Saturday, January 23, 2010

Trouble In River City

For the last few posts, I've been talking about the Loir River. Le Loir, as opposed to la Loire. You may also have noticed that the départment we live in is called the Loir-et-Cher; there is no "e" on Loir. I was confused when I first moved here because I really didn't understand what this was about until I looked at a map.

The valley of le Loir at Troo.

La Loire is the longest river in France, and the Loire Valley is famous for its historic châteaux and its expansive wine industry. Along la Loire are the cities of Orléans, Blois, Tours, and Nantes, to name a few. La Loire runs roughly east-west through the middle of our département. But the Loir-et-Cher takes its name not from this big river, but from two of its lesser tributaries, le Loir to the north and le Cher to the south.

In French, la Loire is known as un fleuve because it empties into the sea. Two other well-known fleuves in France are la Seine (which runs through Paris and empties into the English Channel) and le Rhône (which runs through Lyon and empties into the Mediterranean Sea).

But the Loir and the Cher are not fleuves. They are called rivières because they feed other rivers as opposed to emptying into a sea; we would call them tributaries in English. Le Loir runs into la Sarthe which, in turn, empties into la Maine which is itself a tributary of la Loire near Angers. Le Cher empties directly into la Loire just downstream of Tours.

And just to make things a little more confusing, while le Loir (big "l") is une rivière, le loir (small "l") is a tiny rongeur (rodent) that we call a dormouse.

By the way, la Maine is a curiosity in France in that it is une rivière without a traditional source. It is formed by the confluence of three other rivers and flows for only twelve kilometers before it meets the Loire. I can think of at least one major river in the United States that is formed by the joining of two smaller rivers. And that river itself is only a tributary in an even larger river system.

But in English, we have no words to distinguish rivers from tributaries. They're all rivers as far as we're concerned. Otherwise, it's all too much trouble. I said Trouble. With a capital "T" and that rhymes with "P" and that stands for...


  1. Hi Walt...

    BOY! I am SOOO happy about this post!! Why, you might ask? Because at first when I read.. le Loir.. I had to read it over twice.. as I know la Loire and the region-- le pays de la Loire... Okay... I also know that un loir is a dormouse b/c I often go to the my fav. little endroit in Paris (Marais) - le loir dans le théière.

    However, there was always a mystery surrounding the use of fleuve and rivière in French for me and I had never clarified it... I have been trying to figure out the difference for the past three years! You solved the mystery!! YAY! I had NO idea of the word tributary in English! I just learned a new word in English! Merci et bon WE!

  2. I'm glad to have the fleuve / rivière thing clarified too. Thanks.

  3. Fort most people the word fleuve conveys the idea of a large, long and powerful river. But as you so rightly explained a fleuve is a river that empties into the ocean or the sea.

    But there are also fleuves that are small. For instance, those rivers called fleuves côtiers. In one of her blogs, Martine talked about a tiny river in Normandy. A fleuve that was a few hundred meters long!

  4. That stands for pool.

    I confess, I had to Google "Loir v. Loire," so this was very informative.

    Ah, Music Man... one of my all time favorite musicals, and the role of a lifetime for Robert Preston. And Hermione Gingold as the mayor's wife? awesome...

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  6. I'll be linking to this post from my châteaux page, if I may? :)) Last year (with help from you and Ken), I finally got this all clarified in my head, so that I could do my big châteaux unit... but, I had already gotten fuzzy on it again! GREAT post. Merci bien :)) Plus... marvelous photo!


  7. With all me years studying French in school (my skills now badly degraded), this is the first I've ever heard of the fleuve / rivière distinction. Thanks!

  8. Piscine? :-) Oh, right--different pool.

    Thank you for clearing it up--I had noted the Loir form and wondered what it might be--perhaps, I thought, an archaic form? Now I know and I love knowing these things.

  9. So if I understand correctly, the fleuve vs. rivière thing is a distinction without a difference. Or with only one very small difference. A fleuve can be either bigger or smaller than a rivière, and a rivière can be either bigger or smaller than a fleuve. The only thing that matters is whether the water flows into the ocean or into another river. The linguistic distinction certainly exists, but how useful is it, really?

  10. You've gotta love the French; if there's any way to make things more confusing....they'll find it.

  11. Ah, but this is but a small example of what once made French the language of international diplomacy--its specificity. Just as the Eskimo have over two dozen words for snow, depending on the type and condition of that snow, the French have two words defining a river as either a tributary or as an outlet to the sea/inlet to the interior. I think the idea was to eliminate confusion.

  12. I recall taking French in Junior high school, and finding it a very complicated language.
    Right now I am taking a History course on language, specifically the English Language.
    Languages fasctinate me.

  13. It's linguistic, and geographic or geologic, or irrigation-ic, transportation-ic, whatever. What it flows into is important, non? :-)Thanks for talking about!

  14. I think also, as a rule, a fleuve is the longest river in a given watershed that empties into an ocean. Even though, the Garonne changes its name after its confluence with the Dordogne.

    For instance, if the Mississippi and the Missouri followed that rule, the Missouri would be the fleuve, emptying in the Gulf of Mexico, and the Mississippi would be the tributary because the former is longer than the latter.

  15. Ah yes, it's just that the Mississippi was discovered by the Europeans first, and thus won the prize. It's the fleuve. Of course, in English, the Mississippi and the Missouri are both prize-winners — both are rivers.

  16. I'm not going to try to address these comments individually. I'm not awake yet!

    Then there are rivers that aren't rivers at all. I can think of two right off the bat.

    judy, yes, by all means feel free to link.

    michael, if you ever find an easy language to learn, let me know!

  17. One would be the East River between Manhattan and Queens in New York City, actually a tidal channel between Long Island Sound to the north and New York Harbor to the south.

  18. Oh, of course--the Harlem River, an eight mile long tidal strait like the East River. It separates Manhattan island from the Bronx to the North, flowing from the Hudson River to the west and the East River to the east.


Tell me what you think!