The Role of Etymology in the History of Early England

Con il titolo Il posto dell’etimologia nella storia inglese delle origini, ripresento in questa sede un breve articolo che fa parte d’una più ampia silloge che avevo tempo fa approntata per un mio e-book. In breve sintesi: la storia inglese delle origini non si può fare per via documentaria, ma soltanto attraverso l’etimologia e lo studio dei toponimi. Nonostante la sua brevità, ritengo che l’articolo possa essere sufficientemente indicativo della questione sul tappeto.



It’s no doubt that etymological studies have very important historical implications. When there are no historical documents, the analysis of names and place-names offers an essential contribution in the reconstruction of historical events, providing historians with indispensable tools for the formulation of scientific hypotheses given a lack of written documents.


The Norman conquest of England can therefore be studied through the place-names, providing valuable indications about the settlements of the first conquerors of England. With regard to the Norman place-names, according to L. & J. Laing,


“Recent studies have shown that the Normans were not responsible for the growth of towns in early England as was often formerly supposed (…) Nor does it seem to have resulted in a spate of new Norman French place-names. We can point to a few, such as Ashby-de-la-Zouche, Melton Mowbray, Stoke Mandeville and Thorpe Morieux, where French family names were combined with older English names.” (1).


However, K. Cameron wrote a more analytical study, and he outlined a comprehensive overview of the French influences which, through the Normans, arrived to England. He stressed that many place-names of Norman-French origin contained the word beautiful or beau [= beautiful, fine]. So we get names such as Beaulieu, Bewdley, and Bewley [= beautiful, fine place], Beauval [= beautiful Valley] or Belsize [= beautiful, fine seat]. Sometimes, several place-names refer to Norman monasteries,  like both Gracedieu [= Grace of God] and Landieu [= Glade of God].


A number of place-names also refer to certain aspects of nature, referring to “uncultivated land covered with heather,” such as Bruera, “Temple Bruer”, and Bruern [=heath]. In other cases, the French diminutive -et was added to an old name, so Clar-et Hall  means  little Clare. However, according to Cameron,


“A much more important type of French influence on place-names comes from the change in the spelling and pronunciation of pre-conquest names introduced by scribes.” (2).


The influence of scribes was very strong:


“One of the commonest examples of Anglo-Norman influence in place-names is in the representation of Old English c before e or I. In such a word as Old English ceaster the initial c had the sound represented in modern English by ch, but this sound did not occur in Norman-French.”


As we can see, the Norman military conquest changed the whole course of English language from word form to word meaning.




1)      L. & J. Laing, Britain Before the Conquest. Anglo-Saxon England, London, 1979, p. 185.

2)      K. Cameron, English Place-Names, London, 1961, p. 89.

3)      Ivi, p. 90.

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