Crags, Cæsters & Crans: The Multilingual Tapestry of England

IMG_7774I don’t normally write about etymology. The origin of words and names is a fascinating subject in itself, mixing as it does linguistics and history with just about any sphere of knowledge. But mine is a blog about language and creativity, and there are plenty of excellent blogs on etymology (like this one) already out there. However, after a weekend road-trip from my home in the South East of England, to the Lake District in the North West, I was inspired to break the habit and write about the curious etymology of English geography.

England, like many countries, boasts a wonderfully creative assortment of place names – as Bill Bryson celebrates with the title of his recent book, The Road to Little Dribbling. Naming all of its various locations and geographical features, over the centuries, has surely taken a great deal of creativity. In many cases, place names are nouns (like Ham from the Old English hamm for enclosure), or adjectivally modified nouns (West Ham) acting as very simple descriptions. Many are noun compounds either with some kind of particle or suffix (Birm-ing-ham), or without (Cam-bridge). Some place names, like that of Pease Pottage (literally “pea soup”) in West Sussex, go beyond simple descriptions into the poetic realm of metaphor.

But what struck me on the trip is the degree of multilingual creativity (of sorts) that has been involved in naming the various villages, towns and cities, rivers, lakes and mountains, you find up and down the country. It’s not just that different languages have been used to name places by different people at different times – from the earliest Celtic languages and the Latin of the Romans, to the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons and Old Norse of the Vikings, to the French of the Normans, and even some Italian. What struck me was how often, because of the way they have influenced each other over time, the various languages have been thrown together within English place names. It’s surely something of a paradox that in such a seemingly monolingual country, England’s multilingual past is etched into its very geography.

The best way to show you what I mean is to take you with me on my weekend road trip across the country. So jump in, fasten your seatbelt, and off we go.

Day One: St Albans to Carnforth

After breakfast, we set off from St Albans, an old Roman town a few miles north of London, and take the M1 north through Hertfordshire, then Northamptonshire – two of the many English counties taking a suffix from the Old English scīr meaning “district”. Then, it’s into Leicestershire, where the motorway passes a few miles from the burial place of Richard III and our first example of multilingual creativity: the word Leicester stems from the Anglo-Saxon Ligora-cæster: a neatly Romano-British mixture of the Celtic name of a tribe or river and an Old English word for Roman fort (from the Latin castrum). Incidentally, not far to the West is Ashby de la Zouche, probably one of the coolest sounding English towns, which provides our second example. Ashby derives from the Old English or Old Norse for “ash tree”, and the Old Norse bý for “farmstead”. “De la Zouche” is French and comes later, from the family name of a bunch of Norman aristocrats.

IMG_7758Then, it’s up through Nottinghamshire, my home county, and into Derbyshire where we turn off the motorway towards the market town of Chesterfield (open land by another Roman cæster). From there, it’s west over the Pennines, the range of hills that form the central spine of England, named at some point in the 18th century, probably to ape the Italian Appennini. Then, it’s on into the Derbyshire Dales (from the Old English dæl for “valley”), part of the wider Peak District, the country’s first national park. Here the road gets windier and things get generally wilder, and there are more sheep. We drive past Baslow (burial place hlāw of some Anglo Saxon bloke called Bassa). Then, it’s on to once plague-stricken Eyam (from the Old English ēg for island, in the dative plural, meaning something like “bits of land between streams”).

After a quick sandwich in the Miner’s Arms, it’s then back on the road. We drive on north-westward into Cheshire and the village of Disley, from the Old English leāh for clearing in a wood, for a quick visit to Lyme Park (location of another -ley, Pemberley, in the BBC adaptation of Pride & Prejudice). From here it’s up the M6, past Greater Manchester and all its traffic, into Lancashire. Through the window to our left is a third Anglo-Saxoned Celtic-Latin hybrid, Lancaster (from cæster and the Celtic-named river Lune). Finally, we reach our overnight destination, where we are fed a hearty plate of roast lamb by our hosts, my aunt and uncle. The Lancashire town of Carnforth was once just a ford populated with cranes (from the Old English cran) until a gradual metathesis eventually switched the two phonemes around.

Day Two: The Lake District

IMG_7755On Saturday, it’s the main event. After breakfast, we drive a few miles on into the Lake District, the national park which is famously home to one only “lake”, but many equally beautiful “meres”, “tarns” (from the Old Norse), and “waters” (Old English) – it’s also abundant in “crags” (from Celtic), “gills” (Old Norse gil), “fells” (from the Old Norse fjall), and “edges”. We drive north along the touristed shores of Windermere (lake of a bloke called Vinandr), remembering that calling it “Lake Windermere” would be tautology (like River Avon and Lake Michigan). On the way to Ambleside we pass a sign for Troutbeck (from the Old Norse bekkr for stream). Then, it’s on to lovely Grasmere (grassy lake), once home and burial place of William Wordsworth, for a spot of lunch. Finally, a bit further on, we reach our least body of water, Thirlmere, in the shadow of Helvellyn – the third highest fell in the Lake District (and England for that matter), a hill with something of a question mark next to it, etymologically speaking.

From there, it’s back down to Windermere and a cross-country route home which takes us via Arnside, a small seaside town on the treacherous tidal “sands” where the river Kent flows into Morecambe bay, before cutting back to Carnforth for one final night. Incidentally, Morecambe is another example of multilingual naming: it comes to us from the Latin recording of an older Celtic name (Morikámbē) for the bay itself.

Version 2

Day Three: Homeward bound

The next morning, it’s time for the long drive home. We take the less scenic route this time but it’s no less interesting, etymologically speaking.

 

References

The Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names by A. D. Mills (1998).

 

 

 

Volcanoes and “æ”: Why Iceland is a feast for linguists too

IMG_7311Iceland may only have a population of roughly 300,000 but, as a nation, it punches well above its weight in many things: in terms of its scenery, its musical output and, most recently, in its footballing achievements.

For naturalists and ornithologists, Iceland has puffins and arctic terns. For musicologists, it has Sigur Rós and Björk. For geologists, positioned as it is where the continents of Europe and North America rub up against each other, Iceland is something of a mecca. It is a country of glaciers and fjords, of mountains and volcanoes, lava fields and basalt columns, of hot springs and fumaroles and geysers gushing forth gas and liquid from the depths. If Jules Verne is to be trusted, the very centre of the Earth can be reached via one of the craters of Snæfellsjökull, a snow-capped volcano on Iceland’s Western peninsular.

But I’d like to argue that Iceland has plenty to offer linguists and language lovers too. Here are just some of the highlights:

It all started with the Vikings

Like Danish and Norwegian, Icelandic is a Nordic language, part of the broader Germanic family. However, although it is derived from Old Icelandic, a western dialect of Old Norse, Icelandic is not a language that speakers of Danish and Norwegian can readily understand. This is because, since Iceland was first settled by Vikings in the 9th century AD, it has remained relatively isolated. While other Scandinavian languages (Faroese excepted) have changed substantially due to external influences from the rest of the continent, in its grammar, written Icelandic has not changed substantially in about a thousand years. As a result, modern speakers can still read the original Icelandic sagas of the 12th century.

Literary language, literary culture

It’s not just that Icelanders can still read the sagas – they still do. And they don’t stop there. As the narrator of Halldór Laxness’ Atom Station says of Iceland: “everything is read, beginning with the Icelandic sagas; and then everything.” When Jules Verne’s protagonists arrive in Reykjavik, on their famous Journey, their Icelandic host tells them: “every farmer, every fisherman, knows how to read and does read.” And, as well as being a nation of readers, Icelanders like to write too. Apparently, something like one in ten Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime. Famous Icelandic authors include Laxness himself, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955.

A “magnificent language, both simple and rich”

IMG_7701At the beginning of A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Professor Lidenbrock tells his nephew Axel that Icelandic is “that magnificent language, both simple and rich, containing the most diverse grammatical combinations.” (It’s fitting indeed that Verne’s protagonist is as much a linguist as he is a geologist.) Alda Sigmundsdóttir, author of The Little Book of Icelandic, is a little less flattering. She calls her mother tongue “a bloody mess grammatically, a nightmarish mishmash of inflected nouns, verbs, adjectives and pronouns”.

For an English speaker, Icelandic certainly looks complicated in terms of its grammar. Like German, for example, it has four noun cases and three noun genders. But, because of its isolation, the vocabulary of Icelandic has remained relatively simple compared to that of English (which has shamelessly begged, stolen and borrowed words from a whole host of other languages). As a result, English words that used to mean the same thing in Icelandic tend to have undergone a process of relative semantic narrowing. For example, in Icelandic, hundur refers to any type of dog. In English on the other hand, as a result of competition with “dog” (from Old English), the cognate word “hound” now only refers to hunting dogs.

Geeking out on etymology

IMG_7708Because of the shared Germanic roots of Old Norse and Old English, and because many Old Norse words were adopted into Old English during the Viking settlement of the British isles, there are plenty of words in Icelandic that look familiar to English speakers, and vice versa. For example, the Icelandic word for house is hús, for book bók, for daughter dóttir, and so on.

Old Norse left its mark in particular on the geography of the British Isles. As a result, lots of Icelandic place names look familiar to speakers of British English (especially those from the north of the England). In Iceland, there’s Snæfell and Kirkjufell. In the Lake District, there’s Scafell and Low Fell. In Iceland, there’s the Hafnahólmi and Stykkishólmur. In the Bristol Channel, there’s Flat Holm and Steep Holm (a holm is an islet in a river). In the south of Iceland, there’s a town called Höfn (literally “Harbour”). In the south of England, there’s Newhaven. In downtown Reykjavik, there’s Lækjargata and Geirsgata (an Icelandic gata is a road or street). In my hometown of Nottingham, there’s Castle Gate and Wheeler Gate.

Incidentally, the word “Viking” derives from the Old Norse for bay (Reykjavík, as it happens, is literally “smoky bay”). As Sigmundsdóttir says, “it is pretty easy to geek out on Icelandic and English etymology if you like that sort of thing” – and, frankly, who doesn’t?

IMG_7642

Magnificent characters

IMG_7667Perhaps my favourite thing about Icelandic is its alphabet, which still retains three graphemes from Old Norse which also existed in Old English but which don’t survive into written English today: eth (ð or Đ), thorn (þ or Þ) and æsc (æ or Æ). (I love this video for the song Dýrð í dauðaþögn by Icelandic artist, Ásgeir Trausti, as much for the Icelandic alphabet as for the music and the stunning scenery.) ð and þ represent voiced and unvoiced versions of two Icelandic phonemes which are similar to the two phonemes written, voiced or otherwise, as “th” in English. For phonologists, ð is a voiced alveolar non-sibilant fricative, and þ is the unvoiced version, both pronounced with the tongue slightly retracted compared to the English dental fricatives in “that” and “this”, respectively. In Icelandic, the letter æsc (also known as ash in English) signifies the diphthong /ai/ as in “ice”.

Proper names

Although it’s a bit old fashioned in its gender politics, Icelandic names follow a delightfully simple patronymic system where a person’s surname is derived from their father’s first name by adding the suffix son (son) or dóttir (daughter). Author Alda Sigmundsdóttir is literally “Sigmund’s daughter”. Egil Skallagrimsson, the violently unhinged protagonist of the eponymous Icelandic saga, is the son of Skallagrim. And so on.

Verbal hygiene in action

IMG_7699Icelanders are – justifiably – very proud of their language. As a result, the country has a somewhat conservative attitude towards the influx of foreign loanwords, especially from English. Officially, the Icelandic language is under the control of the Icelandic Language Committee, whose job it is to regulate the Icelandic lexicon and Icelandic grammar. As Sigmundsdóttir explains, it’s their job to invent new Icelandic words for new and foreign concepts. So for example, instead of taking the English word “computer” and assimilating it to Icelandic phonology (to kompjúter), the committee invented an entirely new word (tölva), which means something like “prophetess of numbers”. Still, despite their best efforts, Anglicisms are still creeping into informal Icelandic. Examples include: tjilla (to chill out), sækó (psycho) and sjitt (shit). Incidentally, there’s even an official list of first names that Icelanders are allowed to call their children (this one regulated by the Icelandic Naming Committee).

And don’t forget the clapping

And finally, as well as verbal and written communication, it’s worth adding that Icelanders also excel at the non-verbal variety – as anyone who heard Iceland’s travelling fans perform their “Viking thunder clap” at Euro 2016 will know. Frightening stuff!

IMG_7617

All photos are by the author, and were taken in June 2016. For more information about the Icelandic language I can thoroughly recommend The Little Book of Icelandic by Alda Sigmundsdóttir.