Viking vocabulary in English place-names

Sign on the Barnston Road, Wirral. By Phil Nash Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0 

The study in a sentence

We can use place-names as a way to investigate historical language variation and change in English, because they preserve snippets of older forms of the language. We can decipher their meanings because they started out as real descriptions of natural and man-made features of the landscape. 

Place-names derived from words in the Old Norse language can serve as as a guide to areas of Scandinavian settlement in the UK. There is a difference between major place-names (for settlements that became towns and cities) and minor place-names (for local places such as fields), however. 

This case study looks at place-names on the Wirral and shows that not all Scandinavian-derived vocabulary in minor place-names can be directly linked to Scandinavian settlement in that area. Some of the minor place-names in the Wirral are due to geographical diffusion from other areas. 

Dodgson, J. M. (1957). The background of Brunanburh. Saga-Book of the Viking Society, 14, 303–16 (p. 306)

The question

Major place-names, historical sources and archaeological evidence all permit identification of areas of Viking-Age Scandinavian settlement, as shown on this map of place-names on the Wirral.  

Some people claim that the minor place-names on the Wirral are also of Old Norse origin,  and take this as evidence of large-scale Viking occupation of the area: 

“we are dealing with an alien population of mass-migration proportions and not with a few military conquerors who usurped the choicest sites." 

Wainwright, F.T. (1942). North-West Mercia. Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire 94, 3-55. 

This study asks whether that historical claim is plausible, based on the linguistic evidence. 

Minor place-names on the Wirral may have come to be that way because the words spread from other parts of the country where Viking influence was greater - through a process of geographical diffusion - rather than because the Vikings themselves were on the Wirral in large numbers. 

Key concept

Language change takes different forms. Paul Kerswill draws a distinction between: i) geographical diffusion, where a linguistic feature (a sound or word) spreads gradually from one place to another because speakers are in direct contact with people who use the new feature; and ii) dialect levelling, where a new feature is adopted by most speakers across an area, who drop their own local way of saying things in favour of the new way. In both cases, there is ultimately a change to the dialect itself. 

Can all the minor place-names in the Wirral be directly linked to Scandinavian settlement?

Field-names from Rendlesham, Suffolk in 1798Names from Suffolk Record Office, HD427_3. Map uses Ordnance Survey (GB) 1:25 000 Scale Colour Raster [TIFF geospatial data], scale 1:25000, tile tm35; accessed EDINA Digimap Ordnance Survey Service (  14 July 2016).

Methods: putting the focus on field-names

Why look at minor place-names as well as major place-names?

'Minor names' are names of places smaller than settlements (e.g.  fields, streets, landscape features).

Minor place-names were recorded in great numbers from the 12th/13th century on. These records are a rich source of data to investigate lexical variation in  medieval and modern dialects of English. 

Minor place-names are probably easier (thus more likely) to change, so these names are a good place to look for possible evidence of geographical diffusion from varieties of English spoken elsewhere. 

Figure 1: Ratio of minor place-names of Old English (OE) or Old Norse (ON) origin

The Answer (1)

This study counted words of Old English (OE) or Old Norse (ON) origin in a list of 584 pre-1500 minor place-names in Wirral (excluding any cases where the OE and ON words are too similar for us to work out which is which (e.g. OE land and ON land). 

The results (Figure 1) show a lower proportion of words of Old Norse origin in Wirral than in other places, where Viking influence is stronger (e.g. Lincolnshire).  What’s more, looking at some of this vocabulary in detail reveals that some of Norse-derived vocabulary in Wirral might not have a direct link to Scandinavian settlement in the area.

Words like Middle English holm(e), ‘island, raised ground in marsh, water-meadow’ (borrowed from ON holmr) were in widespread use in other areas of Cheshire in the same period. As can be seen when names in Cheshire containing this word are mapped (see Figure 3 below), this word was not only used in Wirral -- it was used by speakers across Cheshire. 

We don’t think there was any Scandinavian settlement in most other areas of Cheshire, so why were speakers in these other areas using holm(e)?

From Rye, E. 2016: Dialect in the Viking-age Scandinavian Diaspora: the Evidence of Medieval Minor Names. Doctoral thesis. University of Nottingham. [p349]
Figure 2: Spread of [f] for /θ/ and [v] for /ð/ over time in urban British varieties. 

An analogy with contemporary language change

We can compare this to modern day spread of a feature such as th-fronting, in which a word containing the 'th' sound [θ] such as 'think' is pronounced with [f], as in 'fink'. 

The th-fronting feature (Figure 2) was first observed in dialects of London but has now spread to many varieties of English. The dates on the map are the average year of birth of groups of people who were observed to use th-fronting in a systematic way.  

The th-fronting feature spread from south to north, and from east to west, over time. It reaches larger cities first, slowly and thus most likely by geographical diffusion, then spreads rapidly within the surrounding region, most likely through dialect levelling.

The figure is from: Kerswill, P. (2003). Dialect levelling and geographical diffusion in British English. In David Britain and Jenny Cheshire (eds) Social Dialectology: In Honour of Peter Trudgill (pp. 223-243). Amsterdam: John Benjamins. pdf
Figure 3: Cheshire place-names with ON holmr ‘island, raised ground in marsh, water-meadow’. 
Map data: 1851 County outlines for England and Wales accessed through the UK Data Service with the support of the ESRC and using Kain and Oliver historic boundary material which is copyright of the AHDS History  [University of Essex], Humphrey Southall, Nick Burton and the University of Portsmouth.

The Answer (2)

Returning to place-names, holm(e) similarly spread across Cheshire by geographical diffusion from areas where there was contact between English and Norse speakers. The use of holm(e) in Wirral could also be explained by geographical diffusion. This means we can’t be sure its use in Wirral is the result of Scandinavian settlement there. 

There are some Norse-derived words in Wirral place-names which could be explained by contacts between Norse and English-speakers in the area – for example ON strengr ‘watercourse’, a word which is rare in place-names. 

Comparing ON strengr and ON holmr we can see that Norse-derived words in English place-names can have different histories. ON strengr might be a distinctively local word borrowed from Vikings in Wirral (or even used by them in coining a place-name). ON holmr, on the other hand, diffused beyond areas of Viking settlement, so we can’t safely link it with Scandinavian settlement in Wirral.  

This paper argues that we need to be aware of different routes a word might take into an area’s dialect  - in this case, when investigating Norse-derived words in place-names from Wirral.

Classroom activities

Lead in + extension task

An etymological detective work task using field-names on modern maps as evidence for Viking influence

Glossary of place-name etymology and origins

Use this glossary to help with the etymological detective work task

In more detail

A longer explanation of the research study

Eleanor's slides from the 2019 workshop

See also Eleanor's article:

"What can linguistics tell us about the Vikings in England?

Meet the author

Eleanor Rye 

Eleanor teaches modules on the History of English, Middle English in Context and a final year option module on English Place-names.

Read the paper

Rye, E. 2016: Dialect in the Viking-age Scandinavian Diaspora: the Evidence of Medieval Minor Names. Doctoral thesis. University of Nottingham. [p349] pdf