is the study of British place names, their origins and trends in naming. Toponymy is distinct from the study of etymology
, which is concerned mainly with the origin of the words themselves.
British toponymy is rich, complex and diverse. Modern interpretations are apt to be inexact and non-empirical. Many British forms and names have been corrupted and broken down over the years due to changes in language and culture which caused the original meanings to be lost. In some cases words used in place names are derived from languages that are extinct, and of which there are no extant known definitions. Many place names are also many compounds between two separate languages from separate periods.
Place names almost always have meanings which were significant to the settlers of a locality (not necessarily the first settlers). Sometimes these meanings are still obvious (Newcastle, Three Oaks), but more often elucidating them requires study of older languages. In general, British place names contain three major types of elements: personal names (or pre-existing names of natural features), natural features and settlement functions. However, these elements derive from the several different languages which have been spoken in the British Isles, and the combinations in a single name may not all date from the same period (or same language). Much of the inferred development of British place name relies on the breaking down and corruption of place names. As the names lose their original meaning (because a new or modified language becomes spoken), the names are either changed, or drift to new forms, or are added to. An interesting example is Torpenhow Hill, in Cumbria; the name seems to have grown by addition of new elements by people who did not understand the original name. The four syllables; tor, pen, how, and hill, all mean 'hill' in a different language.
The place names of the United Kingdom are unusually rich and diverse, primarily as a result of historical changes in language and culture. These affected different parts of the British Islands to different extents, resulting in a mosaic effect in the names of places. The exact nature of these linguistic/cultural changes is often controversial , but the general consensus is as follows.
The British Isles were inhabited during the Stone and Bronze Ages by a people of whom very little can be said with certainty. Their language may or may not have been pre-Indo-European, perhaps related to Aquitanian (see Atlantic Bronze Age).
During the Iron Age, we can observe that the population of Britain shared a culture with the so called 'Celtic' peoples inhabiting Northern Europe at the time . Land use patterns to do not appreciably change from the Bronze Age period, suggesting that the population remained in situ . Although there is little direct evidence, the Romans thought that the Britons were 'Celtic', and the names given to historical British rulers of this period are 'Celtic'. Celtic languages are still spoken (or were until recently) in Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Cumbria and Cornwall. Together with the evidence of shared culture, this suggests that the entire population of the British Isles spoke a Celtic language(s) up to the Roman conquest, possibly since the Stone age.
The 'underlay' of British place names is thus Celtic in origin, and more specifically Brythonic ('British'), to distinguish it from the closely related Gaelic languages of Ireland. The oldest place names in England appear to be the names of rivers, many of which can easily be interpreted as Brythonic in origin, e.g. Exe/Axe/Usk, Derwent. In the areas of Great Britain in which Brythonic languages were not replaced until relatively late on (Cumbria, Cornwall), or have not been replaced (Wales), most place names are still essentially Brythonic in origin.
After the Roman conquest, many Roman place names appear, particularly associated with military settlements. However, often these were simply latinisation of existing names; e.g. Verulamium for Verlamion (St. Albans); Derventio for Derwent (Malton). After the collapse of Roman Britain, few of these place names survived. Most Roman sites are known by later names; many are distinguished as Roman sites by the suffix chester/cester/caster (from the Latin castra = camp), but with no reference to the Roman name. The influence of Latin on British place names is thus generally only slight.
In the so-called "dark age" which followed the end of the Roman Empire, major changes in the part of Britain now called England occurred (plus or minus Cornwall). The language of this region became Anglo-Saxon, a hybrid Germanic language originating in north-west Germany and Denmark. Traditionally, this has been supposed to be due to a mass migration of Angles and Saxon in Britain, 'pushing back the Celts into Wales and Scotland' . However, this view is not supported archaeologically, and it is possible that a small population of Anglo-Saxon settlers 'Germanised' this region of Britain over a few generations . Regardless of the cause, due to this linguistic (if not cultural etc.) replacement most place names in modern England are discernibly Anglo-Saxon. A large fraction of these contain personal names, suggesting that they were named after the first Anglo-Saxon to dwell there. Personal names are less common in Brythonic place names.
A few centuries after, in the period c.850-1050 AD, the north and east of England and the islands and coasts of Scotland were settled by Norse and Danish 'Vikings'. Many place names in these areas are thus of Old Norse origin. Since Old Norse had many similarities to Anglo-Saxon, there are also many hybrid Saxon/Norse place names in the so-called 'Danelaw' of England. Again, many of the Viking place-names contain personal names, suggesting they are named for the local Norse/Danish lord or chieftain.
Contemporaneously, the west coast of what is now called Scotland was settled by people from Ireland, the 'Scotti'. Again, the actual details are hazy, and the degree of 'invasion' versus 'cultural spread' is open for debate . It is unclear what language was spoken by the Picts, the name given to the people who inhabited Scotland before (and presumably after) the appearance of the Scotti; it is assumed to be a Brythonic language. What is clear, however, is that many place names in modern Scotland derive from the Gaelic family of languages, rather than Brythonic. Some place names in Scotland (particularly in the Highlands) may have been gradually modified from Brythonic to Gaelic during the 'invasion' of the Scotti.
After the Norman invasion of England in 1066 AD, some Norman French influences can be detected in place names, notably the simplification of ch to c in Cerne and -cester, and the addition of names of feudal lords as in Stoke Mandeville. However, extension of the Norman system into the lowlands of Scotland resulted in the development of Scots as the spoken language, a hybrid based on Anglo-Saxon. Non-Celtic place names are therefore common in the southern part of Scotland, for instance Edinburgh.
Place names in Britain have remained relatively stable since the early Norman period, breaking down and 'weathering' to modern forms, but without further dramatic changes. At most, some place names have continued to accrue pre- or suffixes, such as 'Little'; or distinguishing features, such as a local river name.
There are many other languages which have shaped and informed the nomenclature of the United Kingdom
: various Celtic languages
(Old Irish), Scots Gaelic
, Old Norse
, Norman French
, modern French
and perhaps a few others besides.
There is currently much debate about the identity of the earliest dwellers in the British Isles, during the Stone and Bronze Ages. Patterns of land use in Britain suggest a continuity of population throughout these periods and into the Iron Age . However, it has been suggested that the original population of Europe ('Old Europeans
' or proto-Europeans) were 'replaced' by Indo-European speaking peoples from the neolithic onwards (the Kurgan hypothesis
), eventually reaching the British Isles. Recently this hypothesis has fallen out of favour, and cultural and linguistic diffusion is now favoured . It is therefore possible that the population of the British Isles spoke a now unknown language, before adopting Celtic languages
during the Bronze/Iron Ages. It has been suggested that some unexplained place names in the British Isles (particularly of rivers, which tend to be the oldest names) may be derived from this hypothesised proto-European language.
appear to have been spoken in the British Isles at the time of the Roman conquest (see above
). It is therefore a general assumption that many place names in the British Isles have a substrate of Celtic origin, if they are not indeed self-evidently Celtic. The Celtic languages of Britain are divided into two families; Brythonic
(i.e. 'Briton-ish'), including Welsh
and the hypothesised Pictish language
; and Goidelic
, including Irish Gaelic
and Scottish Gaelic
In Wales and Cornwall most place names are, respectively, Welsh or Cornish. In Cumbria, there are Celtic place names, mostly associated with natural features, rather than settlements. These include the mountains Blencathra and Helvellyn, and the rivers Ehen and Cocker.
In Scotland there is a substrate of apparently Brythonic names in the east and south (e.g. Kincardine, Dunragit). However, most Celtic place names in Scotland are Gaelic, stemming from the settlement of Scotland by the Irish 'Scotti', and the subsequent expansion of the Gaelic language.
Very few Roman names survived the end of Roman Britain, though many Roman settlements were re-used. These were generally renamed, although usually with the suffix caster
, from the Latin castra
(camp). In Wales and Cumbria, caer
, of the same derivation, was used for the same purpose (cf. Caerdydd (Cardiff
) and Carlisle
). Another partial roman survival was pons
(bridge), which survives in Welsh as 'pont', e.g. Pontypridd
. In England, several places contain the element 'street', derived from the Latin strata
(paved road); these places are generally on the course of a Roman road, hence the name; e.g. Chester-le-Street
Other Latin elements in British place names often derive from the medieval period as affectations. This includes the use of magna and parva instead of the more usual 'Great/Little'; e.g. Chew Magna. Some Latin elements are more recent still; for instance Bognor Regis. Regis (Royal) was given to the town as an honorarium by George V after he convalesced there .
The terms "Old English
" and "Anglo-Saxon" are fundamentally equivalent in meaning, and represent the hybrid Germanic language in use between the Roman abandonment of Britain and up to about 100 years after the Norman invasion of 1066.. Modern English is derived directly from Anglo-Saxon/Old English. Anglo-Saxon derived names form the majority of place names in England, as well as a substantial number in lowland Scotland, and some in Wales.
Many of the Scottish place names are derived via Scots, which was an Anglo-Scottish dialect spoken in southern Scotland, this modified some of the common elements into typically Scottish ones; e.g. 'bury/borough' to 'burgh'.
, a language from which both Danish
are derived was spoken (with dialects) by the 'Viking
' settlers who occupied many places in the north of the British Isles during the Viking era. In general Danes settled in eastern England, whilst the Norse settled around the islands and coasts of Scotland, Ireland and western England . Although the language of the two groups were essentially similar, there is bias amongst the elements found in place names. For instance -by
are much more common in Danish place names, whilst toft/taft
are more common in Norse names; all these elements essentially mean 'settlement/dwelling'.
Following the Norman conquest
, some place names acquired prefixes or suffixes giving the names of their new owners; for example Grays Thurrock
or Stoke Mandeville
. Other names that are suffixed with the name of a landowning family include Stanton Lacy
and Newport Pagnell
. The influence of Norman French also occasionally modified existing place names into pseudo-French names; e.g. Chapel-en-le-Frith
, OE. Woods
Processes & patterns in British toponymy
For a general list of toponymic processes, see Place name origins
- Back-formation: the process whereby names are derived from one another in the opposite direction to that which would be expected - for example, rivers with an obsolete/forgotten name are often renamed after a town on its banks rather than vice versa. The river running through Rochdale became known as the 'Roch' through this process. Cambridge, perhaps uniquely, illustrates both normal and back-formation. Originally Grontabricc, a bridge on the Granta, the name became Cantebruge and then Cambrugge, from which the river was renamed Cam.
- Element order: In Germanic languages, and thus in Old English and Old Norse place names, the substantive element is generally preceded by its modifier(s); 'north farm' (Norwich), 'Badecca's spring' (Bakewell). In Celtic place names, the order is usually reversed, with the thing being described (hill, valley, farm etc.) as the first element e.g. 'Settlement of the Cunebris' (Tregonebris), 'Mouth of the Dee' (Aberdeen). However, this is not true of all Celtic names; e.g. 'bald hill' (Malvern) (cf. W. moel + bryn).
- Translation: The general similarity of Old Norse and Old English meant that place names in the Danelaw were often simply 'Norsified'. For instance, Askrigg in Yorkshire, 'ash ridge' ; whilst the first element is indubitably the Norse asc (pronounced "ask"), ask- could easily represent a "Norsification" of the Old English element æsc (pronounced "ash"). In this case both asc and æsc mean the same - 'ash' (tree).
- False analogy: Sometimes, however, the place names were changed to match their own pronunciation habits without reference to the original meaning. Thus Skipton should be 'Shipton' (Old English scipetun - 'sheep farm'. ). However since sh in Old English was usually cognate with sk in Old Norse, the name became changed by false analogy to Skipton, in this way losing its meaning (since the Old Norse for sheep was entirely different from the Old English).
- Intepreting some names can be difficult, if the reason for the name is no longer evident. Some names originally referred to a specific natural feature such as a river, ford or hill, that can no longer be identified. For example, Whichford (Warwickshire) means "the ford on the Hwicce", but the location of the ford is lost.
- The elements den (valley) and don (hill) from Old English are sometimes confused now that they lack obvious meaning - for example Croydon is in a valley and Willesden is on a hill. Their expected spellings might therefore be "Croyden" and "Willesdon".
- Another problematic element is -ey, as in Romsey. This commonly means 'island', from the Old English -eg . However, -ey can also be derived from the Old English haeg, meaning 'enclosure', for example in Hornsey.
- The elements wich and wick can have a variety of meanings. Generally wich/wick/wyke indicates a farm or settlement (e.g. Keswick - 'Cheese-farm' ). However some of the sites are of Roman, or shortly post-Roman origin, in which the wich is related to the Latin vicus ('place'). These "wics" seem to have been trading posts . On the coast, wick is often of Norse origin, meaning 'bay' or 'inlet' (e.g. Lerwick).
Toponymy by Region
Most English place names are Anglo-Saxon. There are a high level of personal names within the place names, presumably the names of local landowners at the time of naming. In the north and east, there are many place names of Norse origin; similarly, these contain many personal names. In general, the Anglo-Saxon and Norse place names tend to be rather mundane in origin, the most common types being [personal name + settlement/farm/place] or [type of farm + farm/settlement] - most towns ending in -wich, -ton, -ham, -by, -thorpe, -stoke/stock are of these types.
In Cornwall most place names are Cornish in origin, whilst in Cumbria there remain a number of place names in Cumbric, the Brythonic language of this region, examples including Carlisle, Helvellyn and Blencathra.
Most old Roman settlements, whether actually inhabited or not, were given the title of chester/caster in Anglo-Saxon (from the Latin castrum, 'camp'); the specific names for each may only have little relation to the Roman names (e.g. modern Chester was Roman 'Deva'). Modern Winchester was 'Venta Belgarum', the 'Win-' element deriving from 'Venta' in a similar way to the names Caerwent and Gwent from Venta Silurum in south Wales.
The vast majority of place names in Wales are Welsh by origin, containing elements such as Llan-, Aber-, Pen- etc. Along the border with England there are a number of towns with Anglo-Saxon names, Wrexham
for instance. Along the south coast of Wales, where English has historically been more widely spoken, many place names are commonly anglicised
, such as Newport (Gwent)
). Many places throughout Wales have alternative names in English Swansea
(derived from the Norse meaning "Svein's island") for the Welsh Abertawe
. In some cases these are in fact related to their Welsh name, but disguised through linguistic processes of mutation
, for example Monmouth
and the Welsh Trefynwy
both referring to the River Monnow
(Mon- < Monnow < Mynwy
Welsh place names tend to be associated with natural features rather than people, hence elements describing rivers, hills and valleys are common. The obvious exceptions are places with the suffix Llan, meaning 'Church', which often contain the name of the Saint the church is dedicated to e.g. Llansantffraid - 'Church of St. Bridget' - and the frequently found Llanfair, 'Church of St. Mary' (Mair > -fair).
In the islands of Scotland, particularly the Orkneys
, but also the Western Isles
, there are many names of Norse origin; this is also true of the coasts of the mainland. In the Highlands, the names are primarily in Scottish Gaelic, with emphasis on natural features; elements such as Glen- (valley) and Inver- (confluence, mouth) are common.
In lowland Scotland, names are of more diverse origin. Many are Gaelic, but many are also from the Brythonic branch of Celtic languages (such as Ayr). There are also place names from the Scots dialect/variant of English, such as Edinburgh.
Most Irish place names are Gaelic by origin, though their current form is often anglicised, e.g. Dublin
. Along the east coast, there are names of Norse origin, such as Wexford