Tag Archives: Anglo-Saxon England

What Can Place-Names Tell us about Basically Everything?

Hot damn, place-names though! I have ridiculous levels of enthusiasm for place-names, which may be evident in the slightly breathless roller coaster of exclamations that follows in this blog post, and for that I apologise.

So why would anyone care about place-names? Admittedly they’re niche. But place-names can tell us ridiculous amounts about so much: settlement patterns, landscape, agriculture, farming and commerce, language, societal hierarchies, administration, cultural attitudes and trends, religion, regional politics and probably much more. They do it all! And the reason I get so excited about them is not the names themselves, but the wealth of information you can get from them by looking at an area and studying them in the contexts of the names around them, and the contexts of naming patterns in general.

My area of expertise is Old English place-names, but the theory and patterns I’ll describe here would probably apply to most other languages and cultures. The predominant trend in Old English place-names is the use of landscape terms, which arose because the Anglo-Saxons were an agricultural society and were heavily dependent on the landscape around them. This is reflected in a massively diverse lexicon of landscape terms, which I’ll come back to later.

There are two main structures of Old English place-name: Simplex and Compound. The simplex just has one element or word in it, the compound has two or more in, typically a generic word meaning ‘town’, ‘settlement’, etc, and a specific, modifying word or element which describes that settlement and distinguishes it from other ones. This is off the top of my head, but I believe that simplex names are generally older, and that compound names developed later. These can be used as evidence to date when an area was settled because names, like so much in life, follow fashion.

Within these structures, there are different types of place-names. Simply put, places can be named after different types of things. There are place-names which describe the landscape, which are plentiful, more plentiful and varied than in Modern English, reflecting a different relationship with the landscape. These probably arose as a way to describe the place where people lived, such as the hill shaped like a heel (‘hōh’ in Old English), or the valley with three sides (‘cumb’), or a clearing in a forest (‘leāh’). There are Old English words for different shapes of hill and valley, for different types of water and shapes of river bend, different soil types, plants, woods, walls. All sorts. A lot of them have since died out in the general language but remain fossilised in place-names.

There are places named after an important figure, such as the leader of that community. A famous example is ‘Nottingham’, which is literally ‘settlement of the followers of Snottr’, a Norse name which probably came about after the Viking invasions and settlement in the North of England. After the Norman Conquest, French speakers, unfamiliar with the <sn> consonant cluster, dropped the <s>, and their usage has given us the modern spelling. Place-names after people are interesting not just because they tell us about the presence of different nationalities, or about the names of leaders, but because they can tell us about the growth and spread of a community. Depending on whether a place-name ends in -ham, -ingas, or -ingaham, we can tell whether it was the point of initial settlement, or a satellite settlement as the original community grew too large and had to spread out into the surrounding area (because these name-elements follow fashions and trends, too). Typically, the earliest settlements (and thus names) are those near water and on the best soil, and as demand for land grew, the community would have to spread on to poorer and poorer land. Sometimes there’ll be a connected place-name some distance away from the original settlements, and a path or road linking them, which shows the distance a community would have had to travel to find decent farmland.

Places can also be named after the people who live there. These names will be given not by those who live in the place, but others around it, as a way of labelling and of distinguishing ‘us’ and ‘them’. A nice example is ‘Wales’, which means ‘foreigner’ or ‘outsider’ in Old English (from ‘wealh’).

There are also places which describe what type of agriculture, faming or lifestyle the people who lived there had (for example, ‘Swindon’, which means ‘pig hill’ (or swine-hill), so the people there farmed pigs. On a hill) (or, for example, Gropecuntelane, Clawecunte and Shavecuntewell as described in this paper (admittedly some of these are particularly graphic topographical descriptions but I couldn’t NOT mention them!) (this paper also mentions the excellent Orcas in Sandford which is from the Old French ‘Oriescuilz’ meaning ‘golden ballocks’. David Beckham, take note).

There are places named after religious figures or practices. These are typically pagan, by which I mean non-Christian, and are quite rare. Weirdly, there are about 5 clustered together in Hampshire and Surrey, where I’m from, and include Thurston and Tuesley (named after Thor and Tiw (as are Thursday and Tuesday) and Peper Harow, which means the Piper’s Hearg, ‘hearg’ being a pagan temple. With the Christianisation of England, pagan temples were ransacked and paganism died out. If the names were still recognisable to the people living there they were likely to rename it, perhaps to disassociate themselves from paganism. We also find Christian place-names, the most common I can think of is ‘eccles’, which is the Latin for ‘church’ (as in ‘ecclesiastic’). These are interesting, because the survival of a Latin name means that place must have been settled in the time of Roman settlement, and continued to be lived in by people long beyond the presence of Romans and the use of Latin as a vernacular language, and that the name continued to be used by people even though they didn’t necessarily understand its meaning as a Latin word.

There are also some oddities which can tell us about a specific moment in time.

The River Avon, for example, just a Celtic word, a rarity, meaning ‘river’. A nice theory I’ve heard about this is that when the Anglo-Saxons invaded and pushed the resident Celts out (to Wales and Cornwall), there was very little contact (evidenced by the almost total lack of Celtic words in Old English), and when they came to the Avon someone said ‘what do you call this?’, and the Celts shrugged and said ‘a river’, and the Anglo-Saxons, not understanding Celtic, thought it was the name and appropriated it. Why they bothered to ask if they cared so little is unexplained… The same is said of ‘Ouse’, which is Celtic for ‘water’.

There’s Morpeth, which literally means ‘murder path’. Which tells a nice story…!

And Grimston hybrids. These are compound names in which one element is Old English and one is Old Norse. Grimston, obviously, has this: ‘Grimr’ is an Old Norse personal name, ‘tun’ is Old English for ‘town’ (compared to the Old Norse equivalent ‘by’ as in ‘Grimsby’). There are a couple of ways these places could’ve come about. They could be Anglo-Saxon settlements which received an influx of Viking settlers, or which received a new Viking leader, but the speakers remained Old English. Or, it could be a wholly new Viking settlement but they saw ‘tun’ as just what goes on the end of a place-name in this new country, much like ‘ville’ in America which is technically a French element, even though the people who name a place ‘Jacksonville’ aren’t actually French speakers.

The most notable thing about English place-names today is their weird spelling/pronunciation, which causes untold strife to non-native speakers. Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, I’m looking at you. But there is a good reason for these weird pronunciations. Basically, place-names start out life an a description or a thing, or a label. They’re just a short noun-phrase used to distinguish a thing or a place from other things or places. At some point, these short phrases stop being phrases and become names. And how do we know that happens? The pronunciation is a big clue. Say, for example, a new estate was built near you, and you referred to it as the new estate. Ten years later, you’re still calling it the new estate, but it’s no longer new, other estates have been built since, but that one’s still called the New Estate. The words have ceased to mean ‘the estate which has just been built’ and have come to mean ‘the place we call ‘new estate”. 100 years down the line, it’s still called the New Estate. Perhaps it’s got some kind of independent administrative system and they’ve taken on the name New Estate and made it official. 500 years down the line English has changed quite a bit, but the name has become twisted, and because no-one connects it to the words ‘new’ and ‘estate’ anymore, that form doesn’t need to be preserved, and people who speak a different language have since invaded and repronounced everything anyway, and now it’s 1,000 years down the line and that place is now called Nustat. That’s how Gloucestershire happened.*

This means, when you’re trying to find out what a place-name means, you need to find the earliest cited form of the name, because confusion can arise. For example, a modern place-name ending in ‘borough’ can be from any of three different words. There’s Old English ‘beorg’ meaning ‘a rounded hill’, Old Scandinavian ‘berg’ meaning hill, and ‘burh’ one meaning ‘a fortification’. Each of these words tells a very different story about the history of that settlement, the people who lived there, and about their relationships with each other and with the landscape. And that, to me, is the beauty of place-names.

*Shameless plug, but I recently wrote a journal article about that. Ask me more!

Did Old English Die Out? Or, a Brief Introduction to Late Old English

I wrote this as a response to a friend’s question and decided that, as it’s been well over a year since we updated this poor lonely blog, maybe, just maybe, I could post it here. The question was regarding this article, which reports on some research arguing that Old English couldn’t survive the presence of Old Norse, and that Middle English and then Modern English developed out of Old Norse instead. The follow-up to this was how exactly we might determine this.

First of all, a disclaimer: I haven’t read that full paper, just the summary in that link, but on instinct I don’t agree, because of everything else we know about that period. Also, the line between language and dialect – and what we actually call distinct languages – is nigh-on impossible to define, which adds another layer of difficulty here (this is my flatmate’s PhD topic, incidentally).

The background issues which I’ll try to grapple here are:

Germanic versus Scandinavian languages
The situation in England
Viking presence
The North-South divide
The West-Saxon dominance
The Norman Conquest

So, what do we mean when we talk about language families? Well, this is the traditional model, the Indo-European language family tree.

You can see on the left the Germanic family of languages which branches off into West and North Germanic. This means that at the time, Old English and Old Norse were about as close as Norwegian, Danish and Swedish are now. Obviously there are problems with this tree model because it doesn’t allow for later influences such as those we’re thinking about here, like the Viking influence on English, or the Norman influence, or the later cross-pollination with other languages. If you looked at this you’d think English had almost nothing in common with French… Basically what the tree shows is how communities split off and accents and dialects became more and more distinct until they ceased to become mutually intelligible, or until the communities decided that they were speaking different languages even though they could still understand each other (see: the border between Norway and Sweden, I think).

A bit of history: at the time all this was going on, England was a bit unstable, divided up into multiple kingdoms. We divide up the dialects of OE to mirror these kingdoms even though it doesn’t really map sensibly, and leads to problems. When the Vikings settled properly they were basically given the north of the country, and given the rule of it, called the Danelaw. You can still see evidence of that in place-names (and I have another post about place-names in the works), so, for example, any settlement whose name ends in ‘-by’, such as Grimsby, is a Viking settlement, compared with the OE ‘-tun’, such as Withington. The influence is also seen in the different modern accents, and in dialect words. The North obviously came under massive influence from Old Norse, while the South was more influenced by the centre of power at the time, Winchester, and the West-Saxon dialect.

And finally we have the Norman Conquest in 1066, which resulted in a small influx of very important people who restructured everything and flooded the language with new words.

And then to answer the question about how we can conduct these kinds of studies. What evidence are they using?

lexical change [adoption of new words]: happens easily – fandom, for example, picks up new words from other languages, or new coinages, and they get introduced and become widespread incredibly easily. Think of how the OED announces new words each year (whether you like them or not).

However, some words don’t change as easily, words that we use all the time, like pronouns, conjunctions, the verbs ‘to be’ and ‘to have’.

The article talks about the adoption of lots of Scandinavian words for everyday concepts for which OE words already existed. There’s a fantastic article by Roberta Frank which I recommend everyone read called ‘Terminally Hip and Incredibly Cool: Carol Vikings, and Anglo-Scandinavian England’ which I can send to anyone who fancies it. It basically compares the Vikings to Jazz musicians – they were cool, they were sexy, the English woman all loved them. They were basically over paid, over-sexed and over here. And of course the English picked up their words. This was helped by the fact that, like British English and American, the two languages were already similar enough to be mutually intelligible. There’s a brilliant passage in the Old English poem ‘The Battle of Malden’ with a conversation between a Viking and an Englishman which has the Viking’s poems in a funny accent – the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the Swedish Chef basically.

Pronunciation change: happens all the fucking time. We see different sound changes in areas of Viking settlement to the South, but then, there were different accents before the Vikings. Of course, the presence of the Vikings in the north had an influence on the pronunciation of words which is still evident today. A nice example of the accent difference between Old Norse and Old English is the <sk> <sh>/<k> <ch> sounds. For example, Modern English has ‘shell’ and ‘skull’, and ‘shirt’ and ‘skirt’. These were the same words in Germanic, but when the tribes split off the West Germanic speakers shifted towards the <sh> sound, and the North Germanic speakers went to <sk>. The Vikings brought their new pronunciations back over and they were appropriated as new words alongside the OE pronunciations. Ditto the Old Norse ‘kirk’ alongside ‘church’, although the meaning hadn’t changed here, so they were just appropriated by different groups of speakers as two words for the same thing.

Syntactic change: This seems to be the crux of the argument in this study. Syntactic change happens much less easily. These features become genetic identifiers of languages along with the high-frequency words I mentioned above. Syntax and grammar do change, but as the average speaker is much less consciously aware of them, and they’re so overarching, it’s rare. We might mimic Yoda’s sentence structure but it’s with an awareness that you’re doing something different, it doesn’t become normal usage easily. There are subtle changes – British English is being very influenced by American verb usage at the moment because of America’s cultural dominance (eg. ‘can I get…’). There’s also the addition of a new tense since the early eighteenth century: Jane Austen said “I am come to see my sister”, not “I am coming…” because the present progressive is a new thing. So syntactic changes do happen, even on a massive scale, but they don’t mean a language isn’t a language.

The few examples this paper gives give really aren’t enough to convince me, I’d have to read the full paper. But if they’re talking about the transition from Old to Middle English they’ve completely ignored the Norman influence, which ALSO resulted in loads of new vocabulary items being added, replacing pre-existing Old English words, and it ALSO resulted in syntactic changes. When two languages co-exist, and one is culturally dominant over the other the languages are going to merge and influence each other and adopt convenient things from each other’s language.

In this case the Normans were the upper class (the most well-known illustration of this is that Modern English has the words Beef and Cow, Mutton and Sheep, Pork and Pig, which are Norman (ModFrench Boeuf, mouton and porc) and OE (cū, scēap and *picga) because the French lords saw the meat on the table, while the English peasants had to farm them). The grammatical system of Old English changed – it had a very strong case system, a bit like in Latin, which meant that every word had a different ending on it which agreed with everything else in the sentence. In theory, this means the words can be put in any order, and they often were in poetry, because, like a good Christian nation, they liked to emulate Latin and adopt their rules. French speakers arriving couldn’t deal with this and had a different system, and one of them biggest shifts between Old and Middle English was the loss of the case system and the rise of a system where you know what function a word has in the sentence (e.g. subject or object) by its position. And if you read any Middle English you can’t miss how damn French it is. Seriously.

There were three written languages from 1066 onwards: English, Latin and French (or Anglo-Norman, which was basically a hybrid of the two, showing the influence they had on each other), and they were all as important as each other, Latin and French moreso in formal contexts.

Basically I would be more inclined to conclude that Old English came under massive influences from various waves of Viking settlement and then the Norman Conquest, and it’s the influence of BOTH of those languages which resulted in the weird hybrid we ended up with. Aspects of Old Norse were understandably more easily assimilated due to the similarity between the two languages. Unfortunately, we’re low on evidence for the 11th-13th centuries and very little was written that wasn’t a copy of an earlier text, but Old English texts continued to be copied completely coherently for those centuries, so obviously people still understood the language, and the texts were still understood in that form enough to warrant their being preserved. Happily, this is where my thesis comes in!

NOTE: Since writing this, it’s been pointed out to me that part of the paper’s argument is incorrect. It suggests that certain structures in Modern English are impossible in Dutch or German, but this isn’t the case – German has group genitives, for example.