Hundreds of Place Names of Old Norse Origin in the British Isles

Many English villages and towns were founded by Vikings. (Original Photo: John Baker/ videnskab.dk)

In the 9th and 10th centuries Norwegian, Danish and Swedish Vikings crossed the ocean and sailed to the British Isles, and their legacy is still very much alive: Hundreds of place- and personal names of Old Norse origin tell that the Norsemen not only came to plunder, but that many also chose to settle on the isles to the west.

A recently published article in Antiquity, international quarterly journal of archaeological research, suggests that the number of Scandinavians have been larger than previous DNA studies demonstrate: As many as between 20,000 and 35,000 Vikings may have relocated to England.

The Vikings did have a strong influence on the English language, including place- and personal names, which is the linguistic evidence for the high number of settlers, according to the language researchers.

When the Scandinavians arrived in England, they met a local population who spoke Old English.

Old Norse and Old English were closely related with many identical or similar words. Today, many place names in the British Isles are Old Norse names or a combination of the two languages.

Three examples of English village names of Old  Norse origin:

Lofthouse – lopt-hús (Old Norse) A house with a loft or upper chamber.

Hulme – holmr (Old Norse) An island, an inland promontory, raised ground in marsh, a river-meadow.

Towton (“Tofi’s farm/settlement”), pers.n. (Old Norse) Personal name, tūn (Old English) An enclosure; a farmstead; a village; an estate.

The large number and variety of names, either wholly or partly Scandinavian, is important evidence supporting the theory that Old Norse was spoken in many parts of England.

In the year 1086 AD, only two decades after the last Viking invasion in 1066, the English “Domesday Book” (a manuscript record of the “Great Survey” of large parts of England and parts of Wales), was completed.

The many Norse place names demonstrate the big influence Scandinavian Vikings had in the British Isles.

 

Map – Norse Place Names

In the British Museum’s homepage, you can find out whether the name of a village, town or city on the British Isles origins from the Vikings.

British Museum writes:

“This map shows all English, Welsh, Irish and a selection of Scottish placenames with Old Norse origins.

In England, these are more prevalent north of the line marked in black, which represents the border described in a treaty between King Alfred and the Viking leader, Guthrum, made between AD 876 and 890.”

Howth village and outer suburb of Dublin, Ireland: The name Howth is probably from the Old Norse “Hǫfuð” (“head” in English). (Photo: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen / Wikimedia Commons)

“This description – up the Thames, and then up the Lea, and along the Lea unto its source, then in a straight line to Bedford, then up on the Ouse to Watling Street – is traditionally thought to demarcate the southern boundary of the ‘Danelaw’ – the region where ‘Danish’ law was recognised.

In reality it may have been more of a ‘legal fiction’ than a real border, but it does seem to roughly mark the southern limits of significant Scandinavian settlement in Britain.”

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