Value of place names of North-West England as evidence for the language(s) used in the area

Value of place names of North-West England as evidence for the language(s) used in the area


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The value of what constitutes English place names is a rather complicated subject, with the various conquests that England endured playing a key role in this. Consequently, English place names now draw from such varied languages as Old Norse, Latin, and Norman French, among others. These varied languages have each had a huge influence on the development of existing place names. The area under review is North-west England. The area that is North-West England is made up of five counties, namely, Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Cheshire, Lancashire, and Cumbria. Figure 1 below is a map of North-West England:

(Source: Pictures of England 2017)

North-West England is the third most populated region in England, preceded only by South East and Greater London. As of 2011, it has an estimated population of 7,052,000.

In most regions of England, place names are largely influenced by Old English and other proceeding periods of English. Place names exemplify the ethnic complexities that characterised settlers. For instance, the Ireby or Orby names of Cumbria and Wirral are a hint that the Irish WERE distinguishable in areas where the Vikings were already dominant as to demand or attract their own ethnic identity. Other regions such as Cornwall were characterised by a blend of name elements and Celtic names, while certain parts of east and north England are typified by a strong heritage of name elements and names derived from Old Norse. The North West region is, however rather unique, in that it combines place-names origins from Old English, Old Welsh, Celtic, and Old Norse. The Romance/Latin influence is also evident, albeit mildly, such as in such elements as Egremont which is translated to mean ‘pointed hill’, and -caster, which means ‘camp or fort’ (for example, Lancaster).   The premise of the current essay, therefore, is to examine the importance of the place name of the North-West England region as evidence for the language(s) spoken there. In particular, influences of the Old English, Old Norse, and Celtics will be examined.

The Anglian Influence

OE has a dominant influence on place names in this region, like in the rest of England. In general, the Anglian names used in North West England borrow heavily from linguistic elements of OE. For instance, such endings as -ford (for example, Trafford), and -ton (as used in Preston), are common here. It is important to explore geographically limited elements on account of their link to specific dialects. The earlier Anglian incursions were orchestrated by the Northumbrian kings, possibly through the Lune valley. Consequently, their influence is felt in such forms of words as bōþl, meaning ‘building’, as used in Northumbria. This is in sharp contrast with the word bodl which also implies ‘building’, as borrowed from the Mercian dialect.  The names Bolton and Bootle are also common in such southern parts of the region like Manchester and Liverpool, as well as the northern part, an indication that the Northumbrian dialect had spread across the entire North West. In contrast, the Mercian dialect is evident in Parbold, an area located on the south side of the Ribble River. This river is regarded as having been a form of dialect boundary. For example, the element -caster is popular in the north side of the river (for example, Lancaster), which signifies Latin influence since -caster derives from the Latin word castra, which signifies ‘a fortified camp.’ On the other hand, the form appears to have undergone palatalization to form the word ceaster that is common today, such as in Ribchester and Manchester. What this appears to suggest is that the Northumbrian had a total influence on the north part of the Ribble River, even as they are between Mersey and Ribble reveals a blend of Northumbrian and Mercian elements.

Old Norse influence

The Vikings had come by sea and first conquered and settled on the west coast of Scotland, before moving on to the Isle of Man, Ireland, and eventually, Great Britain. The Viking settlers spoke the Old Norse language and while this language has not spread in the same breadth as the OE spoken by the Anglian, it has, nonetheless, left an indelible mark in place-names across England where the Vikings settled, and nowhere is this more prevalent than in place-names across the North West region. For instance, the element -ton, which has an OE origin, competes with the ON -by as the most common element in reference to a settlement or farmstead. For instance, -ton elements with an OE origin such as Caton and Middleton, among others, occur alongside such ON -by elements as Kirkby and Hornby, amongst others, indicating a strong interaction of Old Norse and OE. In particular, the -by element is popular in those parts of England characterised by Scandinavian settlements. This took place between the ninth and tenth centuries. However, the Vikings did not settle in England without a struggle from the Englishmen. This is best exemplified by the struggles between the Viking invaders on the one hand, and the Anglo-Saxons who were led by King Alfred, on the other hand, which came to an end following a compromise reached through the Treaty of Wedmore, culminating in the establishment of the Danelaw. This aided in the determination of the area of Danish settlement. The Danes mostly settled in Eastern and Northern parts of England and spoke an OEN (East Norse Dialect). On the other hand, the North West region was predominantly inhabited by the Norwegians, who spoke the OWN (Old West Norse) dialect.

Topographic features like rake, carr, and holm are also indicative of the Viking influence in this region. The Scandinavian influence is also felt in the place names of Lancashire, Cheshire, and Cumbria, which are today not only fixated, on but also accepted as part of the medieval English dialects as spoken in those sections of North-West England. Place names that end with the prefix -bý, common in south-est Lancashire and West Derby act as signs of the Danish influence.

Cleator, Cumberland, indicates the influence of Old West Scandinavian in the area. In this case, Cleator borrows from ON klettr, which means ‘a rocky cliff’. Nonetheless, there are now suggestions that the words Cleatlah (as in Cleatlam, Durham), and Cleatop contain the element clǣte borrowed from OE which is translated into ‘burdock’.

Both the Danes and Norwegians contributed the same name elements (for example, gate, and kirk which translate into ‘street’). However, on other occasions, they relied on ‘tell-tale] name elements that are indicative of an East Norse or West Norse dialect. Some of the specific name elements that may have a West Norse origin include beck (as in, ‘brook, or stream’), holm (meaning ‘island’), wray (meaning ‘corner or nook’), and thwaite (as in, ‘clearing’). Names with such endings as Applewaite, Scafell, (which means a ‘bald-headed mountain’), and Howgill, among others, are a clear indication that the Vikings who had settled here had a West Scandinavian origin. Nonetheless, these are largely names of small settlements or natural features, and this finding could help fuel the argument that the majority of the Vikings were happy to occupy lands where the Angles or Cumbrians had scantly settled, and made no attempt to occupy lands characterised by higher populations. However, the North West region is not characterised by many ‘tell-tale’ elements with an East Norse origin, despite evidence to suggest that the area had been occupied by the Danes. Nonetheless, such elements that end with -thorpe (which is translated to mean a secondary settlement) are quite popular in the Danelaw. This, even as the Danelaw barely extended to the North West. Here, names ending with -thorpe is quite uncommon.   The spelling hulmeas used in such areas of Greater Manchester as Levenshulme, and Cheadle Hulme, is yet another indication of the Danish settlement in the region and indeed their influence.  While such names as Urmston as used in the area are indicative of a Danish element in use, it is important to note that majority of the place names in the North West region are bequeathed from the OWN.

Celtic influence

The place-name influence of the Celtics in the North-West region can be categorised into two periods. The first period can be traced back to the first century, prior to the settlement of the Roman legions. The ‘Cumbrian Britons’, who are the native Celts of this region, left an indelible mark on their history by naming such natural features as rivers. For example, such rivers as Cocker, Kent, and Calder are symbolic of the Celts’ stratum of names. There are also suggestions that River Lune (which means ‘health-giving river’, might as well have a Celtic origin. The names Cumberland and Cumbria also have a Celtic origin and describe the land belonging to the British Celts. A number of cities in the North-West region are also characterised by Celtic elements. For example, the element caer as used in Carlisle has a Celtic origin which means ‘fort’. It is also found in names like Carmarthen and Caenarfon, which are common with the Welsh. The element pen (as in ‘hill or top’) is still used in East Lancashire, where it is used in reference to a well-known hill. We also have other elements of Welsh origin that have survived to date in North-West England, including glen (which means ‘valley’), and cum (or ‘valley’).

Even after the Anglo-Saxon’s influence in the region through settlement, they retained some of the place-name elements left by the Celtics. For example, the small town of Eccles which constitutes part of Greater Manchester, has its origin in the noun *egles, which is part of the OW. This noun is derived from another Greek noun, ekklēsia, which refers to a church. What this appears to suggest is that while the Anglians who occupied the North West region may not have embraced Christianity, they, nonetheless, recognised the church as a key landmark of British society.  Today, the region boasts of two (one in Lancashire and another in Cheshire) that share the word Ecclestone, which translates into ‘settlement with a British church’.

The second influence of the Celtics in the North-West region came in the ninth century, following the invasion of the Vikings. The Vikings had initially settled in Ireland before moving on to the North-west region. The Vikings brought with them such elements of the Gaelic Celtics (who are indigenous to Ireland) as the Irish culture and language.   One of the evidence of Irish influence in the name-elements of the North-west is the word cross. The Gaelic Celtics used the word cross (which was originally borrowed from the Latin word crux) as a symbol of Christianity. The Vikings borrowed this word as well and brought it with them to the North-west region upon their settlement. The word was eventually replaced by the term rōd which referred to ‘cross’ in OE. Such names as Crossthwaite and Crosby, which evidently point towards Viking descent, occur severally in the name-place elements used in the North West.

The Celtic influence is also evidenced in the dedication of Cumbrian churches using Celtic saints’ names. Any settlements that grew around such churches also bore their names.  For example, in north Cumbria, the names Kirkbride and Bridekirk, which are actually the names of two villages, are an indication that the villages were named after the churches around them, which are in turn named after Celtic saints. In this case, the villages are named after St. Bridget or St. Bride.

In addition, the element erg, which borrows from ON, was in turn borrowed from the Gaelic Celtic word airigh, which translates into ‘shieling, hill-pasture’ (Mills 521). The borrowing of Gaelic words into ON elements is also evident in village names in the region, including Cleator and Grimsargh.


In sum, the various settlers in the different regions of North-West England have had an influence on the name-place elements of the language spoken in this region, throughout history. The Anglian names used in North West England are heavily influenced by the linguistic elements of OE, while the Danish and Norwegians have had an influence in the name-place influence in the region through the OEN and OWN dialects, respectively. Elsewhere, the Celtic influence came in the first and ninth centuries with the name-place elements of the Gaelic Celtics being felt across the region.



Brown, Jules, The Rough Guide to the Lake District (Rough Guides 2000)174.

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Gooden, Philip, The Story of English: How the English Language Conquered the World (Book Sales 2009)38.

Griffiths, David and Royles, Elizabeth, In Search of Vikings: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Scandinavian Heritage of North-West England (CRC Press 2014)17.

Higham, Nicholas and Ryan, Martin, Place-names, Language and the Anglo-Saxon Landscape ( Boydell Press 2011) 81.

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Mills, David, A Dictionary of British Place-Names (Oxford University Press 2011)521.

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Watts, Victor, The Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names (Cambridge University Press 2004)106.

Watts, Victor, The Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names: Based on the Collections of the English Place-Name Society (Cambridge University Press 2011) 395.

Whaley, Diana, A Dictionary of Lake District Place-Names (English Place-Name Society 2009) 103.

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Online Articles

Office for National Statistics,’2011 Census-Population and Household Estimates for England and Wales, March 2011’ (2012)

Pictures of England,’ North West England Map’ (2017)

The University of Nottingham,’ Key to English Place-names’ (2017)

The Viking Network,’ Viking place names in England’ (2004)’

Trueman, CN,’Norman Place Names In England’ (2015)

[1]                Stephen Hardin, David Griffiths Elizabeth Royles,  In Search of Vikings: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Scandinavian Heritage of North-West England (CRC Press 2014)17.

[2]                Philip Gooden, The Story of English: How the English Language Conquered the World (Book Sales 2009)38.

[3]                Henry Loyn,  Anglo Saxon England and the Norman Conquest (Routledge 2014)38

[4]                Victor, Watts, The Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names (Cambridge University Press 2004)106.

[5]                David,Mills, A Dictionary of British Place-Names (Oxford University Press 2011)521.

[6]                Wood, Stuart, Historical Britain: A Comprehensive Account of the Development of Rural and Urban Life and Landscape from Prehistory to the Present Day (Harvill Press 1997)264.

[7]                Jules, Brown, The Rough Guide to the Lake District (Rough Guides 2000)174.

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