Guest Essay: Toponyms

By Robert Fisher

I’m very pleased to present a Guest Essay, contributed by Friend of the Blog Robert Fisher. This one is about Toponyms, that is, place names, and what we can learn from them. Enjoy!!!

Historical linguists can glean some information about the extent of ancient languages and the migrations of the people who spoke them by examining toponyms (place names) and hydronyms (names of rivers and bodies of water such as lakes and seas).  For example, Lyons, where today the inhabitants speak French, was in Caesar’s day (100–44 BC) called Lugudunum “hillfort (dunum < IE *dhūno- ‘fortified place’, borrowed into Germanic, where it became English ‘town’) of Lug”, the chief god of the Celtic pantheon. Of course, we know that in Caesar’s day all of Gaul (present-day France) spoke a Celtic language, Gaulish, but so did what is now Belgium. In fact, the name of the country comes from a Celtic tribe, the Belgae. In the same way we know that the Romans must have occupied Britain for a considerable time by noting the numerous traces of Latin in names of British towns that end in -chester, from Latin castra  (plural) ‘encampment’. And of course there is Lincoln, which derives from Latin colonia, attached to Celtic lindon ‘pool’.

Although today the Celtic languages survive only on the edges of Europe in Western Ireland (Gaeltacht), Scotland, Wales and Brittany (Breton), they were once spoken from the Iberian Peninsula across Central Europe, Switzerland, Northwestern Italy and Eastern Europe. It is known that the Celts raided Delphi in 279 BC, and that some Celts settled around Ankara in what is today Central Turkey, (the Galatians, to whom Paul wrote an epistle). Greek and Latin Galatia (the land of the Galatians) seems to be related to Latin Gallia (Celtica) and thus to the Galicia of Northwestern Spain and Northern Portugal and the Galicija in Southwestern Poland.

At one time, before the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain, the island was Celtic speaking. Although the names of most towns and regions are of Anglo-Saxon origin, a few Celtic toponyms survive. For example, York comes from earlier Eburacum ‘(place) having yew trees’. Celtic *ebura ‘yew’ gives us Gaulish Eburomagus ‘field of yews’, and Old Irish ibair. Cumberland derives from Celtic *com-brog-os ‘compatriot’, com– ‘with, together’, brog-os ‘district’ (< IE *merg– ‘border, boundary’) as in Cymri, the Welsh name for Wales. Ironically, the name Wales comes from Old English wealh ‘foreigner’. At the opposite end of England, Devon is named for the Celtic tribe, the Dumnoni, from *dubnos ‘deep’ (cognate with English ‘deep’ and a word which means ‘valley’, attested in the Welsh name for Devon, Dyfnaint. In Southeast England we have Canterbury, which the Romans called Duroverum Cantiacorum < Celtic *durowernon ‘stronghold’ and Cantia ‘Kentish people’.

We are on firmer ground with the Celtic origin of the toponym Vienna, which derives from the Roman settlement Vindo-bona (where Marcus Aurelius died in 180 AD). The Vindo- comes from the Celtic word for ‘bright, shining’ (Welsh gwyn, Irish finn) and bona- ‘base, lowland’. Vindolana (now an important archeological site) was the name of a Roman fortress just south of Hadrian’s Wall in Northumbria. Its meaning is ‘white lawn, white field’.

In Northern Italy and parts of Switzerland (Lugano) a dialect of Gaulish, Lepontic, was once spoken. In fact, Lepontic is the oldest attested Celtic language (600 BC). A trace of the Celtic presence in Northern Italy is preserved in the name of the city of Milan, Medio-lanum ‘middle of the plain’. In the Celtic languages IE *p- > h-, then disappeared. Lanum is an example of this sound change: *planum > lanum. The p > h stage is preserved in the old name for the Black Forest, Hercynia Silva, where Hercynia is Celtic *perkwu- ‘oak’ (English fir, and with assimilation, Latin quercus).

The ancient Celtic tribe, the Boii, gave their name to two areas, Bavaria (Baiovarii) and Bohemia (< Boi- + the Germanic word haima ‘home’). The Boii had established a settlement called Boidurum, (duro- ‘fort’), now the city of Passau, near the Austrian and Czech borders. The Celtic Trevari (possibly from trē-vari ‘across the water; ferryman’) gave their name to the Southwestern German city of Trier. The names of several German cities contain the Celtic word magos– ‘field: Remagen < rigi-magos ‘king’s field’; Novio-magus (now Speyer, near Heidelberg) < ‘new field’, and Borbeto-magus (now with the much nicer name, Worms, with its famous Diet) ‘fierce, violent field’, if related to Irish borb , of the same meaning).

The other IE group to lose ground to German is the Slavs. A number of toponyms in Northeastern Germany were originally Slavic. For example, Berlin seems to derive from a Slavic word for swamp. Another clue to its Slavic origin is its accent (stress) on the second syllable, uncharacteristic of Germanic languages with their strong initial stress. The other city, on the border with modern Poland, is Dresden < Sorbian Drežďany  ‘people of the forest’; compare  Russian derevo ‘tree’. Sorbian (formerly called Wendish) is a West Slavic language related to Polish and Czech, now spoken by a small minority of about 30,000. German migration into Slavic areas in the east in the High Middle Ages (1000 – 1300) is known as the Ostsiedlung (eastern settlement). As a result, many German toponyms end in the Slavic suffixes -ow, -ovitz, -itz (Gützkow, Malschwitz, Görlitz, etc).

Another expansion of Germanic was in the Danelaw, most of the eastern half of Britain, where the Vikings, some Danish, some Norwegian, founded settlements between the ninth and thirteenth centuries. At this time Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse were likely mutually intelligible. Not only was Anglo-Saxon (Old English) flooded with Old Norse words (as shirt vs. skirt, as noted in a previous blog post), but also with toponyms. Old Norse placenames typically end in -by (< Old Norse bua ‘dwell’), -thwaite (‘cleared area, meadow’), -kirk (‘church’), -thorp (‘village’), -gate (‘street, road’; gate is the ordinary word for street in Scandinavian languages), -garth (‘grassy enclosure’), -holm (‘small island’), and -beck (‘stream’). Examples are: Appleby, Southwaite, Kirkby, Danethorp, Holdgate, Applegarth, Axeholme, and Caldbeck.

Iranian, probably an East Iranian language such as Scythian, is the origin of some of the most famous and important rivers in Europe: the Don (as in Quietly Flows the Don), Danube, Dnieper (< *Dānu apara ‘river to the rear’), Dniester (< *Dānu nasdya ‘river to the front’), Lithuanian Dunōjus (‘Large River’), Latvian Duņavas (‘Small River’). This is evidence for contact between Balto-Slavic and Finnic peoples and the ancient Scythians (Finnish numerals ‘eight’ and ‘nine’, kahdeksan and yhdeksän, contain the Scythian word for ‘ten’; compare Latin decem, Greek déka). Scythian Dānu- goes back to IE *dheAnu- ‘river’, as in the Welsh goddess Dôn and the Irish river goddess Danu.

The territory occupied by the Scythians, as recorded in Herodotus, was the steppes north of the Black Sea, modern-day Ukraine. The Greeks called this sea the Euxine Sea (Póntos Áxeinos), which is a borrowing from Scythian axšainas ‘not-shining’, that is, black’. The Greeks, by folk etymology, interpreted the Scythian word as a-kseinos ‘not friendly’, and changed it to eu-kseinos  ‘(good) friendly, an example of taboo deformation in language.

The biggest toponym in the world, Russia, is actually Scandinavian. The Rus were a Swedish Viking tribe, also called the Varangians, who dominated the waterways linking the Baltic to the Black Seas and who established a state, Kievan Rus, that included Northwestern Russia, Belorus and the Ukraine from the ninth to thirteenth centuries. The common Russian name Igor derives from the Old Norse name Ingvar.

Toponyms are frustrating material to work with since we often only have one word to examine, often distorted in transmission via foreign languages, and often poorly attested, if at all, in written texts. Nevertheless, the broad outlines are clear, that the contemporary Celtic-speaking areas are only a tiny fragment of a language family that spanned the British Isles and continental Europe from the Atlantic to Central Europe and beyond, and that German expanded eastwards, displacing Slavic-speakers. Toponyms that are deemed as having been imposed by colonial oppressors are being replaced in recent years by native names, such as Ayres Rock, in central Australia, which is now Iluru, an Aboriginal name.

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