The Brittonic Language in the Old North
A Guide to the Place-Name Evidence
Alan G. James
Guide to the Elements
(m?) and aon (f)
IE *[h2]eb/p- > eCelt *bo- > Br, Gaul bo- (not found in Welsh, Cornish or Breton); OIr aub >
MIr ab > Ir abha (OIr dative singular abainn > Ir, G abhainn, Mx awin); cogn. early Lat *abnis >
Lat amnis, Skt p-, apas.
See Szemernyi (1996), p. 95, OIPrIE 8.3, pp. 125-6, Watkins (1973), Kitson (1998) at p. 88,
and DCCPN p. 5.
The root means simply moving water. Evidence for its use as a river-name in Britain is seen in
Ptolemys bou [potamo kbolai], PNRB pp. 240-1 estuary of the river *. This apparently
corresponds to the Ouse and Humber (see h). Hfe in ASC(E) s.a. 710, apparently the R Avon
Stg/WLo (see below) may be another example: see PNWLo p. xviii, SPN p. 242 and Nicolaisen
(1960). Maybe a common noun used to refer to rivers was understood as a name by both the
Romans and the English, but cf. [stagnum fluminis] Abae VC131, where Adomnn evidently
regards it as a river-name, the R Awe Arg (CPNS pp. 75, 77 and 477). A form with a locative
suffix is seen in Abisson PNRB pp. 238-9, perhaps in SW Scotland, and perhaps in
Duabsis[s]is, PNRB pp. 340-1, if that is *Dubabisso, d- (which see) + -- + -isso-.
With the suffix on- (see an), Brittonic on- > neoBritt aon > OW abon > M-MnW afon,
OCorn auon, MBret auo[u]n (on Cornish awn, Breton aven, see CPNE pp. 13-14). Again,
on- may have come to be used in Britain as a river-name (see Padel 2013b pp. 26-7), or it
may have been taken for such by Latin and Old English speakers, in the simplex (a1) forms
below. It seems not to occur in compound place-names in the North, and the examples of name-
phrases in (c2) below are doubtful.
a1) Avon Water Lnk SPN pp. 228-9.
Avon R Stg/WLo PNWLo pp. 1-2, SPN pp. 228-9, PNFEStg p. 45: see above.
Avon Burn Stg PNFEStg pp. 45-6.
Evan Water Dmf PNDmf p. 98.
c2) Dalavan Bay Kcb (Kirkmabreck) PNGall p. 103 ? + dl-, but probably Gaelic *dail-
Denovan Stg (Dunipace) CPNS p. 508, PNFEStg p. 40 + dn-: Gaelicised if not Gaelic in origin.
Pendraven Cmb (lost field-name in Upper Denton) PNCmb p. 82 pen[n]-, + -[r]- or -tre-:
see discussions under pen[n]- and tre.
aall (f, but variable in British)
A pre-Celtic and possibly non-Indo-European *oblu- > IE(WC) *h2ebVl- > early Celtic *abalo-
/- > M-MnW afal, OCorn aual > Corn aval, OBret abal > Bret aval; OIr uball, ubull > Ir ll, G
ubhall, Mx ooyl; cogn. Gmc *aplu > OE ppel > apple.
Derived from this, the word for an apple, proto-Celtic *abal-no-/- > early Celtic *aballo-/- >
Br *aballo-/-, Gaul avallo > MW avall > W afall, OCorn singulative auallen, OBret singulative
aballen; OIr aball > Ir, G abhall.
See Hamp (1979), Markey (1988) and DCCPN p. 5.
aall is a collective noun (as are most names for trees) in all Celtic languages, so apple-trees,
orchard. In the Brittonic languages, the singulative is marked by the suffix en, but in the
Goidelic the singular/plural distinction has eroded.
Judging by the genetic and ecological case presented by Juniper and Mabberley (2006) but
disregarding their confused use of philological and toponymic evidence it is likely that the
sweet apple, Malus pumila syn. domestica, had reached Britain in prehistoric times, perhaps in
association with horses (which spread viable seeds by defecation). Some seedlings would have
yielded good, edible fruit, and would have been cherished, while others were chopped down for
woodwork or burning, so some selection would have taken place to produce good fruit trees. It is
less certain whether grafting, the only effective technique for propagation, reached Britain before
Roman times, though it could have been introduced with trade from the Mediterranean. It is
possible, then, that orchards of (own-root or grafted) apple-trees were being maintained in
On apples and apple-trees in Celtic myth, legend and folklore, see DCM p. 19.
In Aballava, PNRB pp. 232-4, identified as the Roman fort at Burgh-by-Sands Cmb, the
suffix -aw- may intensify the collective aspect, a large grove of apple-trees? Perhaps even a
(c2) Carnavel Kcb (Carsphairn) PNGall p. 59 ? + carn-, but could well be Gaelic *carn abhail.
aber, abber (usually m, earlier n)
IE *haed-, *bher > eCelt *ad-, bero- > eBr *adbero- > lBr *abbero- > OW(LL) aper > M-MnW
aber, no evidence for this word in Corn (CPNE p. 333), Bret aber (in place-names); the nearest
Goidelic equivalent is eCelt *eni-bero- > OIr in[d]ber > Ir, G inbhear, also inbhir from the
locative-dative or nominative plural form, and Gaelic i[o]nbhar from a verbal noun form (GG pp.
13, 73 and 264) -*bhor (see below), Mx inver; cf..Lat adfero. See also cmber.
On the derivatives of IE *bher in Celtic, see Hamp (1982c). For discussion of the full range of
examples across Scotland, see CPNS pp. 458-467, Barrow in Uses pp. 56-7 and map 2.1, and
Taylor 2011, p. 83.
The double consonant bb-, by assimilation from db- (LHEB 64 p. 413), survived into neo-
Brittonic long enough to escape lenition (LHEB 132, pp. 545-8), and may be reflected in Bedes
spelling bbercurnig for Abercorn WLo (HE I.12 in the Moore ms); cf. also the early,
presumably Pictish, spelling Abbordobir for Aberdour in the Book of Deer (CPNS pp. 454, 458
and 465, Jackson, 1972, p. 30).
The or- occurring in borcurni in the (inferior) Namur manuscript at HE I.12, along with
the form quoted above from The Book of Deer, Adomnns Stagnum Apor[i]cum (presumably
Lochaber Inv, CPNS p. 78), and Aporcrosan for Applecross Ross in AT s.a. 731, all suggest a
Pritenic (or at any rate northern P-Celtic) variant of similar origin to G i[o]nbhar above, entailing
an IE o-grade -*bhor. See also Koch (1982-3) at pp. 214-16.
The form Karibyr 1282, Carribber WLo (PNWLo p. 58), may be plural or a preserved genitive
singular. If plural, it may be compared with Eperpuill in the 11th ct. Irish life of St Berach (CPNS
p. 225), Aberfoyle Per. If the plural form (at least in the P-Celtic of the Forth Valley) was *ebir,
it shows double i-affection in *ad-beri-. The IE root *bher has the verbal sense bear, carry, cf.
M-MnW beru flow. The early Celtic prefix ad- here means to, together, so it is a flowing
together, a confluence or estuary: see also cmber.
Watson, CPNS p. 461, observes that place-names with aber are not necessarily named after the
stream at or near whose mouth it is, though Aberlady ELo, at the mouth of the West Peffer Burn,
is the only evident case, and it is quite likely that an earlier stream-name has been superseded
here, see below.
Breeze (1999b at pp. 41-3), queries the status of aber in Cumbric (using this term for northern
Brittonic of any period) and its use for a confluence: see *ar-. However, note that Abercarf,
Aberlosk, Abermilk and Carribber are all at confluences.
On the possibility that confluences and estuaries may have been pagan ritual sites, see Jackson
(1948) at p. 56, Nicolaisen (1997) at pp. 250-1, and DCML p. 178. The altar-inscriptions to
Condatis found in the Tyne-Tees region may be evidence of a confluence-deity cult in that area,
see PCB pp. 236-7.
The most striking feature of distribution is the absence of aber from Strathclyde, Ayrshire and
Galloway, and its total absence between Dumfriesshire and north Wales (Barrow in Uses, p. 56
and map 2.1). Replacement by G inbhear could have occurred in south-west Scotland, but even
that is uncommon in the region. If a cult of Condatis was of importance in northern Britannia,
perhaps *Condatis was the preferred term in that region, though it is only recorded as the name of
the Roman-British settlement at Northwich Che (Jackson,1970 at p. 71, PNRB pp 315-16,
PNChe2 p. 195, and PNChe4 p xii and p. 1). See also cmber, noting that that element is largely
restricted to the Solway basin.
In Lothian, where aber occurs at Abercorn, Aberlady and lost Aberlessic, several place-names
are formed with Gaelic inbhear- on Celtic or ancient river-names. All of these might have been
Gaelicised from aber-, e.g. Inveralmond WLo, Inveravon WLo, Inveresk ELo, Inverleith MLo,
also Innerleithen Pbl. However, note Kings (2009) caution against assuming such replacement.
Aberlessic in VK(H) remains unidentified in spite of lively controversy (see CPNS p. 460,
Jackson (1958) at p. 292, and Macquarrie (1997a) pp. 120 and 124). It was presumably an estuary
in ELo, on the southern coast of the Firth of Forth. The implied river-name appears to be *luss-
co, see *ls and -g. For Aber Lleu see lch.
Abercorn and Aberlady were both places of importance in the early Christian period, and gave
their names to mediaeval parishes, as did a total of 26 places throughout Scotland whose names