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England Understanding Elements of Place Name Terms (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English - Understanding Names in Genealogy  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

The Languages Used in Place Names[edit | edit source]

The earliest recordings of the names of places in England, and in fact in much of Europe, is found in Greek and Latin texts of great antiquity. Modern places are usually easily identifiable back to the earliest 19th century Ordnance Survey maps. The philologist works backwards consulting all early maps of his area building up a sequence of spellings illustrating the development of the sounds in the spoken name. It is a study in which historians, archaeologists and philologists need to work together to fully understand. The number of languages and dialects involved and the extensive number of pairs of words which look alike cause constant misunderstanding between the three disciplines. The language used in England today is a fairly recent development, the place names were formed from languages previously used in these islands and not now commonly understood.

Language Development in Britain

Language Approximate Dates
Celtic (British) 2 main groups:
P-Celtic (Welsh and Cornish)
Q-Celtic (Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic and Manx)
Prehistoric - 800 AD
- Roman occupation
- In church and law
54 BC - 430 AD
Until 1733
Anglo-Saxon/Old English 700 - 1150 AD
Old Norse 793 - 930 AD
Old (Norman) French 1066 - 1363 AD
Middle English 1150 - 1500 AD

Margaret Gelling describes the six languages which have left imprints in the names of places in England as:

  • ŸNon Indo-European language(s) spoken in Britain before the Celts arrived. Two such languages are known, Pictish, of which inscriptions survive but cannot be understood, and Basque which survives as a living language in northern Spain. It is thought that some river names may derive from this early language.

The later five languages were all of the Indo-European family.

  • ŸA Celtic language termed British. The older Common Celtic gave rise to two main branches, Goidelic (Q-Celtic) which fathered Irish and Scottish Gaelic as well as Manx, and Gallo-Brittonic (P-Celtic) which gave rise to British and thence Welsh and Cornish. British was the language spoken over most of the main island of Britain, except the north and west of Scotland, during the period of the earliest extant written records.
  • ŸLatin was the administrative language during the Romano-British period of mid-1st to mid-5th centuries, and the only written one. The Christian church, which took hold of Europe from the 4th century, used Latin and after the arrival in England of Augustine in AD 596 this language’s influence consequently increased. It is likely that it was not spoken by the common people, which explains the rarity of Latin place names in Britain. Some Latin words were adopted by British speakers, however, and are evidenced in names.

There is an important distinction between words which descend from a common root, (cognates), which may or may not resemble each other in their later manifestations, and which do not indicate contact between those speaking Latin and those speaking British, and words borrowed from Latin speakers after the Romans came to Britain. There was a second period of Latin influence upon place names in the Middle Ages when it was again the administrative and legal language.

  • ŸOld English (Anglo-Saxon) was the Germanic language that replaced British over much of the country with the invasions of Germanic peoples from the 5th century AD. This was accompanied by the introduction of a huge number of Germanic place names rendered in Old English, and these remain the majority today in the modern, much-modified version of this language.
  • ŸOld Norse is another one of the Germanic group of Indo-European tongues spoken in Scandinavia. The Norwegian Vikings travelled around Scotland in the early 10th century and entered England’s north west, leaving behind a trail of Old Norse place names. The Danish invasions of the late 9th and late 10th centuries along eastern England left their mark with large numbers of Old Norse place names there.
  • ŸNorman French was that spoken by William the Conqueror and his invaders of southern England in 1066. The Normans were, of course, originally Vikings (‘north men’) who had invaded part of France and been granted land in 911. Here they did not impose Old Norse on the inhabitants but learned French, which they subsequently brought to England. Again, they did not impose it upon the people, but did use it for administration and Norman French did come to have a great influence on English place names.

The study of English place names thus involves elements of all six languages, complicated with spelling and pronunciation changes over the centuries. Place names in use now may be from:

  • Modern English (very few names).
  • One of the five ancient languages no longer spoken (many names). In the case of the Celtic language many of these names have meanings discernible to speakers of the current forms of the language. Listening to local pronunciation thus plays a bigger part in understanding meanings of place names in Cornwall, Wales and Scotland than, say, those recorded in England by Norman Frenchmen and only now available in written form, as there is no descendant form of French alive in England.
  • Fossilized form of Old or Middle English from which Modern English developed (most names). Gelling shows how complicated the situation is through the divergence of spelling and pronunciation. Each place name has to be interpreted individually, as it is impossible to rely on general rules. The many dialects of English that have developed in the British Isles are rich in alternative place-name elements.

Old British Place Names[edit | edit source]

There are a very large number of place names derived from the Celtic (primitive-Welsh speaking British) people. This argues against the former theory that the Celts were virtually exterminated by the Anglo-Saxon invaders. The survival of so many pre-English place names proves that early-Welsh and English speakers co-existed peacefully with the newly established folk accepting the place names already in existence.

Studies on the survival of pre-English river names quoted by Gelling have shown that Celtic names survive much more frequently in a north-south band of central England, with few in the east and more in the west and north. Larger forests and rivers are more likely to have the older, Celtic names than the smaller ones.

The Welsh word crug became crüc in Old English and gave rise to the terms Creech, Crich, Crouch and sometimes Church in place names. It originally meant hill, but when anglicized it tended to be mostly applied to tumuli.

In some cases the Anglo-Saxons did not have the appropriate words. In the 4th century Christianity was well established amongst the Romano-British, although not universal. The Anglo-Saxons, however, were pagans when they arrived and would not have had a word for church. They used the Celtic word ecles, (derived from the Latin ecclesia), that also gave rise to the Welsh eglwys, seen in many Welsh place names.

Roman Place-Names[edit | edit source]

We know about 350 names of the places, including settlements, Roman forts, rivers, and islands, in Roman Britain, 200 of which can be reliably located today. There must have been hundreds more Romano-British place names in use from the 1st to mid 5th centuries AD. Less than 10 percent are in Latin or part-Latin and, coupled with the fact that the Romans were more likely to mention their own settlements and forts, indicates that these invaders mostly used British place names for both pre-existing and newly created places.

A major difference between compound Latin names and British ones is in the order of the placement of the noun and adjective. The Latin is exemplified by the former name for the city of Bath—Aquae Sulis (‘waters of Sulis’) with the noun (defined object) first and the adjective (defining element) second. The more common British form was the reverse, as in a Roman town at Crayford, Kent—Noviomago (‘new field’ from British words ancestral to the Welsh newydd and ma) with the adjective followed by the noun.

Later, from the 6th century, the style changed to the ‘noun-adjective’ type, thus the ‘adjective-noun’ style is generally deemed to be of older, British etiology. It is recognized that this is a huge simplification of a very complex scenario, to learn more see the works of Margaret Gelling for further elucidation and reference study sources.

British names in this period are mainly descriptive of the topography, especially rivers, a smaller number are a word for a building of some kind, and a few refer to persons or activities. Most of these names were later replaced by Old English names of quite different categories.

So what happened to the Romano-British settlement names? (Hogg quoted by Margaret Gelling, and considerably abbreviated here)

  • ŸMost have been completely lost.
  • ŸSome have an element that survives attached to a Welsh word such as Caer- or an English one such as -chester. Such names usually had a succession of changes through Old, Middle to Modern English, thus the Romano-British Durnovaria became the Old English Dornwaraceaster, then Middle English Dorecestre before settling in modern times as Dorchester.
  • Ÿ A few survive in almost unaltered form.
  • Ÿ The name survives but is applied to a district or a different settlement from the Roman one.

Latin Words in English Place Names[edit | edit source]

When the Romans withdrew from Britain by the early 5th century, they left behind a country that spoke Celtic and with predominantly Celtic place names, as Latin had never been adopted by the farming inhabitants. However, several terms used in place names have come down to us from these Latin-speaking overlords.
Latin Terms Used in English Place Names•

Latin Old English Meaning Example
Campus Camp A field Addescompe now Addiscombe
Castra Ceaster Walled town Dornwaraceaster now Dorchester
Portus Port Harbour Portsmouth
Strãtum Stræt Street Roman paved
Streatham, Stratford
Vicus Wïc Roman settlement or
administrative unit
Wickham, Wycomb
Ecclesia Ecles (Celtic Christian)
Eccleshall, Eccles
Fontana Funta Spring, fountain Chalforn, Funtley

It should be noted that there are other derivations of some of these place name terms. The earliest spellings of each place have to be studied, not just the modern ones.

Germanic/Anglo-Saxon Place Names[edit | edit source]

Some Germanic people were established about 360-410 AD in south-east England, well before the Romans left, they being hired to defend the southern forts against (their fellow Germanic) Saxon pirates. However, the main advent of Anglo-Saxons did not start until about AD 450 (Gelling). The Anglo-Saxons adopted large numbers of British place names even though they did not adopt more than 20 or so Celtic words into Old English as it developed.

Since 1960 experts have revised their thinking regarding English names introduced by the Anglo-Saxons. As an example, the group of names which use a man’s name and then the suffix -ingas (‘followers of’) for example Hastings and Reading, and -ingahäm (‘homestead of the followers of’) for example Gillingham and Wokingham, are now believed to be secondary colonization rather than primary.

Scandinavian Place Names[edit | edit source]

The language known as Old Norse, which was spoken by the Vikings of the 9th-11th centuries during their invasions of England has left a firm imprint on the place names of England. Old Norse words that occur in English place names include:

  • Ÿbÿ (‘settlement’) as in Derby; given to previous settlements taken over by victorious Vikings
  • Ÿfors (‘waterfall’) as in Forcett
  • Ÿlúndr (‘grove’) as in Lound
  • ŸÞorp now thorp (‘small settlement’) as in Burnham Thorpe; new settlements in areas colonized by Danes in eastern England
  • ŸÞveit or thveit (‘clearing, meadow’) as in Crossthwaite
  • Ÿ vatn (‘lake’) as in Watendlath

The Norwegians invaded, then settled, in the north west (Orkneys, Western Isles of Scotland, Isle of Man, and north west England). The Danes raided and then settled along north eastern England in an area which became known as the Danelaw, named after the type of law practiced in the shire courts which had acquired a strong Danish influence. The Danelaw consisted of four main regions: eastern part of Northumbria (roughly Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland); the shires surrounding the five boroughs of Lincoln, Nottingham, Derby, Leicester and Stanford; East Anglia; and the south-east Midlands. The dialects of Old Norse spoken by the two groups of Scandinavians were different, the main difference in the resulting place names being the use of the suffix -thorp in the Danelaw but not in the north west settled by the Norwegians.

These examples are clearly of Scandinavian origin. However, it is also wise to note that because of similarities between the two languages, some words could be from Old Norse or from Old English, which may have later been Scandinavianized in spelling or pronunciation, and it is difficult to assign derivations for such place names.

Norman French Place Names[edit | edit source]

The small group of Norman French place names in England is evidence of the minor effect on place names caused when a foreign aristocracy conquers the land but does not bring with it a body of peasant settlers. There was an effect on everyday pronunciation and on spelling of the native tongue since the few literate members of the previous aristocracy had been ousted from power. No substantial effect on place names was felt, there being only a handful of older English names replaced by French ones, and very few newly coined French names because few new settlements were needed. Typical names include those incorporating the French words belle or beau, blanch and mal.

For example in Essex they renamed the English settlement of Fulepet (‘foul hollow’) as Beaumont (‘beautiful hill’)—perhaps marketing agents were at work even then! Although the French did not generally replace or translate English and Norse place names, they did create pronunciation changes by their own rendering of these native words. Typically from the 13th century they also contributed a large number of surnames to manors they now held, and this had a ripple effect on place names.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English - Understanding Names in Genealogy offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at 

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