Jonathan Marshall writes some short articles on the origins of place-names
17th October 2016
Jonathan published six short articles over the Summer on the etymologies of place-names along the Thames-Severn canal system. The mini-series appeared in ‘The Trow’, the official magazine of the Cotswold Canals Trust.
Anyone interested in the history of the Stroudwater Canal and the Thames and Severn Canal will notice that we have some intriguing place names along the route. Place names are fun to investigate, because they can give us some fairly good clues about the cultural heritage of an area. The study of the origins of words is called etymology, and of course that includes any word, not just place names. Almost every place name carries an older original meaning underneath its modern form, and that meaning would have been clear to people in past times. There is a linguistic richness and diversity behind each one, and sometimes it is difficult to uncover the origin of a particular place name. In England, we have place names with their origins in Old English, Old Danish, Old Norse, Cornish, Norman French, Latin, and ancient Celtic. Many of us may have wondered about the origins of the name of our home town, or of a place that we pass regularly. Modern place names could be seen as ‘linguistic fossils’, as they originated as living units of the language, coined by our distant ancestors to describe such features as their topography, geography, appearance, situation, use, ownership or some other association. Most have, over time, been pronounced differently, shortened, and generally lost the link to their original meaning.
One thing to bear in mind is that English used to sound quite different to what it does now. The consonants and vowels have both changed gradually over time. For example, we used to have a consonant, usually represented in spelling by an ‘h’, in words such as ‘hring’ (ring) and ‘hrafn’ (raven). That consonant was pronounced as a ‘voiceless velar fricative’, like the one in the German word ‘auch’ and in the Scottish pronunciation of the word ‘loch’. It slowly weakened and fell away in words such as ‘through’, ‘thought’, etc. and changed into an ‘f’ sound in ’laugh’, ‘rough’, etc. Our vowels were more like those in German and Dutch. If you imagine a Northern English pronunciation of a e i o u in ‘cast’, ‘best’, ‘seat’, ‘goat’ and ‘cup’, you will not be far off. The low vowel used in the south of England in ‘cup’ did not exist yet. Also, all sounds were pronounced, so we didn’t have for example ‘silent e’ at the end of words.
One of the place-names near the north-western end of the canal is Upper Framilode, which has the Celtic river name ‘fram’, meaning ‘fair, fine’, followed by the Old English word ‘gelad’, meaning ‘difficult crossing’. That gives us ‘difficult crossing over the fair river’. One can see how, over many generations, the pronunciation has changed from ‘framgelad’ to the modern one, as the hard ‘g’ softened and then vanished, and as the vowel in the second syllable moved back in the mouth from ‘a’ to ‘o’. The latter mutation is seen elsewhere, in words like ‘lang – long’ and ‘ald – old’, which appear in place names, too.