The Foxearth and District Local History Society

The Hysterical Hystorian

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Monday, January 03, 2011

Celtic Origins for East-Anglian place-names?

One of the arguments for a conquest and complete cultural take-over by the Saxon settlers in England  has been the observation that the place-names of East Anglia are solidly Saxon in origin. Anyone who wants to argue that the native population just stayed put and, over a hundred years, changed to the new language may have chromosomal studies on their side, but there is the puzzle as to why the place-names changed. It just isn't something that a settled indigenous population does.

But is this really the case? A great number of the place-names of East Anglia seem to me to be ‘Brythonic’ (Celtic)  in their origin. Conventional wisdom declares that the Brythonic names of places in East Anglia are so rare as to be almost negligible. The Cam means crooked, we agree. However, conventional wisdom has taken no account of Semantic Shift, which imposes a coincidental meaning on foreign words. People hear words like the Dutch verloren hoop, literally "lost heap", and adapted as "doomed troop". It becomes ‘Forlorn Hope’  This is an example of false folk etymology, just as the French craffishe morphed into CrayFish. We try to make sense of words in a foreign tongue or dialect. In the same way, it is quite possible that the Brythonic place-names morphed slightly to take on English meanings.

We don’t know exactly what the Brythonic language was. We can, however, reverse-engineer some of  the language from the surviving ‘celtic’ languages and from surviving evidence. In looking at place names , we can take words that are common to  Irish and  Welsh, or be careful to use only the antique words that we know have been used as place-names.  When I look at the place-names around about me, how is it that Foxearth hasn’t been spotted as being related to the irish Fothrach,  meaning a ruin. There were, indeed the ruins of two roman villas there. Pentlow could be from a word Pentre a village, and the llawr means the floor of the valley, which describes it exactly. The conventional explanation of it being ‘Penta’s Barrow’  could be true but it is certainly weaker until we can find a historical person called Penta. Essex is riddled with villages ending in the words tey or tye, which in the form of the irish ‘tigh’ or welsh T?  means a house, or homestead. (tre means the same in Welsh, as, perhaps in Braintree   ‘Brenin tre’ or King’s  home ). Borley could be burly, a summer pasture for cattle, or even the simpler Baile, a home, or Bailigh, a gathering place. Glemsford could so easily be Glynnos-ffordd, meaning a valley road.  Sudbury could mean no more than Swydd Bre or the  lordship’s hill. Dyn Moel (Dunmow) could be the fort on the bare hill. Thurlow is Tir llawr, or land in the valley (the t of tir is often mutated to ‘Th’) Tilbury could be Twll bre, the hill with the pit. The unfortunately-named Nasty actually means a wet place in proto-celtic.  The various Stanton and Stanstead places could easily derive from the celtic (s)tano-  or (s)tan?.  Liston, a fort (listo), Acton could derive from the celtic Aktina, meaning gorse (it can still be found there) There are, of course, towns ending in Wich, such as Dunwich or Ipswich which look very Saxon, but one has to be careful even here, since  w?ko, or w?ku- means a village. (Dunwich would then be a fortified village) .  One could go on and on. The whole derivation of place-names is a guessing game, but it can be played better with Celtic names than Saxon names.

How could we have failed to spot the obvious alternative explanation for East Anglian place-names? The problem is that Celtic and English aren’t totally different languages. They have a common Indo-European  root. This is why a place-name can have an explanation for its derivation based in either language.

The idea that language and nation are inseparable is a terrible misconception. We’re taught from primary school age  about periods of invasion, leading to complete new waves of settlers, displacing the older populations into the crannies of the island, most notably Wales and Cornwall. Celts, Belgae, Romans, Saxons, Normans all were said to have swept in and displaced their predecessors. Prehistory seems to involve bearskins and spears. It is all wrong, of course. The Romans left no discernable trace on our genetic make-up. The Norman contribution is difficult to discern since, genetically, they were almost identical to the Saxons and Viking. What we suffered were periods of political and technological  change. We generally are the descendents of the people who lived here in prehistory, with the waves of invaders leaving almost little trace in our make-up. The farm worker was intent only on survival for his family and community; and would have glanced up at the occasional army marching past, would have shrugged, and gone back to his ploughing. Why then did he rename his towns and cities in the Saxon Language?

Old English was fairly  quickly  adopted over England over a period of a hundred years after the collapse of Roman rule. Although English is related to the Brythonic via its indo-European ancestry, it is different in its grammar. It derives partly from the Proto-Germanic branch, which moved across Europe via a completely separate, land-based route. Curiously, it was only the English, and Scottish, that liked the new language. Across the Channel, the population clung to vulgar latin, which gradually evolved into various dialects that eventually turned into French, Spanish and Italian. Ireland was never occupied by the Romans but Latin had a strong influence here because of the adoption of Christianity.  Whereas, in England, the use of Latin was dropped when the country was cut off from the roman trade-routes, in Ireland it remained as the language of Christianity, and it co-existed happily with the existing language.

Whereas the Scottish had abandoned the Pictish language by 900 AD, mostly in favour of English, Ireland did not adopt the English language until the twelfth century, and only then due to the invasion of Henry II, on the bidding of the pope Hadrian who wished to unite the two countries on spiritual grounds. The dialect spoken by the army was Early Middle English , and English was adapted by the irish, taking on some of the vocabulary and characteristics of Erse.

Erse began resurgence in the fifteenth century and English became restricted to just a few pockets such as Dublin, and the baronies of Forth and Bargy in Co. Wexford. From the mid-sixteenth century, the policies of plantation reversed the trend, and Erse was in decline until the late nineteenth century.

Officially, very few Irish or Welsh words have been absorbed into English.  There are probably more from Hindi. It is very hard to argue one way or another. The three languages show their common roots in the Indo-European prototype. Is, for example, a word such as Deck (as in a deck of cards) derived from Latin (decus) or welsh (dec)?

It is not just the place-names in east Anglia that could be Celtic. Although the Brythonic language may be unused for well over a thousand years, traces live on. The the only written Brythonic text is a curse ‘Adixoui Deiana Deieda Andagin Uindiorix cuamiun ai’ found on a roman pendant in Bath. It has not been convincingly deciphered. We are  still  trying to work out the language’s vocabulary and grammar.  We can reverse-engineer many words from place-names. Traces of it live on in nursery rhymes based on counting, such as ‘Eeny, Meeny, Money Mi’, or ‘hickory dickory Dock’, and in shepherd counting-rhymes  such as Yan, Tan, Tethera, Pethera, Pimp, Sethera, Lethera, Hovera,  Covera, Dik, Yan-a-dik, Tan-a-dik, Tethera-dik, Pethera-dik, Bumfit, Yan-a-bumfit, Tan-a-bumfit, Tethera-bumfit, Pethera-bumfit, Figgot’. from Leicestershire) or ina, mina, tethera, methera, pin, sithera, lithera, cothra, hothra, dic from Yarmouth  The words have morphed a lot  except for a few  (cf un, pronounced een for one in welsh,  Pethera (4) and Petuar (4) in welsh, and Pimp(5) and Pimp (5)  in old welsh. Dik is Deich in in irish) , but the principle of counting in fives between ten and twenty (wikanty in proto-celtic) is very characteristic of Welsh. (Pymtheg has morphed to Bumfitt) but Figgot for twenty  has echoes of the irish ‘fiche’.

 Other dialect words from East Anglia look suspiciously Brythonic. The mysterious ‘Marther’ of Suffolk, meaning a sweetheart or young lady, is close to the Irish ‘Mavour’(or Mavourneen)  with a similar meaning.

The answer as to why we have Celtic placenames alongside the proto-Germanic ones, and Scandinavian names is to be found in the recent discoveries about the creation of the English Language.  The British isles had, at one time, a fairly univeral celtic/Brythonic language. This was disrupted before the arrival of the Roman Empire by the expansion of trade in the North Sea. The long-distance mediterranean traders spoke semitic languages, whereas the bulk were from the many states bordering the north sea whose language was similar to the modern-day Frisian. 

In order to communicate sufficiently to trade, a Creole language was gradually created with roots in all three incompatible tongues. The relative dominance of the different sources varied according to the dominant partner. The vocabiulary for farming, Ship-building, Finance, carting, barrel-making and so on all had different contributions from the source-languages.  This Creole developed into the Old English Language .  As I mentioned before, it spread quickly up the east coast of England towards the end of the Roman influence in Britain. 

The Western parts of Britain came to the Creole quite late on, after the end of the Roman period, and contemtuously referred to it as 'Saxon'.  They decided that the cultural phenomenon must have happened due to invasion.  No. The idea of a Saxon invasiopn was exciting for schoolroom history, but lacks any archaeological or genetic evidence. 

The place-names of East-Anglia show extraordinary continuity of culture and language. Both Celtic and frisian roots are there, because language change was gradual and unforced. It just didn't suit the Victorian historians who came up with the derivation of placenames to believe that there was still a celtic contribution in them. 


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