Imaginative – and less so …

Why do people choose the place-names they do? Well, human beings are incredibly imaginative creatures. Let us take places in a landscape as an example. Landscapes come in different forms, colors and shapes. Some of these forms are very easy to associate with something well-known, for instance a body-part: hills likened to breasts (cf. the Science Sunday Answers on this web page).

7. Paps of Jura by mike donnelly PAINT

The Paps of Jura are named collectively from their rounded shape. As with many other hills, they are likened to breasts, known in Scots as paps.

Forms and shapes might not always be as clear as in the hill-breast case but this is no obstacle to human imagination, on the contrary: parts of the landscape that somehow stand out, shaped by wind and rain, are easily transformed into and conceptualized as specific objects from human life or even protagonists in stories or events, for instance a shepherd’s hat or a sleeping warrior (cf. again the Science Sunday Answers):

6a. Shepherd's Hat by Mark MacQueen PAINT

6b. Shepherd's Hat (Antiquary)

Shepherd’s Hat, an island in the Sound of Mull, is named from the shape of a traditional shepherd’s hat, as seen in the illustration below, which was taken from Walter Scott’s “The Antiquary” (drawing by J. B. MacDonald; etching by T. J. Dagleish).

3. The Sleeping Warrior by Michael Hambly PAINT

The Sleeping Warrior, part of the north Arran hill range, is named from a resemblance to a resting human figure.

Sometimes, however, people choose another strategy that might seem less imaginative when they want to refer to and talk about places in their surroundings. People can distinguish between places, typically (parts of) farms, villages or parishes, simply by adding a characterising element like one of the cardinal directions or Upper – Lower, Outer – Inner, as in for instance Nørre (Northern) Skjoldborg  – Sønder (Southern) Skjoldborg or Yder (Outer) BjerrumInder (Inner) Bjerrum. These examples are all Danish but are also well-known in other languages, including English and Scots.

This is not a surprise, really. The characterising elements are all basic parts of spatial language, and used over and over again in everyday speech by everyone. They can easily be brought to use when we wish to distinguish between places, for instance the northern part of a place or the more remote (outer) part of a place. But there is probably a more close connection: the use of basic elements from spatial language is more specifically motivated. It is quite possible that these affixes were chosen as part of the place-names because the places, or the areas in which the places were situated, were already being referred to conventionally by a whole speech community using exactly these elements from spatial language. Sentences like we are going out to the lighthouse or Tom is living down South (i.e. in the southern end of the village) are very frequent in Danish. When a whole speech community agrees upon combining ‘out’ with the lighthouse, and ‘down South’ with the part of the village where Tom is living, the lighthouse is established as belonging to an ‘out-place’ and Tom is identified (among other things!) as someone living in a ‘down-South-place’ – it becomes part of common knowledge in the speech community. Specific parts of the local surroundings are given different colours. This has been shown in an investigation of the references made by the inhabitants of a small dialect-speaking community in Denmark. The figure below shows how the inhabitants agreed upon how to refer to specific places or areas in their local landscape: ud ‘out’, over ‘over’, op ‘up’ and ned ‘down’ were used systematically and consistently with these areas or places.


When people colour their surrounding landscape in this way, they have certainly paved the way for using the same spatial elements as characterising affixes in place-names. A less imaginative strategy than transforming shapes into hats or warriors – but certainly a very efficient one.

Post by Henrik Hovmark

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