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The Landscape of Place-Names

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Many place-names derive from prominent features of the local landscape. We can thus discover much about olden-day words for hills, lakes, and forests by studying the names of present-day villages and towns. In The Landscape of Place-Names, Margaret Gelling and Ann Cole present a wealth of information on the role of the landscape in creating names for places, and what place-names can tell us about topographical words.

The majority of English place names are compounds of two elements; the first is often a qualifier naming some aspect of the local landscape, while the second is frequently a generic settlement name, although many other arrangements are possible. We thus have names like Langham, Clevedon, and Burnham.

This study examines such landscape-related elements of English place names and their roots in Old English, Old Norse, Middle English, and so on. In earlier varieties of English subtle distinctions were often possible that would not be using the limited present-day topographical vocabulary. By examining the detail of the English landscape in relation to settlement-names, Gelling and Cole determine, for example, that the many Old English words for hill are not strictly synonyms. The form dun refers to a broad, low hill with an extensive summit, and beorg was used for hills with a continuously rounded profile, while hyll is different again:

It appears to be used for hills which do not have the clearly defined characteristics of those called beorg or dun. There are no occurrences of hyll in names recorded by c.730, and it may, on the whole, belong to the later stages of Old English name-formation, perhaps coming into more frequent use as the precision of the earliest topographical vocabulary weakened.

All types of landscape feature are covered in great detail. The book is divided into seven chapters, each dealing with a particular subcategory of topographical features:

  • Rivers and Springs, Ponds and Lakes;
  • Marsh, Moor, and Floodplain;
  • Roads and Tracks: River Crossings and Landing Places;
  • Valleys, Hollows and Remote Places;
  • Hills, Slopes and Ridges;
  • Woods and Clearings;
  • Ploughland, Meadow and Pasture.

Each chapter follows the same format, approaching the topic in such a way as to make reference quick and simple. All seven have clearly been thoroughly researched with outstanding attention to detail, and the reader will not be surprised to learn that the authors have been working in this field for over two decades.

Gelling and Cole's pioneering study is essentially a rewrite of a previous work by Gelling entitled Place Names in the Landscape. The present book is far more than merely an updated edition, however. Very little of the text of the previous publication remains verbatim, and much has been added, including 68 black and white illustrations and maps. Indeed, you would be well-advised to read this work with a copy of the other to hand, for references are frequently made to it.

Gelling is a widely published academic who received the OBE in 1995 and became a senior fellow of the British Academy three years later. Cole, to whom the book's illustrations are due, is a geographer and an expert on the relationship between place-names and topology.

A 28-page appendix written by Cole presents a case study of place-names in The Chilterns. There is also a comprehensive index and bibliography, which will prove useful to etymologists, linguists, geographers, and local historians carrying out research.

Although The Landscape of Place-Names is clearly an academic work, its readable style and non-technical approach make it accessible to anyone interested in the subject, as well as undergraduates, graduates, and academics.

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