Research in Focus: David Parsons

Over a series of blogs we’ve been learning about the research of our members and others whose research is pertinent to the network’s ambitions. This month we hear from David Parsons of the Centre for Advanced Welsh & Celtic Studies, University of Wales

Local place-names as linguistic data: current work on Welsh and English in Shropshire

Archives, local and national, contain tens of thousands of documents which can cast light on the languages of the people of Britain in the Middle Ages. Vernacular literary texts make up a tiny proportion of these; the vast majority take the form of local administrative records, generally written in Latin, which preserve the names of people going about their daily business, and the names of the places where they lived and worked. Both offer rich sources for the historical linguist.

For nearly a century the Survey of English Place-Names has been gathering and publishing the evidence of local place-names, initially with an accent on the ‘major’ names of towns and villages, but in the last fifty years with much more emphasis on the huge body of ‘minor’ names. This has encouraged several (though nowhere near enough) studies of intensely local medieval dialect, especially in areas of historic Scandinavian settlement, where interest lies particularly in the nature and degree of Norse influence on Middle English.

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Nineteenth-century field-names in Sweeney, south of Oswestry ©Shropshire Archives

In current work on the Survey of Shropshire we are now tackling an area where linguistic contacts are of a different kind. In the north-west of the county, around Oswestry, Welsh and English were spoken side by side throughout the medieval and into the modern period. Collecting, presenting and analysing the place-names of the area offers challenges, not least because much of the material has passed through the hands of scribes – and sometimes modern editors! – with no knowledge at all of Welsh. (Though this can of course be a blessing, because there tends to be no question of ‘correct’ orthography obscuring phonological developments – those interested in the history of consonantal mutations in Welsh should take note.) When a baffling eron erhorcet goh’ epanhit proves, with the help of overlapping records, to resolve into a wholly intelligible erw’r orsedd goch y pant ‘acre of the red mound in the dip’ we are in interesting territory.

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The fourteenth-century will of Dyddgu, daughter of Ieuan ap Madoc of Bronygarth, near St Martin’s to the north of Oswestry ©Shropshire Archives

That example comes from Aston, two miles south-east of Oswestry, an English-named Domesday vill with a rich mix of linguistic forms in its nomenclature, typical of the wider area but especially well documented in the surviving records of Haughmond Abbey and the Aston Hall estate. These show extensive use of both English and Welsh and clear influence of each on the other. In Henrekessurdir, for instance, the personal name (ultimately Continental Germanic) Henric is bound by Middle English genitive ‑es to the recurrent Welsh compound surdir ‘sour land’, which itself involves sur from English. In Y bwttie byrrion ‘the short butts’, we have a Welsh version of Middle English butte ‘short strip of arable land’, given a Welsh plural ending and matching concord with the inflected adjective. The latter type is a good deal more common than the former: it is evident that then as now Welsh was much more porous to English than vice versa. But one of the attractions of the material is that it is copious and can be analysed quantitatively. When it is remembered that most of it is also closely dated – albeit that the dates are termini ante quem for the coinages – then the potential for detailed analysis of aspects of a medieval linguistic community that has left us no vernacular documents should be clear. The Survey volume, on The Hundred of Oswestry, is due to be published in 2020.

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