Wednesday, December 12, 2007


More on the Etymology of Walden

Thanks to Eric Thomson for this excerpt from Margaret Gelling, Signposts to the Past (Chichester: Phillimore, 1988), pp. 93-94:
There is a division of opinion concerning the significance of walh (plural walas, genitive singular wales, genitive plural wala) in place-names. In written Old English the word has two meanings, 'Welshman' and 'serf'. It is the former meaning which has survived in modern English, Wales being the plural, and Welsh the derivative adjective. The plural, walas, is also the second element in the name Cornwall. This word walh is a Germanic formation from Latin Volcae, the name of a Celtic tribe. It was applied in Germanic languages to the speakers of Latin, as well as to the speakers of Celtic languages, and Professor Tolkien (1963, p. 26) suggested that this was due not only to the fact that Latin eventually became the language of most areas of Celtic speech known to Germanic peoples, but also to the ability of the Germans to recognize similarities between Latin and Gallo-Brittonic speech. As regards the Old English use of walh to mean 'slave', Professor Tolkien considered that this was not a total generalization of the national name (as slave is from Slav), but that it must often have involved a recognition that particular serfs were Welsh speaking.

A recent discussion of the problem, Faull 1975, provides a careful analysis of all the linguistic evidence relating to the use of walh (and the West Saxon form, wealh) in legal codes, literature, personal names and place-names in the Anglo-Saxon period. This establishes that walh meant 'a Celt' when the English entered Britain during the course of the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries. It is likely that in the earliest settlement period the majority of slaves would be British, being either the descendants of people who had that status during the Roman period, or people reduced to it during the wars which led to the establishment of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, so it was natural that the secondary sense 'slave' should develop. The racial meaning persisted, however, and Miss Faull demonstrates that the sense 'Briton' is clearly apparent in the laws of King Ine of Wessex (dating from AD 688-94), which provide for free wealas, who may or may not be owners of land, to have a lower social status (measured by their wergild, the compensation paid for killing them) than Englishmen in equivalent positions. When these laws use the term wealh of a slave, it is clear that they refer to a Welsh slave as opposed to an English one. The date at which the two senses became separate, so that a slave referred to as a walh need not be Welsh, is not ascertainable on account of the shortage of eighth-century evidence, but the separation appears to have occurred by the second half of the ninth century. At the end of the ninth century there is some evidence that Wealas could still be used of Britons living within the English territories, but by the eleventh century Wealas as a racial term could only be applied to the Celts of Wales and Cornwall. Miss Faull considers that walh 'slave' was not very widely adopted in Old English, the alternative term, theow, being usuaIly preferred. This excellent article provides the sober documentation for Professor Tolkien's inspired rhetoric. As regards the use of walh in place-names and personal names, Miss Faull's views coincide very closely with my own, and no attempt is made in the foIlowing paragraphs to distinguish between her ideas and mine. She is rather more definite than I feel able to be about the likelihood of walh meaning 'Welshman' in some examples, of the place-names Walcot and Walton.

The occasional use of walh to mean 'serf' in Old English means that the Waltons and Walcots marked on Fig. 4 are ambiguous. If they were coined in the first years of the use of English speech in the area they may weIl mean 'farm and cottages of the Britons', but if they are of later origin they need mean no more than 'farm or cottages where there are serfs'. There is some reason to think that place-names which refer to owners or inhabitants of a particular social class, such as priests, ceorls, 'knights', were coined at a rather late stage of English name-giving (this point is discussed in Chapter 5), and Walcot and Walton could be considered to belong to this category, and so to have arisen at a date when the meaning 'Briton' is not certain to be the operative one for walh. In addition to this doubt about the historical significance, there is some difficulty in deciding whether or not a modern Walton or Walcot certainly contains this word. There are several other Old English compounds which yield these modern forms, and a Walton may be a farm near a forest (Old English wald), a farm near a wall (e.g. Walton CMB) or, in the Mercian dialect area, a farm near a spring. It is generally assumed that names which have a majority of Middle English spellings with Wale-, as opposed to Wal(l)-, contain the word which means 'Briton' or 'serf'.
The works cited by Gelling are:Eric Thomson also points out that Margaret Gelling and Ann Cole, The Landscape of Place-Names (Lincolnshire: Shaun Tyas, 2000), p. 118, include Walden (Essex, Hertfordshire and Yorkshire, North Riding) under the 'With classes of people' ('Britons') paragraph of the reference section of place-names with the –denu element.

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