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What’s in a Name?


Have you ever looked at a map and wondered how a town or area got its name? I certainly have.


Clearly, the ways that names arise vary from country to country, and culture to culture, and are affected by many different factors, including when and how often an area was invaded, and by whom.


In the case of Britain (the United Kingdom), there are many common underlying patterns in how places were named, but there is also considerable regional variation. As this is just a short piece, I’d like to explain just a few of the common terms to guide a traveller through the landscape, and around the map.


Generally speaking, the earliest known place names referred to landscape features, such as rivers, hills, mountains, valleys, rocks, cliffs, forests or woods, the type or size of communities living there, a single homestead, a village, a town, a city or a castle or fortress, or to the name of the local tribe or people who lived there.


As each successive group of invaders became important politically, religiously, or culturally, their language became dominant, and the local place names were often changed to a new name that sounded similar in the new language, but often meant something completely different. At other times, the place name was effectively translated into the new language, keeping the original meaning but sounding completely different.


A further complication arose when a new group chose to give a place an entirely new name to the one that had been used before. This was often a way of showing the power of the new arrivals. (Why did you give the town a new name? Because we could, of course! And we wanted to show the locals who was boss!)


Groups whose languages became important in Britain included the following:

  • the Celts, who brought their culture to Britain and Ireland between 1,000 BC and 600 BC;
  • the Romans who arrived in 43 AD and remained until the early 5th century, though their Latin language remained in use in the Christian church and in the legal system for much longer;
  • the Angles and Saxons, who laid the foundations of the Anglo-Saxon language in Britain from the 5th century. This became Old English;
  • the Vikings, who spoke Old Norse, became important in the 800-900s; and
  • the Norman French, who invaded England in 1066 and gave us much of our modern vocabulary.


Celtic languages fell into two different groups. The first group comprises Goidelic or Gaelic languages, sometimes known as Q-Celtic: Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx. The other group comprises Brythonic or Brittonic languages, sometimes known as P-Celtic: Welsh, Cornish, Cumbric, and Breton.


There was one other important language in terms of Scottish place names. Experts cannot agree if it was another type of Celtic language, or if it was much older than any of the others. It was called Pictish, and was spoken by the Picts who lived in northern and central Scotland. It is now extinct.


All of these languages left a mark on the map of Britain. For instance, Cornish was used in a very small area, so only the most southwestern county carries names in that language. The Vikings had a strong impact on the eastern part of England. The Anglo-Saxon’s language developed into Old English. Therefore, place names that draw on terms used in this language are more widespread. Although the Normans had a huge impact on English vocabulary, they had quite a small effect on place names.


Because of how built-up our towns and cities have become, do remember that it may no longer be possible to spot the features that gave a settlement its name. It could have been destroyed completely by development, or it could just be hidden from view. However, it is quite amazing what can be seen from overhead or aerial pictures, so you could perhaps find hidden treasure after all.


Have fun!


Bye for now!

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