What made a region an upper, or superior region, or a lower, or inferior region?


  • Upper and Lower Egypt
  • Upper and Lower Austria
  • Moesia Superior and Inferior
  • Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) and Lower Volta (region in Ghana)

I've tried to research this. There doesn't seem to be a correlation with altitude, relative orientation, or size. Maybe it is whether they are up- or down-river, but I'm uncertain about that.

  • 6
    VtC, since a very little research reveals all the examples are up- and down-river pairs. Sep 20, 2017 at 15:50
  • 4
    @JohnDallman - That would be a lot of separate little researches though. Judgment call, but I didn't understand this at all until one kind atlas author took the time to explain it in his forward.
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 20, 2017 at 16:28
  • 2
    Why is this a bad question? stack exchange is a quick reference for consise, peer reviewed information for a lot of people. you guys are condescending jerks.
    – guest
    Sep 20, 2017 at 23:20
  • 3
    Fundamentally not a bad question. You should, however, link references to e.g. Upper and Lower Egypt like this one:en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Upper_and_Lower_Egypt But I can't say that I found Wikipedia particularly helpful. I also put your question in the past tense to make it "history."
    – Tom Au
    Sep 21, 2017 at 0:11
  • 1
    I've posted a question about some of the issues raised here on meta. Sep 21, 2017 at 16:10

3 Answers 3


Typically it refers to a river, and "lower" is down-river (closer to the coast), while "upper" is up-river (further inland). This is because the land at the mouth of a river is lower (in altitude) than the land near its source. Basic physics here.

This goes for most instances where you see an upper/lower distinction. For your examples, Egypt is based on position on the Nile (which flows northward into the Mediterranean) and the other two both used position on the Danube (which flows eastward into the Black sea) as their directional indicator.

This principle sometimes get applied in unexpected places. For example High German (or "upper German") refers to the dialects spoken in the interior of the European continent, while Low German is the dialects spoken nearer the coast. It is not (as many assume) any commentary on the perceived quality of the dialects themselves*.

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* - unlike the terms high church and low church, and many other English high/low couplets relating to social things, which are totally a commentary on their perceived quality.

  • 2
    While linguistically probably correct, I think your "high german" comparison is slightly misleading in the modern context, as "high german" is supposed to be a standard, central version of german, and not synonymous with "upper german"
    – guest
    Sep 20, 2017 at 16:32
  • 5
    @user35945 - The first sentence behind that High German link is: "This article is about the family of regional language varieties. For the standard language ("Hochdeutsch"), see Standard German". While "High German" is a literal translation of that word, it appears that in English speakers prefer to translate it as "Standard German" to avoid this exact confusion. Standard German does appear to be a sub-dialect of High German though, so the difference isn't as misleading as you imply, I think.
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 20, 2017 at 18:03
  • @T.E.D.: Actually, Standard German is, quoting from your link, "similar to the formal German spoken in and around Hanover". Hannover is a city in Lower Saxony. You can find it in your map in the area numbered "7". It's one of the areas in dark yellow, for "Low" German dialect... of course Standard German is referring to the formal German of the Hannover region, but still -- German dialects are a bit tricky in that regard. The "Upper" dialects have some rather un-"Standard" differences in their phonemes. Generally speaking, a northern German sounds more "Standard" than, say, a Bavarian.
    – DevSolar
    Sep 22, 2017 at 11:41
  • @DevSolar - Nothing completely unique about that. AAVE is spoken in large cities all over the USA, even though it evolved from Southern American English. In Standard German's case, there's a nice little explanation of its unusual history (and geography) here. The next section, which goes into the terminology issues, may save a few comments if read as well.
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 22, 2017 at 13:52

"Upper" and "lower" refer to highlands and lowlands of a country, usually defined by one (or more) rivers.

Upper Egypt refers to the plateaus/highlands next to Sudan and Ethiopia, near the sources of the Nile River. Lower Egypt refers to lower lands nearer the (Mediterranean) coast.

Upper Austria refers to the Austrian Alps in the west. Lower Austria refers to the plains/plateau further east. They are connected by the Danube River that flows west to east; i.e. "downhill."

Moesia Superior was on the Balkan highlands, in modern Serbia and Macedonia. Moesia Inferior was in the lowlands of modern Bulgaria and Romania, on the Black Sea coast. The two are also connected by the Danube.

  • Historically, Lower Egypt was the Nile Delta lands, while Upper Egypt was the banks of the Nile upstream to the cataracts at modern Aswan.
    – Mark
    Sep 23, 2017 at 0:45
  • @Mark: I referred to those facts. Your "Nile Delta lands" are my "lower lands nearest the Mediterranean coast' while your "banks of the Nile upstream to the cateracts at modern Aswan" are my "plateaus and highlands next to Sudan and Egypt near the sources of the Nile river."
    – Tom Au
    Sep 23, 2017 at 1:00

It's normally to do with the relative positions up- or down-river.

For example,

  • There were also Upper Canada and Lower Canada. Sep 20, 2017 at 21:34
  • @TimLymington Yes, named for their relative positions on the Saint Lawrence River. :) Sep 20, 2017 at 21:52
  • Also the Republic of Upper Volta...
    – DJohnM
    Sep 21, 2017 at 14:59

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