Conference – Finished!

I was supposed to get two blog posts up today. Maybe that’ll happen tomorrow?? I’ve got another trip planned tomorrow! I’ve spent several hours today getting sidetracked by reading about cross-channel interaction in the Anglo-Saxon period, as best I can given all the paywalls anyway. Does anyone have any references for Anglo-Saxon place-names in coastal France??


Surnames of the South Midlands by Patrick Hanks

My notes are very fragmented for this one. For example, I have “Norman French Dictionary” written in its own little box at the side. I have no idea how it’s relevant to the talk. Without a URL, I don’t even know if this one is actually “correct”. If there’s one lesson I’ve learn from this conference, it’s to take better notes!

There were a few points on how surname studies is a different beast to place-name studies, as place-names don’t tend to randomly disappear or change form. (Cue at least five people in the audience yelling their disagreement with that!)

In surname studies you are generalising across large volumes of unstable data. For example, numbers of surnames in an area suddenly changing cannot be trusted because the boundary of that area could have changed, not the number of surnames, but it was the number of surnames which was recorded.

Next we have two particularly impressive cases of “this name isn’t what it looks like”. It’s really important to remember that names change through time, and these are a great example of why you should go to the oldest source possible and never, ever assume an origin even when it looks obvious.

Painting: one of the surnames most associated with Oxford! It could be Painter, the occupation! Or Paignton, a nearby place-name. Nope! It’s probably come from the place-name Pennington.

Eighteen, a surname from Berkshire. Surprisingly, not the number. This is probably a strange alteration of Eaton.

There are places called Eaton near me – probably near you  too, if you live near a river! In my case it’s made up of Old English ea, meaning river, and that -tun element I talked about earlier. My Dictionary of British Place Names says that the other possible origin for Eaton is Old English eg. This means island, but can also be used for dry ground in a marsh. Locally I have Ramsey as an example, which has eg as a second element and very clearly this meant raised dry ground in marsh.


Locative surnames in Oxfordshire by Paul Cullen

This was basically just a long list of surnames and when and where they were first found, or at least that’s all I took from it sadly. I mean, I could list them all? but there are eighteen and that would be a long and pointless list. The thing that amused me was that out of those 18 names, 5 of the first names in the earliest occurrences were “William”. I need to read more into post-Conquest naming. I swear everyone is called William.

Next up, three talks on Irish names. Since I don’t know any Irish I’m sad to say I didn’t pay too much attention to these, because I was rather lost at sea. 😦

Family Names in Downland Name: Ulster examples by Kay Muhr

My notes: Ireland was controlled by many small ruling families. Sometimes family names transfer to place-names and stay there even after the family name has disappeared.

The O’ type of Irish surname has been around since the 900s! Mac has been around in documents from about 1000-1100.

Conference abstract: Land in first-millennium Ireland was divided into small named administrative units of c.300 acres. The system has been preserved to the present under the English descriptor ‘townlands’, and the townland names mostly reach us in anglicised form. Approximately 10% of townlands have what might be regarded as ownership names, containing the genitive case of either a personal name or, after they had come into being, a surname. Ireland had a rich tradition of personal names, and Irish surnames are almost always relationship names, asserting descent from a named ancestor; beginning late in the 1st millennium by prefixing Ó, literally ‘grandson’, then alternatively from early in the second millennium by prefixing Mac, literally ‘son’. The survival of Mac (genitive Mic) in a townland name is usually a good guide to the presence of a mac-surname, but unfortunately Ó (genitive Uí) is often elided with the personal name following. Establishing the presence of a surname, and distinguishing surnames from personal names, both need evidence from historical spellings. Parallel research on FaNBI has been invaluable. The surnames attested can then provide more information on the origin of this type of townland name.

The next presentation was delivered entirely by speech with no visual aids at all, and let me just tell you, that is not how you hold people’s concentration at 20:00. We were given handouts for the talk and I can put them up here if people want, there’s quite a cool poem on global geography which was obviously used for memorisation, but other than that I’m just going to put the abstract information here:

Dagmar Wodtko (University of Cambridge): Foreign names in medieval Irish

Names of settlements, locations, rivers, countries and peoples outside the British Isles were adopted into medieval Irish writing at various times and in various contexts. They reflect a historical and geographical conception of the world into which Irish literature integrated itself. The direct sources of such names are usually Latin, whether they come from Christian writings, secular scholarly works or adaptions of Latin narratives. Some such names continue to be used in their Latin form at least in the written language, others remain of quite limited occurrence; but a number of names were more or less adapted to Irish morphology and thus become a specific subset of loan-words. This paper will look at methods of Gaelicising foreign names in relation to their Irish morphology and examine the distribution of various formations with regard to the role the name plays within medieval Irish literature and learning.

Ok, the penultimate talk was:

Meitheal Crowd-sourcing minor place-names by Justin Ó Gliasáin

This was pretty interesting actually – it was a presentation on a website for minor place-names. (minor place-names being fields, streets, rivers, etc) Instead of simply being a repository for already gathered information, however, this was  like a place-names wiki! It allowed people to submit a name for a place online.

Its name is an offshoot of its “parent” site,, which calls itself the place-names database of Ireland. Meitheal apparently means “working party” and is a reference to how this information could only be gathered through cooperation. Part of the impetus behind setting up the site was that people are getting less and less aware of the names around them, as they move to different places from their hometowns or don’t speak Irish anymore. Justin said something like: “The more disconnected from the landscape people are, the fewer minor names they know.” So this was an attempt to document that knowledge before it disappears.

They’ve had a few problems with anonymous users and numbers of submissions, and especially with names lacking any sort of source. Apparently, though, and surprisingly, they haven’t had any trolls submitting swearwords or anything like that, which is great!

A couple of improvements they are making or would love to make are:

  • somehow getting people to submit audio recordings or phonetic spellings, since right now most of the pronunciations of the submitted names are unknown;
  • getting people to submit photographs
  • setting up GPS location so that people can name, for example, the field they are standing in right now.


Pre-Roman Languages in East Anglia by Daphne Nash Briggs

I perked up for this talk, not only because it looked interesting in the abstract, but because I had heard the man next to me pooh-pooh the topic earlier. It was certainly a bit controversial, but I really enjoyed her presentation even though it was 21:00, and will definitely be checking her out on like she suggested. (Once I’ve ploughed my way through everything Cecily Clark has ever written though. That could take a while.)

Basically, she said that the Iceni of East Anglia (yes, Boudicca) had a distinct “home-grown” culture which had links to other North Sea cultures. Her proof (and area of expertise I think) was in coinage. The language used on coins tends to show the language spoken by that society’s elite. This goes doubly so for the Iceni, since they were phenomenally resistant to adopting Roman customs like other tribes did. They didn’t even use Roman coinage: they just took Latin and used it for their own coins.

These coins weren’t used to pay for things as you would expect, but apparently were either buried as sacrifices, immediately recycled, or were used to pay for wrong-doings. (Presumably this would have been in lieu of the typical blood feud issue which so many societies had to find ways to deal with – Anglo-Saxons and Vikings included.)

But the language that Daphne was interested in wasn’t Latin. It wasn’t Celtic. There was a difference language on some coins, and she admitted that when she had first looked at these coins she had agreed with the prevailing opinion that these were just misspellings and errors. Looking at them more closely, she discovered that in fact these coins had the West Germanic language on them (This is the branch of Germanic from which we’d get Old English eventually). The only example I have written down is “Ecen” for oak.

So she stated that these coins showed that there were links and multilingualism going on across the North Sea. She had one or two critical questions at the end of her presentation, of which the only one that I can remember is someone saying that her coin words didn’t fit with the accepted West Germanic phonology (sound systems). Nonetheless, I liked her theory and will definitely be reading her free papers.

Thanks for sticking with me guys, this recap is now done! Hopefully tomorrow I will have some more photographs of old things to show you!


Conference – Finished!

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