Uninformed Comment

Forty words for ‘hill’

Posted in Geography, Grammar & usage, History by uninformedcomment on May 12, 2009

The Anglo-Saxons had forty words for “hill”.   That sounds like the claim you sometimes hear about the Eskimos having some huge number of words for “snow”.   In fact, let’s look at that one first, then we’ll have look at those Anglo-Saxon hills.

The claim itself started out with seven words for snow, in its first sighting in a 1940 article.  But the machinery of myth-making is a powerful agent, and with time that number was inflated by exaggerators to 40 and even more.  Usually there’s the implication that Eskimos’ lives are so barren that they have nothing else to talk about but snow.

In fact, Eskimos do have quite a few words for “snow”, but that doesn’t mean they’re obsessed with the stuff.  After all, in English we have very many words for “water”, and we could hardly be accused of having nothing else to talk about.  Let’s hear from an early expert:

…just as English uses derived terms for a variety of forms of water (liquid, lake, river, brook, rain, dew, wave, foam) that might be formed by derivational morphology from a single root meaning ‘water’ in some other language, so Eskimo uses the apparently distinct roots aput ‘snow on the ground’, gana ‘falling snow’, piqsirpoq ‘drifting snow’, and qimuqsuq ‘a snow drift’.

— Franz Boas,The Handbook of North American Indians (1911)

(Apologies for the quote formatting: WordPress’s WYSIWYG editor doesn’t seem to allow that to be fixed.)

And so, apparently, it was with Anglo-Saxons – the people who inhabited much of England during the Early Middle Ages (500AD-1066AD, roughly speaking – and hills.  And of those, some 40 are recorded.

I came across this fact recently when a radio programme discussed the legacy of the recently deceased Margaret Gelling.  I’d never heard of her either, but apparently she’s a toponymist.   I’d never heard of toponymy either, but apparently it’s the scientific study of place-names.   Now I don’t know about you, but I found the fact that people study place-names scientifically, with precision and accuracy, wonderful.

One book that gave her what fame she had was called The Landscape of Place-names.  It sounded good.  I had a quick look on Amazon to see if it was available in my price bracket and found:

The Landscape of Placenames

No, it’s not.  Daren’t even think how much it costs new.

Someone involved with producing that book – possibly Anne Cole – was talking about some research they did for it.  Turns out those 40 words for “hill” each had a distinct type of hill in mind, just as a lake differs from a river from a waterfall.  Steep-sided hills, barren hills, rolling hills, gently sloping hills – so many to describe.  And back in those days, when people’s livelihoods depended upon the landscape, these distinctions could well have been pretty damned useful.

The words are today only preserved in place-names which describe landscape features.  There were no dictionaries in Anglo-Saxon times, and nobody speaks the lingo today, but it’s possible to reconstruct the meanings of various words using toponymy.

So, by cataloguing types of hills, and the names of nearby settlements – both of which are still found multiple times in different places – and looking for relationships between a particular type of hill and a particular placename, they managed to find out what type of hill each word meant.  So if, for example, the villages of Spargscour, Spargskink and Spargsblur, miles apart, are all found to be next to tall, pointy hills , you can be pretty certain that Sparg was the Anglo-Saxon word for “tall, pointy hill”.  And so on.  Clever, eh?  I thought so too.

There were a lot of these in Anglo-Saxon times

There were a lot of these in Anglo-Saxon times

Of course, that raises the question of how there can be 40 types of hill in the first place.  But I guess that if you’d lived in those days, when you needed to walk across several of them every time you wanted a pint of milk or some firewood, you’d get to be pretty discriminating too.  And that’s the point.  For the Eskimos, it’s snow – for us, for some reason, it’s water.  For Anglo-Saxons, it was hills.

And, after all, why not?


One Response

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  1. bill jones said, on December 24, 2016 at 1:48 am

    yah, all well &I good – but what *are* the 40 words?

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