Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Beautiful place names in the northern seas

I was away from home for a while, and restricted to using mobile devices. I find it rather aggravating to write a blog post of any substantial nature using the mobiles. Back at home again, I can now conveniently share with you a great entry in a blog goes back to my early days of reading blogs, Strange Maps

The maps show the very peculiar place names of the two island groups north of Scotland, Shetland and Orkney. Frank Jacobs, the maintainer and compiler of Strange Maps, says much of what anyone might say about these wonderful names, but he does not address something that I would like to know. How is it that all of these names seem to be English, even if it's a rather peculiar kind of English? When exactly did people in these islands stop speaking some Norse dialect and not only take up English but Anglicize the whole landscape? Of course you could say that the language language of the map is Scots, but then the same question applies with a very minor change in terminology. At what point in Shetland history did somebody look at that rather centrally located site and decide that it was now going to be called Pund of Grutin? If that doesn't mean a pound of something or other, it does a good job of faking it. And what, oh what, was it called before?


  1. More than 90% of the toponyms in Shetland and Orkney are derived from the Norn language, which is a variety of Old West Norse. In many cases, the modern spelling is the result of 18th-century record-keepers from the outside attempting to make the names look more acceptable, and the pronunciation by the locals reveals the Norn connection much more clearly. Names ending in a, ay or ey derive from øy (OWN "Island"). Common name elements of Norn origin include: wick, firth, fin, finn, voe, waas, voe, stack, skerry, ness, taing, geo, ayre, houb, breck, lea, hamar, dale, wart, ward, bo, bister, sta, ster, garth, gord, vatn, shun, burra, burgh, burgi, brough, kleber, and of course ting. If many names of Norn origin appear to be English, it's because most English speakers are unaware of the huge Norse influence on English. Such elements often appear in Northern England, East Anglia and Scotland, where they have long ago lost their Norse "sound" to the ear and mind. In Shetland and Orkney, the local pronunciation of the names would make them quite recognizable to a visitor from the Faeroes, and even to a Norwegian. Remember that the Anglo-Saxons and Danes could understand each other in Alfred's time, without too much difficulty.

  2. The names selected by Frank Jacobs are not, for the most part, very prominent on a normal map of Shetland. He has picked the ones that seem comical to him, which tend to be the ones that are most English in appearance, since those yield comic images to an English reader, while, say a typical Shetland name like "Trondavoe" does not. If you look at a proper map of Shetland, you will see that the Norse elements I listed predominate.