Are they Celtic or Germanic?
Ever since the assumption was made that a 'Celtic' language was spoken in prehistoric Britain, Roman place-names have been used to reconstruct the vocabulary of this Brittonic language. Sometimes it was possible to find words in Welsh, Breton or Irish that resembled elements of the Roman place-names. Hypothetical words could then be proposed for the language of native Britain. But Win Scutt challenges this as a circular argument. He argues that Britain's Roman place-names can just as easily be matched with elements found in Germanic languages, especially in Old English, the language recorded in eastern Britain in the early medieval period.
Germanic Roots of roman place-names
Below is a list of many of the names found in Roman Britain, with explanations of possible Germanic cognates. There is much research still to carry out on this, but the comments below are designed to demonstrate that Germanic origins can be found for many place-names in Roman Britain.
ABALLAVA Roman Fort at Burgh by Sands, Cumberland (NT 3259)
This name may originate from a name similar to a number in Old English, including Abba, Eadburg, Eadbeorht, or Eadbeald. The second element may be OE hlaw ‘hill’.
ABONA (river, Gloucestershire and adjacent settlement)
This is widely accepted as a Latinisation of the name for the River Avon which lies to the south of the Roman settlement of the same name at Sea Mills, Bristol. It shows that the Romans would use the letter B as the nearest Latin equivalent for a V. It is generally claimed that Avon is a Celtic word on this evidence. However it is virtually unknown in Cornish place-names (Padel 1985, 14), though it occurs in Welsh, afon ‘river’ and Middle Breton (auo(u)n). In OE the name would be cognate with hæfen ‘haven, port’. While it is argued that the river name is from an assumed British name for river, cognate with Welsh afon, Cornish avon, and Irish abhann, there is an equally plausible OE origin for the English rivers with this name.
AESICA (Roman fort at Great Chesters, Northumberland) Perhaps from OE æsc “ash-tree”. “ae” would be a Roman attempt to replicate “æ”, while “s” is as near as they could get to “sh”.
AGELOCO Littleborough (not in Rivet and Smith?) OE āclēah “oak wood”
ALAUNA (1. unknown location in SW Britain; 2. probably Alcester in Warwickshire; 3. probably the Roman fort at Watercrook, Westmorland; 4. the Roman fort at Maryport, Cumbria; 5. the River Aln, Northumberland, also known as ALAUNUS; 6. probably the Roman fort at Low Learchild, Northumberland)
Rivet and Smith illustrate a mainly western distribution of this name, attributed to a variety of meanings, including “a rocky place or river”. Probably from OE alor ‘alder’
The name is also found at Ardoch, Perthshire on the Allan Water and in ALAUNOCELUM located somewhere in SE Scotland).
Ælfa, Ælfhere, Ælfwine or Ælfwynn are just some of the OE personal names which would be rendered Alb- in Latin. A close modern cognate place-name would be Alvingham Li or Alvingston Gl
ALOBERGIUM (Possibly in Devon or Somerset)
ANDERITUM Pevensey, E Sussex ?OE æned-mere “duck-mere” as with Anmer (Ekwall, 1960, 10)
In later times, the OE name was Andred. It may have simply started as a personal name similar to Ēanrēd (cf Anderton in Ekwall, 1960, 10)
ARBEIA South Shields, Tyne & Wear
Possibly relates to the Old English name Hereburg as in Arborfield Brk (Ekwall, 1960, 11)
ARDOTALIA Melandra Castle, Derby The second part probably is cognate with Darley from OE dēor + leah “wood frequented by deer” (Ekwall, 1960, 139). Darley lies on the north side of Derby, which also derives from OE dēor. The first element could be Earda, short for Eardwulf. Therefore Earda-dēor-leah.
ARICONIUM Weston-under-Penyard, H'ford & Worcs
BANNA Birdoswald, Cumbria
Possibly based on a personal name which is found in OE, ‘Bana’. BANNAVENTA Whilton Lodge, Northants [ Iter II...Bannaventa ] The personal name Bana, with the second element “Venta”. Rivet and Smith can find no good origins in Latin or Celtic for this element. The word “went” meaning “passage” is found in ME, and is found also in Derwent, which should mean “the way of the deer”.
BIBRA Beckfoot, Cumbria This is written as BRIBRA in Ravenna. The first element may be a Latin attempt to replicate the sound “Bray”, OE “breg” brow, or from Welsh bre “hill” (Ekwall, 1960, 61). The second may be the OE element “burh” or brough, broc, brook (Ekwall, 1960, 69) or OE beorg, hill, barrow. Without earlier forms, it is not possible to state from which elements this name originates, but breg-beorg, “barrow on the brow” would be written today as “Braybrough” would sound most like “Bribra”.
BIBROCI (Source: Caesar BG, V, 21, 1)
A British tribe mentioned only by Caesar. These may well be a community that lived in the vicinity of Bybrook, Kent. Bybrook means the place “by the brook” in Old English.
BOVIO Holt, Cheshire [Iter II..Bovio ] BOVIVUM Tilston, Cheshire
BRANODUNUM Brancaster, Norfolk OE brant ‘steep’ or a personal name + OE dun ‘hill, down, mountain’
BRAVONIACUM Kirkby Thore, Cumbria [ Iter II...Brovonacis ]
BRAVONIUM Leintwardine, H'ford & Worcs [ Iter XII...Bravonio ]
BREMENIUM High Rochester, Northumb [ Iter I...Bremenio, RC..Bremenium, Pt..Bremenion ]
Probably from OE brēmer ‘bramble, bramble thicket’ as with the modern place-names Bramber, Bramerton etc. (Ekwall 63)
BREMETENACUM Ribchester, Lancs [Iter X.Bremetonaci ] BRIGE ?? [ Iter XII..Brige ]
From OE brycg “bridge” . Rivet and Smith see it as derived from a hypothetical British word for “hill” which preceded dunum in usage. (Rivet and Smith, 1979, 278)
BROCAVUM Brougham, Cumbria
A clear instance of a Latin rendition of the OE name Brōc-ham (the ham by the brook); or perhaps burh-ham, the ham by a burg; or perhaps beorg-ham, the ham by a hill or barrow. In view of the Latin version Brocavum, the first seems the most likely.
BROCOLITIA Carrawburgh, Northumb
Perhaps OE broc, “brook” + OE lycc “enclosure” (Ekwall, 1960, 296). The t of Brocolitia may have been pronounced “ts” as in modern Italian, and therefore imitates the sound of “ch”. Alternatively, the first element may be “burh” which continues in the modern name “Carrawburgh”.
CAESAROMAGVS Chelmsford, Essex [ Iter V...Caesaromago ] While the first element refers to a Caesar, presumably Claudius, magus may be an adaptation of OE maga ’powerful, strong, able, competent, having means’ which might refer to the town, or it may refer to Caesar as a powerful warrior youth.
CALACUM Burrow in Lonsdale, Lancs [ Iter X...Calcum ]
CALCARIA Tadcaster, N Yorks [ Iter II...Calcaria ]
CALLEVA ATREBATUM Silchester, Hants [ Iter VII...Calleva Atrebatum ]
CAMBUDNO Cleckheaton?, W Yorks [ Iter II..Camboduno]
CAMBORITUM Lackford, Suffolk [ Iter V...Camborico ]
CAMBOGLANNA Castlefields, Cumbria
CAMULODUNUM Colchester, Essex [ Iter V...Colonia, Iter IX...Camuloduno]
CAMULODUNUM Slack, W Yorks
CANONIUM Kelvedon, Essex [ Iter IX...Canonio ]
CASTRA EXPLOPATORUM Netherby, Cumbria
CASTRA EXPLORATORUM Netherby, Cumbria [ Iter II...Castra Exploratum ]
CATARACTONIUM Catterick, N Yorks [ Iter I, II...Cataractoni, Iter V...Caractone ]
CAUSENNIS Saltersford, Lincs [ Iter V...Causensis ]
OE cu ‘cow’, OE sende ‘sandy place’ (see below: Clausentum) and a Latin suffix suggesting the existence perhaps an island in the Witham.
CECUCMUM Y Gaer, Powys
CILURNUM Chesters, Northumb
CLAUSENTIUM Bitterne, Hants [Iter VII...Clausentum ] This name may derive from the OE clawu “a claw or cloven hoof” which can refer to “the fork of a river” (as in Clawton, D., Ekwall, 1960, 110); and a derivative of OE sand “sand” e.g. an OE *sende fem. “sand-dune, sandy place” (cf Send, Sr, Ekwall 1960, 412). Therefore the Roman name may be an adaptation of *Clawsend meaning “the sandy place on the fork of the river”. This perfectly describes the location of this town in Roman times.
COCCIUM ?? Wigan, Lancs [ Iter X...Coccio]
COMBRETOVIUM Baylham House, Suffolk [ Iter IX...Combretonio ]
CONCANGIS Chester-le-Street, Durham
CONCAVATA Drumburgh, Cumbria
CONOVIUM ?? Caerhun, Gwynnedd [Iter XI...Conovio ]
CONDATE Northwich, Cheshire [ Iter II...Condate ]
CONDERCUM Benwell, Tyne & Wear
CORINIUM DOBUNNORUM Cirencester, Glos
CORIOSOPITUM Corbridge, Northumb [ Iter I..Corstopitum]
This very probably refers to Coveney (Cambridgeshire) deriving from cofa + eg, meaning in Old English “cove island” which is exactly how it was sited in prehistory. It is probably the same island referred to by Ptolemy in Roman times. He described an island on the edge of the territory of the tribe of the Trinovantes that was called “Covenna”. It is an important piece of evidence that English was being spoken long before the Anglo Saxons arrived.
CROCOCALANA Brough, Notts [ Iter VI...Crocalana ]
“A Germanic origin was debated at one time” (Rivet and Smith 328). Could this be Craster, Northumberland? “Old fort inhabited by crows” (Ekwall, 1960, 128) It would be in the correct sequence within the Ravenna Cosmography, except that Brocara near Irvine is placed before it on a northbound itinerary (but Brocara’s equivalence to Vindogara is an assumption: Rivet and Smith 1979, 209; 501)
CUNETIO Mildenhall, Wilts
This Roman town lies on the River Kennet in Wiltshire. The town name may well have developed from the river name, rather than vice versa. The first element may derive from cyne-, cene- “kingly, royal” (Smith 1956, 123); the second, et, a common OE noun suffix; the third, io, a Latin addition.
DANUM Doncaster, S Yorks [ Iter V...Dano ] Perhaps an adaptation of OE diern-ham ‘hidden ham’ or of OE dun ‘hill’, or derived from the River Dearne which Ekwall states probably derives from the same OE root and means ‘hidden stream’.
DELGOVICIA Millington E Yorks [ Iter I...Delgovicia ] The first element may be a Latinisation of OE dæl ‘valley’; the second a representation of a personal name such as that found in Gawthorpe YW.
DERVENTIO Malton, N Yorks [ Iter I...Derventione ]
DERVENTIO Littlechester, Derby
DERVENTIO Papcastle, Cumbria
Another good example of an English Place Name with a Latin interpretation. The traditional view would have us believe that the name must derive from Brittonic.
An OE derivation can be easily found in dēor ‘animal’ (Ekwall, 1960, 142) or ‘deer’ on a river called Wende (wende meaning “winding”); or dēor + went, which occurs in ME as “way, passage” (Ekwall, 1960, 506)
DEVA Chester, Cheshire [ Iter II...Deva ] An Latinisation of the Welsh river name Dee or Dewi.
DUNUM Hod Hill, Dorset
From OE dun ‘hill, down, mountain’
DURNOVARIA Dorchester, Dorset
Probably from “durn”, the name of a river or district, which may originate from OE dierne or derne, meaning “hidden”; and OE were or wær meaning a “dam” or “weir”. The “Durn” gave its name to the “chester” and to the county “Dorset”. One documentary reference indeed spells it “Dornwaraceaster” (864 BCS 510, cited in Ekwall 1960, 148)
DUROBRIVAE Water Newton, Cambs [ Iter V...Durobrivas]
DUROBRIVAE Rochester, Kent [ Iter II...Durobrivis ]
DUROCOBRIVIS Dunstable, Beds [ Iter II...Durocobrivis ]
DUROLEVUM ?? Sittingbourne, Kent [ Iter II...Durolevo ]
DUROLIPONTE Cambridge, Cambs [ Iter V...Duroliponte ]
DURILITUM ?? Romford, Essex [ Iter IX ...Durolito ]
From OE wlite “grace, comeliness, beauty’
DUROVERNUM Canterbury, Kent [ Iter II...Durolevo ]
DUROVIGUTUM Godmanchester, Cambs
EBURACUM York, N Yorks [ Iter I...Eburacum ] The traditional view, that this is a Latinisation of a British name, has found no easy derivation in British. Yet the OE for a boar, eofor occurs frequently in place-names, for example in Everly.
The closest Latin could come to represent the word would be Ebor (since “v” had the modern sound of a “w”; see above under Abona). The name is completed with “acum” – as are other names in Gaul.
Importantly, “a boar appears as the “canting badge” of the city on the Bordeaux inscription of AD 237”. (Rivet and Smith 1979, 357; see also EPNS, XIV, 275ff). The use of the boar as a symbol means that a Germanic derivation cannot be put down to popular etymology in the early medieval period. It is strong evidence that a Germanic language was being spoken by the native population of Britain before the Romans arrived.
This name may also derive from eofor, a boar; and the latin castellum “fort”.
Possibly a Latinisation of Witham, known in the medieval period as Widma or Withma (Ekwall 1960, 527). The ending suggests that there may have been an ending in OE ey “island”. The name might therefore have been “Withmaney”
EPEACUM Whitley Castle, Northumb yppe from OE “a raised place, a lookout place” (Ekwall, 1960, 167)
FANUMCOCIUM Bewcastle, Cumbria Possible from OE fearn ham ‘ham where ferns grow’ (as in Farnham: Ekwall 175) and OE cocc ‘hill’.
GABROSENTUM Moresby, Cumbria
GALAVA Ambleside, Cumbria [ Iter X...Galava ]
GARIANNUM Burgh Castle, Norfolk
GLANNOVENTA Ravenglass, Cumbria
GLEVUM Gloucester, Glos
This may derive from OE gleow, a sporting place, or from OE glēaw “wise” (Ekwall, 1960, 199)
GOBANNEUM Abergavenny, Gwent [ Iter XII...Gobannio ] A place-name derived from the ancestor of the Welsh language. Another case that shows that the letter'b' was used for 'v'. (See Abona and Eburacum)
HABITANCUM Risingham, Northumb ISCA Caerleon, Gwent
ISCA DUMNONIORUM Exeter, Devon
ISURIUM BRIGANTUM Aldborough, N Yorks [ Iter I,II...Isurium, Iter V...Isubrigantum ]
ISSANAVANTIA ?? [ Iter V...Issanavantia ]
IVERNIUM (Ravenna 106)
Rivet and Smith (1979, 381) is name as representing British Iyernio- “place on the Iyerno- ‘river’. However the name could alternatively be named from the OE “Iw” meaning “yew” (Ekwall, 1960, 268). There are a number of names similarly named after the yew tree, such as Ewhurst, Ewshott, Ifield, Iridge, Iwade, Iwode and Uley (Ekwall, 1960, 268). Apart from the Dorset Iwerne villages, there are no other cognates in Britain, named after the suggested British “river”. It seems likely that Ivernium is the nearest that Latin could come to the sound of Iwerne
LACTODURUM Towcester, Northants [ Iter II...Lactodoro ] While Rivet and Smith search for a derivation from Latin lacto, milk, for this town on the River Tove, this seems to be a latinisation OE lacu, “stream, water-course” and Tow, a variation of Tove which continued to give its name to the town as Towcester (Tow-chester).
According to Ekwall, the river-name Tove is derived from an adj. *tōf “slow, dilatory” cognate with Mdu toeven, MLG toven “to linger”.
Durum is, according to Rivet and Smith (1979, 346), an assumed British element denoting a fort (see Duro- names above). Alternatively it may be from OE duru “door” or even OE deor “deer. Dyrham, Gl would sound similar, and it is possible that Lactodurum was a “deer enclosure on the Tove stream”.
LAGENTIUM Castleford, W Yorks [ Iter V...Legeolio, Iter VIII...Lagecio ]
LAVATRIS Bowes, Durham [ Iter II...Lavatris, Iter V...Levatri ]
This may derive from OE hlaw “hill”
LAUNA Learchild, Northumb
This may derive from OE hlaw “hill”
LEMANIS, Lympne, Kent [ Iter IV...Portum Lemanis ] Although attributed to a British derivation, this is probably from lind, often rendered lim, meaning lime tree. The last elements may be a Latinisation of ey “island”. The name adapted to Latin may have been “Limney”, an island with lime trees, but so too may be Lindsey.
LETOCETUM Wall, Staffs [ Iter II...Etoceto ]
LEUCARUM Loughor, W Glam [ Iter XII...Leucaro ] From OE hlæw “hill”
LEUCOMAGUS East Anton, Hants Luca is an OE personal name found in places called Luckington in So, W, and YE (Ekwall 1960, 302, 306). Magus may be a Latinisation of the OE adjective maga ‘powerful, strong’.
LEVOBRINTA Forden Gear, Powys
LINDINIS Ilchester, Somerset Derived from OE lind lime tree. Is there a hint of “ey” island here? – a latinisation of a name such as “Lindney”?
LINDUM Lincoln, Lincs [ Iter V...Lindo ]
Simply derived from OE lind “lime-tree”
LONDINIUM London, Gtr London [ Iter II...Londinio ]
Perhaps named after lang + dun "long hill"
LONGOVECIUM Lanchester, Durham OE lang + wic – though this would condradict the view that Wic is a loan word from the Latin vicus. Perhaps OE wice – wych elm, or OE wic, “dairy-farm (Ekwall 1960, 516)
LUENTINUM Pumsaint, Dyfed
LUGUVALIUM Carlisle, Cumbria [ Iter II...Luguvallo, Iter V...Luguvalio ]
MAGIOVINIUM Dropshort, Bucks [Iter II...Magiovinto, Iter VIII...Magiovino ]
MAGIS Burrow Walls, Cumbria
MAGLONA Old Carlisle, Cumbria
MAGNIS Kenchester, Notts [ Iter XII...Magnis ]
MAGNIS Carvoran, Northumb
MAIA Bowness-on-Solway, Cumbria
MAMUCIUM Manchester, Gtr Manchester [ Iter II...Mamucio, Ier X...Mancunio ]
The derivation of this is attributed by Rivet and Smith (1979, 409-410) and Ekwall (1960, 312) to Irish and Scottish “Mamm” “breast”. Ekwall states that the element Mam- is found in several hill-names, such as Mamhead D, Mam Tor Db, and Mansfield Nt,
MANDUESSEDUM Mancetter, Warwicks [ Iter II...Manduesedo ]
MARGIDUNUM Castle Hill, Notts [ Iter VI...Margiduno ] Probably from OE gemaere gaet dun ‘boundary road hill’ or mere gaet dun ‘mere road hill’. The latter seems more likely as there may have been a mere here.
MEDIOBOGDUM Hardknott, Cumbria
MEDIOLANUM Whitchurch, Shrops [ Iter II...Mediolano ]
MORIDUNUM Carmarthen, Dyfed
MORIDUNUM Seaton, Devon ?? NAVIO Brough, Derby
NIDUM Neath, W Glam [ Iter XII....Nido ]
NOVIOMAGVS REGNORUM Chichester, W Sussex
NOVIOMAGVS Crayford, Gtr London [Iter II...Noviomago ]
OLENACUM Elslack, N Yorks
ONNUM Halton, Northumb
OTHONA Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex
PENNOCRUCIUM Water Eaton, Staffs [Iter II..Pennocrucio ]
A simple latinisation of Penkridge, OE pennuc “a small pen” or OE penn “a small enclosure, a fold” plus OE hrycg “ridge”. (Smith 1956, 61-62, 267). Crucium would have been pronounced with a ch sound, close to the dg of ridge.
PETVAREA Brough on Humber, Humbs [ Iter I...Prateorio ]
PONS AELIUS Newcastle, Tyne& Wear
PONTES Staines, Surrey [ Iter VII...Pontibus ]
PORTUS ARDAONI Portchester, Hants
PORTUS DUBRIS Dover, Kent [ Iter II...portum Dubris ]
PORTUS LEMANIS Lympne, Kent
RATAE Leicester, Leics [ Iter VI...Ratas ]
This name may derive from wrecca “outlaw” (Ekwall 1960, 538). This late pre-Roman territory seceded from the larger territory of the Atrebates
REGODUNUM Castleshaw, Gtr Manchester
REGULBIUM Reculver, Kent
RUTUNIO ?? [ Iter II..Rutunio ]
RUTUPIAE Richborough, Kent [ Iter II...Ritupis ]
SALINAE Droitwich, H'ford & Worcs
SALINAE Middlewich, Cheshire
SEGEDUNUM Wallsend, Tyne & Wear From OE secg ‘sedge’ and the common Latin suffix dunum based on the OE dun.
SEGELOCUM Littleborough, Notts [ Iter V...Segeloci ]
There is a clear potential OE derivation in the words for ‘sedge, a reed, a rush’ secg (Smith, 1956b,117) and loc or loca, an enclosure or, as in Essex ‘a lock, a river-barrier’ (Smith 1956b, 25-6). A weir retaining a pool with sedge growing around it is highly possible for this area of the Trent.
SEGONTIUM Caernarfon, Gwynedd
SITOMAGUS ?? [ Iter IX...Sitomago ]
SORVIODUNUM Old Sarum, Wilts OE salh or salig ‘willow’ (Smith 1956b, 96)
SULLONIACIS Brockley Hill, Gtr London [Iter II...Sulloniacis ]
TRIMONTIUM Newstead, Borders
Perhaps from OE treownes ‘object of trust’ and OE bannend ‘proclaimer’
TRIPONTIUM Cave's Inn, Warwicks [Iter VI...Tripontio ]
UXACONA Redhill, Shrops [ Iter II...Uxacona ]
UXELODUNUM Stanwix, Cumbria
VAGNIACIS Springhead, Kent [ Iter I...Vagniacis ] wagen OE “quaking bog” was suggested by Ekwall (1928, ), though it may also derive from wægn “wagon” or from a reference to waves or the motion of the sea.
VARIS St. Asaph, Clwyd [ Iter XI...Varis ]
This element is found on the inscriptions on lead pigs from the Charterhouse lead mines of Somerset. A large Roman villa was found at a meadow called Great Wemberham, Yatton in the early 20th century. I wonder if this might be the place referred to in the lead pig inscriptions by “VEB”. “Great” might even refer to a gravel area (see Ekwall for “great”). One part of the site was interpreted as a dock on the river. Rippon refers to the possible later sale of the Lead Mines at Charterhouse to private entrepreneurs. Could this villa be the home of one such entrepreneur, or was it the official residence of the government’s administrator (or both?)?
The Isle of Wight is conventionally seen as derived from the Latin Vectis but the latter might equally be derived from an OE word that Smith states only occurs in place-names but has some topographical application such as ‘a curving recess, a bend in a river or valley’ (Smith 1956, 265). It may refer to a fork in a river.
It is interesting that this island does not contain the eg element, suggesting that the use of this element predates the separation of the Isle of Wight from the mainland.