden and couered creeks of our minds!    1614 J. Day Day’s Festivals (1615) 261 There is not a creeke or crany in the World, but seemes to bee fraught with it.    c 1620 Z. Boyd Zion’s Flowers (1855) 91 The crooked creekes Within my heart.    1715 M. Davies Athen. Brit. i. 249 Jesuitical Creeks and Corners of Superstitious Romanism.
    †c.II.5.c Applied to the two cavities of the heart.
       1621–51 Burton Anat. Mel. i. i. i. iii, The Ventricles, Caules, Kells, Tunicles, Creeks, and parts of it.    Ibid. i. i. ii. iv, This heart, though it be one sole member, yet it may be divided into two creeks right and left.
    †6.II.6 A turn, a winding, as of a river or crooked way. Also fig. Obs.
       1592 Davies Immort. Soul xv. 4 As Streams, which with their winding Banks do play, Stopp’d by their Creeks, run softly thro’ the Plain.    1596 ― Orchestra, I love Meander’s path‥Such winding slights, such turns and cricks he hath, Such creaks, such wrenches, and such dalliance.    c 1653 England’s Alarm in R. Bell Collect. Anc. Songs 1857 Painted harlots which they often meet At every creek and corner of the street.    1671 J. Flavel Fount. of Life vii. 20 In every Creek and turning of your lives.    a 1680 Charnock Attrib. God (1834) I. 648 He hath a prospect of every little creek in any design.
    †7.II.7 fig. A crooked device; a trick, artifice, contrivance. Obs.
       The early date of this sense makes its history and position doubtful.
       c 1386 Chaucer Reeve’s T. 131 (Ellesmere MS.) They wene þat no man may hem bigile‥The moore queynte crekes [so 4 MSS.; Harl. knakkes] that they make The moore wol I stele.    a 1626 W. Sclater in Spurgeon Treas. Dav. Ps. cxvi. 6 Without those slights, or creeks of carnal policy, for which men are in the world esteemed wise.
    III. 8.III.8 attrib. and Comb., as creek-bed, creek-hole, creek-side, creek-timber (U.S.). creek-bottom U.S., level ground beside a stream or brook; creek-gum, the Australian river red gum, Eucalyptus camaldulensis.
       1852 Southern Lit. Messenger XVIII. 314/1 Ahead of us‥is a creek-bed, fringed far back into the hills with tree and shrub.    1859 K. Cornwallis New World I. 111 A creek-bed ran parallel with the road.    1936 I. L. Idriess Cattle King iv. 30 Often you can dig in a dry creek-bed and obtain soakage water.    1965 M. Shadbolt Among Cinders xx. 194 We walked‥following a creek-bed.
       1822 J. Woods 2 Yrs. Eng. Prairie 224 On the creek bottoms, coffee-berry, poplar, pecon, white walnut.    1857 F. L. Olmsted Journ. Texas 81 The soil of the creek-bottoms bears good cotton.
       1898 Morris Austral Eng. 178 Creek Gum.    1930 V. Palmer Men are Human x. 89 The sun, visible through a gap in the creek-gums, hung fixed in the sky.
       1748 F. Smith Voy. Disc. N.W. Pass. I. 145 The Pieces of Swamp between this Channel and the Creek-head.
       1577 B. Googe Heresbach’s Husb. iv. (1586) 173 In the bankes and sides of these Ponds, you must have Bushes and Creeke holes, for the Fish to hide them in from the heate of the Sunne.
       1879 Whittier St. John xvii, From island and creek-side Her fishers shall throng.
       1790 J. Backus Diary in W. W. Backus Mem. Backus Fam. (1889) 93 Explored the bottom to the Creek timber land.    1836 D. B. Edward Hist. Texas 36 We find‥[the] prairie‥relieved by creek timbers and solitary groves.
    Hence ˈcreekward a., towards a creek.
       1887 C. C. Abbott Waste-Land Wand. iii. 85 Kept a creekward course until out of sight.

  4. That’s caused a bit of a bottleneck at the start of the comments, so feel free to reduce the OED quote to the bolded bit, Language. I left the whole thing only because I enjoy reading the cited examples. Unfortunately you can’t link to Oxford publications (bastards).

  5. Interesting how both Northern and Southern Appalachia are picked out and distinguished from each other.

  6. I can’t see that the British river-names map says anything useful, certainly for England (although the Scottish divisions look interesting): while in the US there is clearly a variety of synonyms used for similar sorts of running water, in England it’s pretty much river = large to medium, brook = medium/medium-small and stream = small, and only “beck” (= German Bach) and “gill” as regional variants (for a brook and a stream, respectively, mostly in the old Danelaw).
    What would have been more interesting is a map showing the linguistic roots of the river names themselves, which would reveal just how many English rivers, even in the east, have Celtic names (Avon, of course, and Ouse, and Exe and Ash [both “isca”, “water” as in “uisge”/whisky] among many others).

  7. mollymooly says:

    I don’t recall either “creek” or “brook” being much used in Ireland. Perhaps someone who lives there could comment.
    Me neither. Checking the Irish Placenames Database for the four corners of the island and, apart from a few “X Water”, it’s all “X River” or “River X”.

  8. “X Water” surely marks places settled by Scots.

  9. We’ve got plenty of “brooks” here in E Anglia; I don’t remember living near one in Scotland. Watercourses smaller than rivers and bigger than burns were often “water”, as in “Water of Milk” or “Kirtle Water”.
    Mind you, why no “bourne” in the south of England?

  10. Isn’t the Bourne River (or is it River Bourne?) in the south of England?

  11. I think the Bourne flows into the Serpentine, the lake in Hyde Park. Like most of the old rivers of London it’s enclosed in a tunnel. When I was young, it used to leak into the basement of Elliot’s shoe shop on the corner of Westbourne Grove.
    There are lots and lots of -bourne place names in southern England. Not just Eastbourne and Bournemouth, but Pangbourne is on the Thames, near Reading. There’s Melbourn and Bassingbourn in Cambridgeshire, near where my grandmother grew up (Kneesworth) – they can’t be so far from dearie’s house.

  12. My remark was unclear – I meant why didn’t the mapmaker include an entry for “bourn”/”bourne”, the word being so common. It seems a strange omission.
    P.S. Is “bourn”/”bourne” common anywhere in the US? (Or Canada, ….)

  13. There’s also Bournville, a town made entirely out of chocolate, but I like to think of the Midlands as ‘up north’.

  14. Although the Cadburys were Quakers (like the Frys, Roundtrees and all the other chocolate makers in Britain), Bournville has its own Serbian Orthodox church. The interior surface of the dome is entirely covered with milk-chocolate buttons.

  15. We have forks and washes galore in Utah, but also a number of names not shown on Derek’s map – gulches, canyons, hollows, and even a small group of “waters” (all located in Diamond Fork drainage and called 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th Waters resp.)
    Forks here were usually named after early settlers who’ve been granted rights to built logging roads or livestock trails there, so it’s most commonly “Last Name[‘s] Fork”. But sometimes their names get nested (West Fork Blacks Fork, yes, that’s a name of four parts in a region where many names are similarly long-winded), or sometimes “nominees” didn’t want their names used (like when Apostle Smoot built a logging road to supply timbers for the Salt Lake Tabernacle, he insisted that the creek be called Church Fork, for he’s done the work on the Mormon Church’s behalf)
    How do you classify “Left Fork Bear River” btw – as a river or as a fork 😉 ?

  16. “Pangborn” has always suggested the pain of childbirth to me, as if the original person of that name was someone whose mother had a particularly difficult time of it.

  17. It’s from a Berkshire place name recorded in 844 as Pegingaburnan, meaning ‘stream of the family or followers of a man called Pæga’ according to the Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names, which adds: “The river-name Pang is a ‘back-formation’ from the place-name.”

  18. I note here that I am a great fan of the works of Edgar Pangborn, especially the novel Davy and the short-story collection Still I Persist In Wondering, which in full continues “whether folly must always be our destiny.”
    One hopes not.

  19. David Marjanović says:

    Watercourses smaller than rivers and bigger than burns were often “water”, as in “Water of Milk” or “Kirtle Water”.

    Tiroler Ache and lots of others in -ach, all of them grammatically feminine. There it is, the other Indo-European “water” word, preserved for long enough to pass through the High German consonant shift.

  20. Oh yes, and that’s not the only case: Aachen is Aquisgranum, of course. Then there’s Die Aumühle, a village on the Helme where my mother was brought up in the 1920s, consisting at the time solely of the mill itself. (She was born in Heringen, a few kilometers to the west). I had a claim to ownership of this mill at one time as the sole survivor of my mother’s maternal line, but no interest in pursuing it. I see there is more of a village there now; there was a railway station there (probably mostly for freight) which is why the place got onto maps at all.

  21. @David Marjanović:

    There it is, the other Indo-European “water” word

    I wouldn’t call *akʷ-ā- the ‘other’ PIE word; after all, it’s the base word in the Romance branch and survives in Northern Germanic as well (Swedish ‘å’, for example).
    Closer to ‘Ache’ you still have Dutch ‘aa’ and Frisian ‘ie’, not counting dialectal forms.

  22. David Marjanović says:

    Oh, yeah. Au(e) means “forested floodplain” and occurs in lots and lots of placenames.
    And I notice only now that this is actually the native Germanic version: apparently, the /kʷ/ has undergone Verner’s law, turning into /ɣʷ/ and then /w/, which then formed a diphthong with the preceding /a/ and therefore escaped the North Germanic and Continental West Germanic shift to [v].
    So, Ache must be Romance just as much as Aachen and has only undergone the High German consonant shift. That explains the geographic distribution of this element – it only occurs south of the Danube and west of the Rhine, AFAIK.

  23. An Au is certainly a floodplain, but I don’t think it has to be forested: it can be a water meadow just as well.
    Back to Tolkien’s “English and Welsh” for a moment: it was his theory that [w], [ð], and [θ] were preserved in those two languages but not in Frisian, Dutch, German, Breton, or Gaelic because of a Sprachbund effect. (The preservation of the last two in Icelandic and the last in Faroese is straightforwardly accounted for by their extreme isolation.)
    Likewise, both Old English and Old Welsh had a doubled present tense: the inherited am, is, are forms and a second set of forms based on be, the latter having (uniquely among the related languages) both future and consuetudinal meaning. This apparently spread from Welsh to English by semantic extension.

  24. David Marjanović says:

    An Au is certainly a floodplain, but I don’t think it has to be forested: it can be a water meadow just as well.

    That meaning is probably extinct. It occurs in the psalms: Er weidet mich auf grüner Aue

    it was his theory that [w], [ð], and [θ] were preserved in those two languages but not in Frisian, Dutch, German, Breton, or Gaelic because of a Sprachbund effect

    Yes… but I wonder if this is simply to blame on shared splendid isolation. First of all, West Flemish retains [w]. Secondly, I think neither the Other Continental West Germanic change from [w] to [v] or [ʋ] nor the Gaelic acquisition of [v] as an allophone of /w/ should be expected to have reached south of Hadrian’s Wall… Thirdly, neither the Continental West Germanic change of [θ] and [ð] to [d] nor the Gaelic disappearance of [ð] and change of [θ] to [h] should be expected to have reached south of Hadrian’s Wall. Anything that happened in Breton can, I’m sure, be blamed on French.

    Likewise, both Old English and Old Welsh had a doubled present tense: the inherited am, is, are forms and a second set of forms based on be, the latter having (uniquely among the related languages) both future and consuetudinal meaning. This apparently spread from Welsh to English by semantic extension.

    That can only apply to the meanings. The existence of two verbs must be older. German has bin and bist, and the Slavic languages have the same pattern as modern English.

  25. It’s the existence of two competing tenses that are both formally Presents, plus the specific meanings, that is particular to English and Welsh. Be in Indo-European languages is the result of fusing up to three different roots. The *esmi- ‘be’ root gives E am, is, are, G ist, L esse, es, est, and is the dominant verb in Balto-Slavic and Indo-Iranian. With loss of the first vowel, it gives us L sum, sumus, sunt and G sind; this form was lost early in E.
    In Germanic, however, this verb early merged with *wes- ‘remain, dwell’, which gives E was, were, G war, warst, waren, wart. It retains its older meaning in Skt vasati ‘he stays’ and L Vesta, possibly also Gk Hestia, the hearth goddess, the indweller.
    Finally, and independently in different families, *esmi-, possibly combined with *wes-, merged with the descendant of bh(e)u- ‘become’, to give E be, been, being, G bin, bist, L fui, fuisti, fuit etc. As EtymOnline says, be is “a collection of semantically related paradigm fragments […] an accidental conglomeration [of forms] from the different Old English dialects”; the same is true mutatis mutandis of its equivalent in the other Western IE languages.

  26. David Marjanović says:

    It’s the existence of two competing tenses that are both formally Presents, plus the specific meanings, that is particular to English and Welsh.


    With loss of the first vowel

    (Incidentally, that’s probably best explained as e-grade vs. zero-grade: *h1es- vs. *h1s-, *h1s-o-m vs. h1es-ti. A few laryngeals can make a lot of things fall into place.)

  27. Sure. But “zero-grade” = “loss of a vowel”, no?

  28. David Marjanović says:

    No… there’s no way to say any of the ablaut grades is basic and the others derived, as far as I know.

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