William Lewis, author of the books 'What's in your Surname?' and 'What's in an English Place-name?'.

The Origin of English Place-Names

UNLIKE OUR SURNAMES , ENGLISH PLACE-NAMES have taken a very long time to evolve to the form we know them today – probably nearly 2500 years. Their exact origins are indeterminate because even the early Bronze Age inhabitants (c. 4500 BC) of the land we now call Britain will almost certainly have referred to particular locations in their districts using their words for natural features as landmarks – steep hills, rushing rivers, narrow valleys, prominent trees, habitats of various animals and so forth. Their traditions were entirely oral and we cannot know their language, for they had not embraced any means of writing.

By about 550 BC, England was seeing a western drift of occupiers whose origins lay in a much earlier movement of wanderers from the near continent, who had initially found abode in southern Ireland. Their language consisted of Gaulish dialects and became known as Brythonic (much later referred to as ‘Celtic’).

At the turn of the first millennium AD, the occupation of England by these ‘Brythons’ was complete and the country had become a nation of over twenty tribal ‘kingdoms’, each aggressively territorial, but whose existence was entirely agricultural.  Only a very few traces of a simple, though indecipherable, writing are known from this period and it was not until the appearance of the highly literate Romans in AD 43 that our knowledge of the native British races begins to expand. The Roman scribes and historians would sometimes record the names of the people and places they heard the Britons speak and would incorporate many of the Brythonic place-names into their own Latin names.

As a result of the Roman records, we can say with fair certainty that ‘ardu’, ‘abona’, cumb’, ‘crūc’, ‘iska’, ‘lindo’ and ‘tre’ are Brythonic words for ‘high’, ‘river’, ‘valley’, ‘hill’, ‘water’, ‘pool’ and ‘habitation’. Most of these words can be found as elements in many West Country place-names today, often a little modified, but still identifiable: Arden Forest, Avonwick, Salcombe, Exeter, Lincombe and Tregorrick.

Cornwall, Devon and Wales have remained strongholds of the early Brythonic traditions of language to this day.

The 270-year Roman occupation of Britain had far-reaching effects on the country, of course, especially in the bureaucratic and the military aspects, but the native Britons would not forsake their own language and agricultural practices. This ensured that the ancient British oral tradition continued after the withdrawal of the Romans in the early 5th century. Evidence of the Roman influence remained, however and we still see Latin words in many of our place-name elements: ‘castra’, ‘vicus’, ‘pons’, ‘stratus’ and ‘fossa’, meaning ‘camp’, ‘ settlement’, ‘bridge’, ‘street’ and ‘ditch’ respectively.

The next wave of invaders was also from the near continent and first appeared during the late 5th century. These were, Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians. Their eventual occupation of most of England brought a new Germanic language whose words quickly entered the place-name directory and which form the basis of most of the place-names we know today.

In the 9th century, Scandinavians, led by the Danes, infiltrated the east and northeast of England and eventually held a huge swathe of territory known later as ‘Danelaw’, while the Anglo-Saxons retained the kingdoms of the Midlands and West. Danish influence can be seen in place-names having the ‘-by’ suffix -  Derby, Ormesby, Melsonby, Harmby and Rugby are some of many hundreds. Other traces of Scandinavian influence in our place-names can be found in words which end in

‘-garth’, ‘-holm’, ‘-gill’, ‘-kirk’, ‘-thwaite’ and ‘-toft’ amongst others.

In 1066, Duke William of Normandy, brought a new (and ruthless) era of rule to Britain. Like the Romans, his civil administration placed heavy burdens on the English, but, as in the case of the Romans, the impact of the new bureaucratic management of the country had only a relatively small effect on English place-name formation, which was largely complete by this time. Newly installed Norman nobles often would name their holdings after their home districts in France, for example, Meysey Hampton, held by Robert de Meisi  and Compton Durville was in the lordship of Eustachius de Dureuill.

The single most important service to English posterity King William performed must be the great survey undertaken in 1086-7 and known later as Domeday, in which we can discover the names and contemporary spellings of over 13,400 English place-names of the 11th century – an invaluable reference to the place-name historian.

After the initial impact of the Normans, place-name formation came almost to a halt and what we now have is a legacy of the many centuries of evolution of names which describe water, hills, valleys, bays, forests, people’s occupations animals, trees and even insects and fish.

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