English Language Fact: Place Names

May 25, 2021

English is one of the most spoken languages in the world, but did you know it is actually made up of lots of different languages? English is in fact multilingual, and we’ll be looking at this over a series of interesting facts.

Fact no.1 - place names
🌍 The ‘ing’ in place names such as ‘Reading’ means “the people of”
🌍 The ‘ton’ in place names such as ‘Taunton’ means “enclosure” or “estate”
🌍 The ‘ham’ in place names such as ‘Cheltenham’ means “home”

Where does this come from?
By the end of the sixth century, Germanic tribes (often grouped as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes) had inhabited over half of mainland Briton, and with them they brought their languages and dialects – the languages that founded modern English today!

So the ‘ing’, ‘ton’ and ‘ham’ in modern place names hark back to Germanic tribes and their dialects, which gradually superseded the Celtic languages that people had spoken before their arrival.

This is why English has some Germanic grammatical cases we still use every day without realising it (e.g. I/me/my, you/your, he/him/his, she/her, we/us/our, they/them/their).

If you look at the word ‘town’ in modern English, and pronounce it ‘toon’ like in Scots, you can see how it is related to the Dutch ‘tuin’ (garden) and German ‘zaun’ (fence) – all have the idea of enclosure hidden in their connected linguistic history.

Did you know that Birmingham means ‘homestead of Beorma’s people’? And that Bredon Hill means Hill-Hill-Hill in Celtic (Bre), Old English (don) and modern English (Hill)? The language shows the layers of settlers who all named the hill, Hill! Same with the River Avon, which means River-River.

The history of language is always the history of people! Fascinating eh?