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place names

  As objects of philological study, the names of settlements, localities, fields, and landscape features (both natural and cultural), may provide evidence of environmental, settlement, and social conditions at the time the name was coined. This is possible because many place names are composed of elements which have topographic, habitative or social meanings, and they can be approximately dated. Obviously, the utility of place names is limited mainly to periods at which names were being coined, and varies with the volume of other sources of information.

In western Europe, thousands of surviving place names were coined in pre- or early-medieval periods which are otherwise very poorly documented. For these periods, syntheses of evidence on place names and their distribution with palaeo-environmental work underlie important work on the geography of settlements (e.g. Cameron, 1975); on woodland clearance and expanding agriculture (e.g. Hooke, 1989); on territorial organization (e.g. Fellows-Jensen, 1985); and on inter-settlement relations (e.g. Jones, 1990).

Geographical analysis of place names faces four main problems. First, the earliest recording of a name may occur several centuries after its coining, and place names were subject to prevailing linguistic transformations and developments (Fellows-Jensen, 1990). For example, many English place names are first recorded in the Domesday Book, but may have been coined as early as the sixth century (Cox, 1975): their original form, the identification of their elements, and hence their meaning, all have to be inferred from their later forms and known patterns of linguistic change. Secondly, the interpretation of particular elements is disputed or uncertain. For example, it is often difficult to distinguish the habitative term \'ham\' from the topographic term \'hamm\', yet they have different implications. Thirdly, in dating the original coining of a place name, it may be important to know whether the feature of landscape or society to which the name relates is a long-run or an ephemeral one, the former being in general much more informative than the latter. Lastly, the name may not originally have been that of the settlement, field or feature which now bears it. The phenomenon of the mobile village in the Dark Ages is now widely recognized (Taylor, 1983, 1989), and if mobile settlements retained their previous name, they may no longer be located at the place to which they refer, a particular problem when dealing with topographic elements.

In areas settled much later, naming evidence relating to dominant cultural groups is much more accessible, and analysis centres on the cultural context and symbolism of naming. Particular attention has been paid to colonial contexts, where indigenous names have been lost with the deaths of native populations, or deliberately suppressed. Re-naming, along with new cartography, formed part of European appropriations of native peoples\' lands and contributed to European portrayals of such land as \'empty\' (Harley, 1988), a reminder of the political nature of naming places. (PDG)

References Cameron, K., ed., 1975: Place-name evidence for the Anglo-Saxon invasion and Scandinavian settlements. Nottingham: English Place Names Society. Cox, B. 1975: The place-names of the earliest English records. Journal of the English Place-Names Society 8: 12-66. Fellows-Jensen, G. 1985: Scandinavian settlement in England: the place-name evidence. In H. Bekker-Nielsen and H. Frede-Nielsen, eds, Vikingesymposium, Odense Universitet 1982. Odense. Fellows-Jensen, G. 1990: Placenames as a reflection of cultural interaction. Anglo-Saxon England 19: 13-21. Gelling, M. 1988: Towards a chronology for English place-names. In D. Hooke, ed., Anglo-Saxon settlements. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Harley, J.B. 1988: Silences and secrecy: the hidden agenda of cartography in early modern Europe. Imago Mundi 40: 111-30. Hooke, D. 1989: Pre-conquest woodland: its distribution and usage. Agricultural History Review 37: 113-29. Jones, G.R.J. 1990: Celts, Saxons and Scandinavians. In R.A. Dodgshon and R.A. Butlin, eds, An historical geography of England and Wales, 2nd edn. London: Academic Press, 45-68. Taylor, C.C. 1983: Village and landscape: a history of rural settlement in England. London: George Philip & Son. Taylor, C.C. 1989: Whittlesford: the study of a river-edge village. In M. Aston et al., eds, The rural settlements of medieval England: studies dedicated to Maurice Beresford and John Hurst. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 207-27.

Suggested Reading Gelling, M. 1997: Place-names in the landscape, 3rd edn. London: Dent.



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