When the Saxon invaders came to this country in the fifth and sixth centuries they brought with them their own language. Although they did not kill all the native Britons they did almost destroy their language and replaced the native 'Celtic' language with their own 'Germanic' tongue. With the new language, of course, came new place names, many of which survive to the present day. The existing settlements were not destroyed, but the Saxons found the names difficult to pronounce, so they renamed them in their own language.
Many new settlements were founded too, and these of course had Saxon names. The commonest Saxon place names are those ending in -ton or -ham. These two words are derived from the Old English (O.E.) words Tun, meaning fenced area or enclosure, and Ham, meaning village, estate or home (or sometimes the O.E. word Hamm, meaning meadow). Often these were joined with the name of the person who founded the settlement, or an important person who lived there, such as Ceatta's Ham (Chatham) - the home of 'Ceatta '. Other times the name described some feature of the area, such as Brom Tun (Brompton) -'the enclosure where broom grew'. These are not the only Saxon place name elements to survive today, there are literally hundreds. Some of the other more common ones are - wick or - wich from O.E. wic meaning dwelling or village, e.g. Sandwich - 'The village on sandy soil'; -worth, the O.E. word for homestead, e.g. Mereworth - 'Meara's homestead'; -den from the O.E. denn meaning pasture, e.g. Marden - 'the mares pasture'; -hurst from the O.E. word hyrst meaning wooded hill, e.g. Staplehurst - 'the wooded hill where posts were got'; -ness from the O.E. næss meaning headland, e.g. Sheerness - 'bright headland'; -bridge from the O.E. brycg meaning bridge, e.g. Tonbridge - 'Tunna's bridge'; -ford the O.E. word for a river ford, e.g. Aylesford - 'the Angles ford'; -stow the O.E. word for an inhabited place, e.g. Halstow - 'holy place'; -burton or -bury from the O.E. burh meaning fort, e.g. Canterbury - 'the fort of the Kentish people'; Sutton from the O.E. Suth Tun meaning southern enclosure, e.g. Sutton Valence (the Valence part is a post conquest addition to the name); -bourne /-burn from the O.E. burna meaning stream; -cot from the O.E. cot meaning small hut or cottage; -ley from the O.E. leah meaning clearing; -mere from the O.E mere meaning a pool or lake; -moor from the O.E. word mor meaning a moor; -stoc /-stock from the O.E. stoc meaning hamlet or stocc meaning stump; -dene /-dun from the O.E. dun meaning hill; Wickham from the O.E. wic-ham meaning a Romano-British village; and many more besides (the Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names lists almost 400 common place name elements of Anglo-Saxon origin.)
Some places were named after the gods and goddesses of the pagan Anglo-Saxons. The place-name elements Thun, Thunder, Thunor, Thunres, Thur, Thures and Tus come from the name of Thunor, the thunder god; Tig, Tis, Tyes and Tys come from the name of Tig, a god of battles; Wednes, Wodnes and Woodnes come from the name of Woden, a war god; Easter comes from the name of Eostre, the goddess of fertility; there are probably many other places that were named after local gods and goddesses whose name we do not even know.
As can be seen from this small selection of name elements, the Saxon invasion saw the founding and re-naming of thousands of settlements, especially in southern Britain.
It was not just place names that changed however, the whole language of England changed (even the name England comes from the Germanic language and means 'Land of the Angles'). The Saxons called the native Britons wealas (which meant foreigner or slave.....) and it is from this word we get the modern word Welsh.
The names of the days of the week are also Anglo-Saxon in origin: Monandæg (the day of the moon), Tiwesdæg (the day of the god Tiw or Tig), Wodnesdæg (the day of the god Woden), Ðunresdæg (the day of the god Ðunor or Thunor), Frigedæg (the day of the goddess Friga), Sæternesdæg (the day of the Roman god Saturn), Sunnandæg (the day of the sun). Several of our modern festivals have an Old English name, for example Easter gets its name from the pagan Saxon goddess Eostre, whose festival was in April, and Yule, from the pagan midwinter celebration of Geol (pronounced 'yule').
Of the hundred or so key words which make up about half of our everyday speech, most are Old English. Some are even spelt the same way such as and, for, of, in, to, under, on ; others have changed their spelling a little like æfter (after), beforan (before), behindan (behind), bi (by), eall (all), hwæt (what), hwy (why), ofer (over), uppan (up), æt (at), æg (egg), socc (sock), scoh (shoe), scyrte (shirt), hætt (hat), mete (meat), butere (butter), milc (milk), hunig (honey), cese (cheese) and many more beside. All our words for the close family come from Old English -faeder, moder, sunu, dohtor, sweoster, brothor as do many of our swear words!
Below is a prayer written down in later Saxon times. At first glance it looks difficult to understand:
Thu ure fæther, the eart on heofonum, sy thin nama gehalgod.
Cume thin rice, Sy thin wylla on eorthan swaswa on heofonum.
Syle us todæg urne daeghwamlican hlaf.
And forgyf us ure gyltas swaswa we forgyfath thampe with us agyltath.
And ne lae thu na us on costnunge, ac alys us fram yfele
However, when it is spelt phonetically it becomes instantly recognisable to any modern person:
Thu our father, thee art on heavenum, say thine nama holyod.
Come thine rich, say thine will on earth swas-wa on heavenum.
Sell us today ourne day-wham-lick hloaf.
And forgive us our guiltas swas-wa we forgiv-ath themp with us a-guilt-ath.
And no lee thu us on costnun-ya, ash all-lees us from evil.
When the Viking invasions started a new language appeared - Old Norse (O.N.). Since the Vikings came from different parts of Scandinavia they all used their own dialect of Old Norse although the basic language was the same (much like modern English, American and Australian). Old English and Old Norse were in many ways similar since they had both developed out of the same language (like modern English and German), in fact, the languge spoken in Denmark at this time was mostly understandable by the Anglo-Saxons and vice-versa. This meant that there were many words that were similar in both languages. For example Old English had several words for child ; two of these were cild and bearn. The commonest Old Norse word for a child was barn. In the southern parts of Britain, where the Vikings hardly settled child has become the normal word, however, in the north of Britain, where there was heavy Viking settlement, the dialect word for a child is bairn. This is because it was a word both peoples could easily understand. Sometimes this gives us two meanings for the same word in today. The Old Norse word gata and Old English word geat are both words originally meaning 'a way through.' In English it came to predominantly mean a way through a wall or fence, so we get the word gate. Gate is seen in street names in the north of England, but generally does not refer to an opening. The Vikings used their word to mean a way through a settlement, so it came to have the meaning of street e.g. Coppergate - 'The Street of the cup makers'.
Other words were introduced into the language with no similar word in Old English so we have words in modern English which are Norse in origin, such as; take, call, die, rugged, flat, tight, kid, steak, anger, awe, bait, boon, crooked, law, them, wand, wrong, freckle, etc.. Despite these introductions the basic language of England did remain Old English or a dialect of it.
One area where Old Norse had a heavy influence on the language was in place names. When the Viking invaders arrived they found some place names hard to pronounce, so they altered the sound of the name to suit the sounds of their own language. For example the name of York was changed from Eorforwic (meaning wild boar settlement) to Jorvik (meaning wild boar creek).
They also introduced many new names as they founded new settlements. These can be identified from particular name elements such as -beck from O.N. bekkr meaning brook, e.g. Birbeck - 'The brook where birch grew'; -by from O.N. byr meaning farm, or village (where we get our modern word 'bye-law' from) e.g. Haxby - 'Hakr's farm'; -fell the O.N. for hill or mountain, e.g. Hampsfell - 'Hamr's hill'; -scale from O.N. skali meaning hut, e.g. Portinscale - 'Prostitute's hut'; -toft the O.N. for homestead, e.g. Lowestoft - 'Hlothver's homestead'; -thwaite from O.N. thveit meaning meadow, e.g. Braithwaite - 'Broad meadow' (the Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names lists just over 80 common place name elements of Viking origin).
Although much of our modern language comes from the language of the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, very few Christian names do. There are a few, such as Alfred, Agatha, Agnes, Cuthbert, Edgar, Edmund, Edward, Edith, Edwin, Godfrey, Harold, Hilda and Matilda from the Anglo-Saxons and a few, such as Erik, Freda, Harald, Helga, Jon, Karl and Neil from the Vikings, but most Anglo-Saxon and Viking names sound very strange to modern ears, names such as Æthelberht, Offa, Wulfstan, Godwin, Beorhtweard, Cyneric, Leofwine, Ælfgifu, Ealswith, Wulfwyn, Arnbjorn, Guthrum, Halfdan, Grimketil, Snorri, Arnbjorg, Gerd and Gudrun. However, when you look at Surnames, there is much more evidence of our Saxon and Viking past. Although the Anglo-Saxons did not have surnames in the same way that we do today, they distinguished between two people with the same name by adding either the place they came from or the job they did to their first name, for example a woman named Edith who lived in the town of Blackburn would be known as Edith of Blackburn, or just Edith Blackburn: a man named Edward who was a blacksmith would be known as Edward the Smith, or just Edward Smith. Many of our modern surnames are actually 'occupational names' - Bowyer, Baxter, Baker, Weaver, Fisher, Fowler, Hunter, Farmer, etc…
The Vikings had a different way of distinguishing between people of the same name - they added the name of the person's father or mother, so Harald, the son of Erik would be known as Harald Erik's son, or as we would say it today, Harald Erikson. Although names ending in -son are fairly common today, the women's equivalent, -dottir (daughter) is not, although it would have been at the time. Often Viking families alternated the name of the eldest so that Arn Gunnarsson might be the father and son of Gunnar Arnsson, and the grandfather and grandson of Arn Gunnarson! (Now you know why they didn't have postmen in Viking times - they'd never know who the letter was actually for!?!)
Many Vikings also had a nickname which was used instead of their family name. Giving a nickname was like naming a newborn baby; it created a special tie between the name-giver and name-taker. The newly named person could claim a gift from the name-giver, either a present or a favour, even if the name was derogatory, which many of them were.
Nicknames sometimes went by contraries; a man with swarthy skin might be called 'the fair'; an unusually tall man might be named 'the short' (much like 'little John' in the Robin Hood stories). Other nick-names included Wise, Fox, Fool, Grey Cloak, Hairy Britches, Flat Nose, Seal Head, Short, Stout, Forkbeard, Bald, Blood-axe, Blue Tooth, Fine-hair, Iron Side, Smooth Tongued, Deep Minded, Boneless and many more.
Few Viking women appear to have had nicknames, and most of those that did described the woman's wisdom, beauty, wealth or speech habits. (Perhaps the less complimentary names never made it into the sagas, for fear of litigation of the physical sort?)
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