• peter clings

The etymology of Romanian 'Dunărea', and the Hungarian 'Duna' for Danube

Updated: Oct 3, 2020

In the ancient times, the Roman Empire held borders at the lower Danube. That great river was the border between the 'civilized world' and the Barbaricum. The map below depicts the Roman world after the reign of Theodosius the Great

In order to keep the Goths content with keeping the peace, the Romans used to sent gifts to the barbarians. That practice was in long use since the early Roman times. There is a Latin word that came into use for the exact same reason of giving gifts to keep the peace. The word is 'Donarium' with the plural form as 'Donaria'. Even in the modern English (and Romanian for that matter) the root word is preserve in verb such as 'to donate' (Rom. 'a dona')


For the repeated practice of crossing the river with 'Dona/Duna' to keep the barbarians calm, the local Roman people must have adopted the name 'Donaria' for the river in their slang. With time, after 1600 years of linguistic evolution, the Latin 'Donaria' became the Romanian 'Dunarea'


Western Romance languages retained the connection between a gifts (Lat. 'Dona' the plural of 'Donum') and border control too. In the French language the Customs are called 'Douane', in Italian use 'Dogana', and in Spanish it is 'aduana'


It is very much possible that the German name of the Danube 'Donau' to retain the same idea of a border though which the Romans used to send gifts to the restless Germanic tribes to keep them at peace (for Pax Romana was a costly business)


A very interesting note on how the neighbouring languages got to inherit the fraction of the Latin word that indicates the 'gift'. One of the earliest time when the practice of giving gifts to barbarians was described in a ancient written source is in the De Administrando Imperio (see my earlier blog). In short, the Turks were given gifts to attack the Bulgarian Empire. They crossed the Danube being ported by the Imperial fleet lead by a certain Podaron/Podarou. The Turks were most impressed by the bravery of some oarsmen led by one called Michael Barkala. From the text, it results that the Turks received a lot of 'Dona' (Eng. 'gifts') for crossing the Danube. That was probably the moment when the Magyar (that appeared as Turks to the Byzantine observer) made the association between the word 'Duna' (in the Proto-Romanian speech of that time in which the ancient 'o' had already been replaced with 'u') and the river Danube


The Medieval Hungarian Kingdom was the regional power in the Middle Ages. It was most likely that the Hungarian word for the river Danube was loaned into all the neighbouring Slavic languages


In nutshell, the Hungarian 'Duna' is directly related to the Romanian 'Dunarea' for there was a very specific event that impressed the early Magyar so much as to associate the early Romanian term of gifts 'Duna' with that of the River

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