Toponymy of England

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The toponymy of England derives from a variety of linguistic origins. Many English toponyms have been corrupted and broken down over the years, due to language changes which have caused the original meanings to be lost. In some cases, words used in these place names are derived from languages that are extinct, and of which there are no known definitions. Place names may also be compounds composed of elements derived from two or more languages from different periods. The majority of the toponyms predate the radical changes in the English language triggered by the Norman Conquest, and some Celtic names even predate the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in the first millennium AD.


The place names of England, as in most other regions, typically have meanings which were significant to the settlers of a locality (though these were not necessarily the first settlers). Sometimes these meanings have remained clear to speakers of modern English (for instance Newcastle and Sevenoaks); more often, however, elucidating them requires the study of older languages. As the names lost their original meanings either due to the introduction of a new language or linguistic drift, they gradually changed, or were appended with newer elements. An example is Breedon on the Hill in Leicestershire, whose name seems to have grown by the accretion of elements stressing the hill in the language currently spoken. [1]


The west and eastern dialects of Norse in the 10th century, with the related Germanic yellow and, even closer, green (and the rarely comparable white denotes Celtic: in Britain and Ireland) Old norse, ca 900.PNG
The west and eastern dialects of Norse in the 10th century, with the related Germanic yellow and, even closer, green (and the rarely comparable white denotes Celtic: in Britain and Ireland)

The placenames of England have diverse origins, largely due to historical changes in language and culture. These affected different regions at different times and to different extents. The exact nature of these linguistic/cultural changes is often controversial, [2] but the general consensus is as follows.

The British Isles were inhabited during the Stone and Bronze Ages by peoples whose languages are unknown. During the Iron Age, the population of Great Britain shared a culture with the Celtic peoples inhabiting western Europe. [3] Land use patterns do not appreciably change from the Bronze Age, suggesting that the population remained in situ. [3] The evidence from this period, mainly in the form of place names and personal names, makes it clear that a Celtic language, called Common Brittonic, was spoken across what came to be England by the Late Iron Age. At what point these languages spread to, or indeed developed in, the area is open to debate, with the majority of estimates falling at some point in the Bronze Age.

The principal substrate of British toponyms is thus Celtic in origin, and more specifically Brittonic ('British'), ancestral to modern Welsh and more distantly related to the Goidelic languages of Ireland and Scotland. The oldest place names in England appear to be the names of rivers, many of which are interpreted as being Brittonic in origin. In the areas of England in which Brittonic languages were not replaced until relatively recently (Cumbria, Cornwall) many settlement names are still essentially Brittonic.

After the Roman conquest, many Latinate place names appear, particularly associated with military settlements. Often, these were simply a Latinisation of existing names, including Verulamium for Verlamion (St Albans) and Derventio for Derwent (Malton). After the collapse of Roman Britain, few of these place names survived. These settlements often continued to be inhabited so known by later names; many are marked as Roman strongholds by the suffix chester/cester/caster (an Old English borrowing from the Latin castra = camp), seldom drawing on the Roman/Romano-Celtic name. The influence of Latin on British place names is thus generally only slight.

In the so-called "Dark Ages" which followed the end of the Roman Empire, major changes occurred in most of the part of Great Britain now called England. Several Germanic tribes living along the north sea coast began to migrate to Britain, variously displacing, intermarrying with or ruling over local populations. [4] [5] In Britain, the tribes became known as the Anglo-Saxons, and their language, Old English, came to be spoken over much of lowland Britain. Due to this replacement of tongue and population growth, most settlement names in modern England are discernibly Old English in origin. A large proportion of these contain personal names, suggesting that they were named after the first or later powerful (see feudalism) Anglo-Saxon settlers to dwell there.

Some English placenames commemorate non-Christian religions, referring instead to the old Germanic religion: see List of non-Christian religious placenames in Britain.

A few centuries later, around AD 850–1050, the north and east of England were settled by Danish and Norwegian 'Vikings'. [6] Many toponyms in these areas are thus of Old Norse origin. Since Old Norse had many similarities to Old English, there are also many hybrid English/Norse place names in the Danelaw, the part of England that was under Danish rule for a time. Norse toponyms also frequently contain personal names, suggesting that they were named for a local chieftain. [7]

After the Norman invasion of England in 1066, some Norman French influences can be detected in place names, notably the simplification of ch to c in Cerne and -cester, and suffixes of names of feudal lords as in Stoke Mandeville, or Church/Kirk/Bishop(s) (prefixed) or Episcopi/Abbot(t)s (rarely prefixed) in many cases of belonging to the church. [8] The toponymy of England has remained relatively stable since the early Norman period, though the names have been generally simplified, harmonised to modern sounds and 'weathered' to modern forms.


Many languages have shaped and informed the nomenclature of England: various Celtic languages (including Brythonic, Goidelic (Old Irish), Welsh and Cornish (in the South West), Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, Norman French and others. [9]


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. [3] However, it has been suggested[ by whom? ] that the original population of Europe ('Old Europeans' or Proto-Europeans) were 'replaced' by peoples speaking Indo-European languages from the end of the Neolithic onwards, eventually reaching the British Isles. It is therefore believed that the population of the British Isles spoke a now unknown language or rather several unknown languages, before adopting Celtic languages during the Bronze or Iron Ages. Some unexplained placenames[ which? ] in the British Isles (particularly of rivers, which tend to be the oldest names) may be derived from these lost languages.


The main language spoken in Britain in the Iron Age is known as Common Brittonic, from which descend the modern languages of Cornish and Welsh. Cumbric, a now-extinct third descendant, was spoken in parts of northern England and lowland Scotland until the 11th century.

Brittonic place names, or names with Brittonic elements, are extremely few in the south and east of England. Moving north and west, however, they increase substantially in frequency (for example, Crewkerne in Somerset and Morecambe in Lancashire). Cornish toponyms are overwhelmingly Celtic in origin. [10] In Cumbria, Celtic place names are mostly associated with natural features rather than settlements, such as the mountains Blencathra and Helvellyn . [11]


Very few Roman names survived the end of Roman Britain in their original form, though many Roman settlements were reoccupied. These were generally renamed, although usually with the suffix caster/chester, from the Latin castra (camp). A number of Latin names survived through Celtic, such as Carlisle (cf. Welsh : caer for Latin : castra), Porthleven (compare with Latin : portus for 'harbour') and some associated with Christianity such as Eccles (compare with Latin from Greek ecclesia, 'church'). Several places contain the element street, derived from the Latin strata (paved road); these are generally on the course of a Roman road, e.g. Chester-le-Street , Stratton-on-the-Fosse. However, this word was almost certainly borrowed into the Germanic languages prior to the migration of the Anglo-Saxons into Britain, and it may have been used natively by Germanic-speaking settlers.

Other Latin elements in British place names were adopted in the medieval period as affectations. This includes the use of magna and parva instead of the more usual Great/Little; e.g. Chew Magna , Linstead Magna and Linstead Parva . Some Latin elements are more recent still: Bognor Regis, for example, received its honorific suffix (meaning 'of the King') from George V after he convalesced there. [12]


Old English was the West Germanic language brought to Britain by Germanic tribes such as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. [13] Old English is typically divided into the Northumbrian, Mercian, West Saxon and Kentish dialects. The language evolved into Middle English, which was used from about 100 years after the Norman Conquest until the end of the Middle Ages. Modern English is derived directly from Middle English.

The overwhelming majority of place names in England are of Old English origin, particularly in the southeast. Many derive from the name of a particular Anglo-Saxon settler.

Commonly-occurring suffixes of Old English origin [14]
Old English WordMeaning
-hamhamhomestead / village Dagenham , Horsham , Swaffham
(-)ham/hammhāmspur (of land) South Hams , Ham , Hampton (in case given)
-ing-ingaspeople of Reading , Worthing , Hastings
-tontunfenced enclosure Brighton , Bolton , Preston
-bury / -b(o)roughburhtown Middlesbrough , Banbury , Shrewsbury
-fordford ford Bradford , Oxford , Chelmsford
-leylēahæclearing Burnley , Keighley , Barnsley
-daledælvalley Borrowdale , Calderdale , many others in the Yorkshire and Derbyshire Dales, Arundel, Sunningdale

These suffixes are sometimes combined, as in Birmingham and Southampton .

Scandinavian languages

Old Norse, a North Germanic language from which both Danish and Norwegian are derived, was spoken by the Scandinavian settlers who occupied many places in the north of the British Isles during the Viking era. In England, the Danes generally settled in the East Midlands and Yorkshire, whilst the Norwegians settled in the northwest. [15] The regional distribution of Norse-derived toponyms reflect these settlement patterns.

Common elements in Norse place names [16]
Norse wordMeaning
-bybýrvillage Derby , Grimsby , Wetherby
-thorpeþorpsatellite farm Scunthorpe , Mablethorpe
-thwaiteþveitclearing / paddock Slaithwaite , Bassenthwaite
-tofttofthomestead Lowestoft

Although the languages of the Danes and Norwegians were very similar, differences between the two can be found in place names. For instance -by and torp are much more common in placenames of Denmark whilst toft/taft and bister/ster/bost are more common in names of Norway; all these elements essentially mean 'settlement/dwelling'. [15] [17]

Norman French

Due to the Norman conquest, some placenames gained an additive, mainly a suffix, giving the names of their new owners: for example Grays Thurrock which is the rare prefix version and typical Stoke Mandeville; Stanton Lacy; Newport Pagnell. The influence often disambiguates placenames with Norman French conjunctions, such as Hartlepool (said Hart-le-pool), Chapel-en-le-Frith, Chester-le-Street. [18] Further disambiguation occurred then and/or became the dominant form centuries later, such as Henley-in-Arden and Henley-on-Thames.

Processes and patterns in British toponymy

For a general list of toponymic processes, see Place name origins.


Toponymy by region

Most English placenames are Old English. [9] Personal names often appear within the placenames, presumably the names of landowners at the time of the naming. In the north and east, there are many placenames of Norse origin; similarly, these contain many personal names. In general, the Old English and Norse placenames tend to be rather mundane in origin, the most common types being [personal name + settlement/farm/place] or [type of farm + farm/settlement]; most names ending in wich, ton, ham, by, thorpe, stoke/stock are of these types.

In Cumbria, there remain a number of placenames from Cumbric, the former 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 Old English (from the Latin castrum for 'camp'); the specific names for each may only have little relation to the Roman names (e.g. modern Chester was actually called Deva by the Romans). 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.

In Cornwall, most placenames are Cornish in origin: e.g. Penzance (holy headland). In eastern Cornwall, the names show a stronger English influence. Placenames of Cornish origin are also found in the South Hams, North Devon and West Somerset. Brythonic but non-Cornish placenames, sometimes showing Cornish or Welsh influence, are found in North Somerset and parts of Dorset.

In Northern England, particularly Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, names record significant Scandinavian influence. For example, the names Howe and Greenhow (both in North Yorkshire) reflect the Old Norse word haugr meaning a hill or mound. [26]

See also

Related Research Articles

Brittonic languages Subfamily of Celtic languages, including Welsh, Cornish, Breton and Cumbric

The Brittonic, Brythonic or British Celtic languages form one of the two branches of the Insular Celtic language family; the other is Goidelic. The name Brythonic was derived by Welsh Celticist John Rhys from the Welsh word Brython, meaning Ancient Britons as opposed to an Anglo-Saxon or Gael.

Saxons Germanic tribes from the North German Plain

The Saxons were a group of early Germanic peoples whose name was given in the early Middle Ages to a large country near the North Sea coast of northern Germania, what is now Germany. In the late Roman Empire, the name was used to refer to Germanic coastal raiders, and also as a word something like the later "Viking". Their origins appear to be mainly somewhere in or near the above-mentioned German North Sea coast where they are found later, in Carolingian times. In Merovingian times, continental Saxons had also been associated with the activity and settlements on the coast of what later became Normandy. Their precise origins are uncertain, and they are sometimes described as fighting inland, coming into conflict with the Franks and Thuringians. There is possibly a single classical reference to a smaller homeland of an early Saxon tribe, but its interpretation is disputed. According to this proposal, the Saxons' earliest area of settlement is believed to have been Northern Albingia. This general area is close to the probable homeland of the Angles.

Toponymy, also toponymics or toponomastics is the study of toponyms, their origins and meanings, use and typology. In a more specific sense, the term toponymy refers to an inventory of toponyms, while the discipline researching such names is referred to as toponymics or toponomastics. Toponymy is a branch of onomastics, the study of proper names of all kinds. A person who studies toponymy is called toponymist. Toponym is the general term for a proper name of any geographical feature, and full scope of the term also includes proper names of all cosmographical features.

Pictish is the extinct language spoken by the Picts, the people of eastern and northern Scotland from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages. Virtually no direct attestations of Pictish remain, short of a limited number of geographical and personal names found on monuments and the contemporary records in the area controlled by the kingdoms of the Picts, dating to the early medieval period. Such evidence, however, points to the language being an Insular Celtic language related to the Brittonic language spoken prior to Anglo-Saxon settlement in what is now southern Scotland, England, and Wales.

Cumbric was a variety of the Common Brittonic language spoken during the Early Middle Ages in the Hen Ogledd or "Old North" in what is now Northern England and southern Lowland Scotland. It was closely related to Old Welsh and the other Brittonic languages. Place name evidence suggests Cumbric may also have been spoken as far south as Pendle and the Yorkshire Dales. The prevailing view is that it became extinct in the 12th century, after the incorporation of the semi-independent Kingdom of Strathclyde into the Kingdom of Scotland.

History of English Aspect of history

English is a West Germanic language that originated from Anglo-Frisian dialects brought to Britain in the mid 5th to 7th centuries AD by Anglo-Saxon migrants from what is now northwest Germany, southern Denmark and the Netherlands. The Anglo-Saxons settled in the British Isles from the mid-5th century and came to dominate the bulk of southern Great Britain. Their language, now called Old English, originated as a group of Anglo-Frisian dialects which were spoken, at least by the settlers, in England and southern and eastern Scotland in the early Middle Ages, displacing the Celtic languages that had previously been dominant. Old English reflected the varied origins of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms established in different parts of Britain. The Late West Saxon dialect eventually became dominant. A significant subsequent influence on the shaping of Old English came from contact with the North Germanic languages spoken by the Scandinavian Vikings who conquered and colonized parts of Britain during the 8th and 9th centuries, which led to much lexical borrowing and grammatical simplification. The Anglian dialects had a greater influence on Middle English.

The vast majority of placenames in Ireland are anglicisations of Irish language names; that is, adaptations of the Irish names to English phonology and spelling. However, some names come directly from the English language, and a handful come from Old Norse and Scots. The study of placenames in Ireland unveils features of the country's history and geography and the development of the Irish language. The name of Ireland itself comes from the Irish name Éire, added to the Germanic word land. In mythology, Éire was an Irish goddess of the land and of sovereignty.

In much of the "Old World" the names of many places cannot easily be interpreted or understood; they do not convey any apparent meaning in the modern language of the area. This is due to a general set of processes through which place names evolve over time, until their obvious meaning is lost. In contrast, in the "New World", many place names' origins are known.

Celtic Britons Ancient Celtic people

The Britons also known as Celtic Britons or Ancient Britons, were indigenous Celtic people who inhabited Great Britain from at least the British Iron Age into the Middle Ages, at which point their culture and language diverged into the modern Welsh, Cornish and Bretons. They spoke the Common Brittonic language, the ancestor to the modern Brittonic languages.

Hen Ogledd Area of northern Britain between c. 500 and c. 800

Yr Hen Ogledd, in English the Old North, is the region of Northern England and the southern Scottish Lowlands inhabited by the Celtic Britons of sub-Roman Britain in the Early Middle Ages. Its denizens spoke a variety of the Brittonic language known as Cumbric. The Hen Ogledd was distinct from the parts of northern Britain inhabited by the Picts, Anglo-Saxons, and Scoti as well as from Wales, although the people of the Hen Ogledd were the same Brittonic stock as the Picts, Welsh and Cornish, and the region loomed large in Welsh literature and tradition for centuries after its kingdoms had disappeared.

Cumbrian toponymy

Cumbrian toponymy refers to the study of place names in Cumbria, a county in North West England, and as a result of the spread of the ancient Cumbric language, further parts of northern England and the Southern Uplands of Scotland.

The name of London is derived from a word first attested, in Latinised form, as Londinium. By the first century CE, this was a commercial centre in Roman Britain.

Welsh toponymy

The place-names of Wales derive in most cases from the Welsh language, but have also been influenced by linguistic contact with the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Anglo-Normans and modern English. Toponymy in Wales reveals significant features of the country's history and geography, as well as the development of the Welsh language. Its study is promoted by the Welsh Place-Name Society.

Celtic toponymy

Celtic toponymy is the study of place names wholly or partially of Celtic origin. These names are found throughout continental Europe, Britain, Ireland, Anatolia and, latterly, through various other parts of the globe not originally occupied by Celts.

British Latin or British Vulgar Latin was the Vulgar Latin spoken in Great Britain in the Roman and sub-Roman periods. While Britain formed part of the Roman Empire, Latin became the principal language of the elite, especially in the more Romanised south and east of the island. However, in the less Romanised north and west it never substantially replaced the Brittonic language of the indigenous Britons. In recent years, scholars have debated the extent to which British Latin was distinguishable from its continental counterparts, which developed into the Romance languages.

Brittonicisms in English are the linguistic effects in English attributed to the historical influence of Brittonic speakers as they switched language to English following the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain and the establishment of Anglo-Saxon political dominance in Britain.

Common Brittonic was a Celtic language spoken in Britain and Brittany. It is also variously known as Old Brittonic, and Common or Old Brythonic.

Celtic language decline in England Linguistic change in the first millennium CE

The decline of Celtic languages in England was the process by the Brittonic languages in what is currently England died out. This happened in most of England between about 400 and 1000, though in Cornwall it was finished only in the 18th century.


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