Thursday, December 21, 2017

What's in a Name?

The British are a warm and generous people. Over the centuries they have welcomed the Vikings, the Romans, Saxons and Normans into their homes. They have even allowed them to name their towns and cities. As a result the origins and meanings of Britain's place-names are as varied as the country's many invaders.

Toponymy by Emu Analytics is a great resource for exploring the linguistic origins of place-names in the UK. The map allows you to select individual 'languages' and 'language families' to view the geographical distribution of place-names which have a common language root. The map also includes a regex search option which allows you to search for substrings in place-names, for example to view all the towns and villages ending in 'thorpe' (old Norse word for 'homestead').

By using the language filters and the regex search option it is possible to view where different invaders of Britain settled in the country based on the geographic distribution of their influence on the country's place-names.

Places! is another useful resource for anyone interested in the geographical distribution of place-names. Places! allows you to map the relative density of place-names in a number of different countries around the world. Using the application you can enter place-name prefixes or suffixes and view a map showing the geographic distribution of place-names containing those terms.

For example, in the UK we can enter the place-name suffixes of -thorpe and -thwaite to see where the Vikings settled in Britain. The resulting map shows that these two place-name endings are popular throughout the area that was once known as the Danelaw, following the Viking invasions of the ninth century.

If we take two more common town endings, such as -ford or -bridge we find that the geographic distribution of places with these endings is far more evenly spread across the UK.

The historical influence of the Vikings in the area once known as Danelaw can also be observed in the geographical distribution of English surnames. If you enter a surname into named then it will show you a heatmap highlighting where there is an unusually high number of people with that name in the UK.

Surnames ending in 'son' are usually an indicator of Viking ancestry in the UK. Enter names such as 'Johnson' and 'Robertson' into named and you will find that these surnames are more common in the Danelaw area than elsewhere in the UK.

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