Recently I was trying to explain the Dutch word gracht to a friend and I found myself needing a general word for a unit of architecture which joins two places together. I thought about "route", but for me it is a little too abstract (more of a set of directions to take than a physical entity). Is there such a word in the English language? Moreover, if we also include other, nonlinear things cities are made of (plains, squares, roundabouts -- everything that has a name plate on the buildings), is there a word for that too?
One such word is thoroughfare.
1. A passage or way through.
a. In general sense; also fig. Now usually merged in sense 1c, exc. in phr. no thoroughfare, no public way through or right of way here.
c. A road, street, lane, or path forming a communication between two other roads or streets, or between two places; a public way unobstructed and open at both ends; esp. a main road or street, a highway.
[Sense 1b is marked obsolete.]
The word is most often used of paved or metalled streets, rather than paths or alleys, but the OED definition does cover those and the word could be used of them.
When the only maps of directions were paper, they were called roadmaps. Any route, highway, lane, avenue, etc.. from dirt to eight-lane, can be called a "road". (US)
"streets" is the generic term. We often say "the streets of New York", "the streets of Philadelphia", and when we say that we also mean "avenues", "boulevards", "drives", etc.
a thoroughfare for travel or transportation from place to place
That meaning seems to be falling somewhat into unuse.
In 1913 Websters was far more definitive about what all is covered:
- That by, upon, or along, which one passes or processes; opportunity or room to pass; place of passing; passage; road, street, track, or path of any kind; as, they built a way to the mine. To find the way to heaven." Shak.
Derivative terms include: Freeway, highway/hiway, tollway, byway, walkway, bikeway, hallway, etc. All may be used by wayfarers.
The word you need is "thoroughfare," although it is not that common a word.
In a city, "street" is generally applicable to all thoroughfares, even those containing other synonyms in their proper name.
In a rural area, "road" serves the same purpose.
A thoroughfare is defined by the OED as 'a passage, or way through'.
There is a standard international road sign which depicts a matchstick figure with a red line drawn through them. In the UK this sign sometimes reads NO THOROUGHFARE.
The Wikipedia entry for "gracht", Gracht is lengthy and says "The word is almost untranslatable; for that reason the following terms kanaal, vaart, gracht and singel will be discussed here first," and also, "There is no direct equivalent for "gracht" in the English language, therefore it is best left untranslated." So I'm guessing there is no good answer to your question.
Even though the question mentions "gracht," I believe Jon C is not asking for a translation of that word, but rather one word that is a synonym for all kinds of structures that allow land-based travel.
I nominate, road, way, or possibly path. I prefer "way" but my reasoning might be odd.
In religions and philosophies that have roots in Hinduism--Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism--there is an important concept that is named dao in Chinese (or tao, hence Daoism, Taoism, and the Tao Te Ching). Dao is almost always translated as "way" but sometimes as "path" or "road." The centrality of this concept in multiple languages suggests to me that it is a word that encompasses many ideas: it is a synonym for many words.
Similarly, in Arabic, the word shar' means "path or way [especially to the watering hole]". That word is exceptionally important because it is the root word of one of the most well-known Arabic words sharia. Again, because an important word in a major language is typically translated as path, way, or road in English, I believe that points to the centrality of those words in English when describing structures for land-based transportation.
Old English weg "road, path; course of travel; room, space, freedom of movement;" also, figuratively, "course of life" ...
From c.1300 as "manner in which something occurs." Adverbial constructions attested since Middle English include this way "in this direction," that way "in that direction," ...
...From the "course of travel" sense comes the figurative go separate ways (1837); one way or (the) other (1550s); have it both ways (1847); and the figurative sense of come a long way (1922).
Adverbial phrase all the way "completely, to conclusion" is by 1915; ... Way out "means of exit" is from 1926. Encouragement phrase way to go is short for that's the way to go.
Conclusion: In English, I believe "way" is the best literal and metaphorical description for the general act of traveling and the structure on which a person is traveling.