The research project Recovering the Earliest English Language in Scotland: Evidence from place-names was funded for three years by The Leverhulme Trust at the University of Glasgow (2016-2019).
Place-names are the main source of evidence for Anglo-Saxon settlement in northern Britain, and for the Northumbrian dialect of Old English which developed into Older Scots and northern Middle English. The data are largely untapped, particularly north of the present Scottish/English border. This project makes the first sustained attempt to investigate Anglo-Saxon place-names in Scotland. Building on the momentum of the recently inaugurated Survey of Scottish Place-Names, it focuses on the south-eastern county of Berwickshire, the heartland of Anglo-Saxon settlement in Scotland, in order to examine the linguistic features of Old Northumbrian.
Old English, the collective term for the dialects spoken by the Anglo-Saxon settlers in Britain from the fifth to eleventh centuries, is the ancestor of both Present-Day English and Scots. Of the three main types of sources – manuscripts, inscriptions and place-names – only place-names are available for the study of the Old Northumbrian dialect spoken north of the present Scottish/English border. They have not yet been investigated, since the evidence they preserve can only be accessed through systematic place-name survey, which has been ongoing in England since the 1920s but has only recently begun in Scotland. The historical county of Berwickshire has some of Scotland’s earliest recorded place-names. They derive from a range of Celtic and Germanic languages including Brittonic, Gaelic, Old English and Old Norse; most later names are from Scots. The data are of immense value, both as evidence for the Old Northumbrian dialect, and as evidence for the ways in which it interacted with earlier and later linguistic strata, developing the features that differentiate Older Scots from northern Middle English. The project thus addresses one of the most important gaps in current knowledge of English historical linguistics – the earliest form of English spoken in Scotland.
The main aims of the project can be summarised as follows:
- to investigate the Old Northumbrian dialect of Old English
- to investigate the development of Older Scots in the Scottish Borders
- to advance understanding of the relationship between place-names on either side of the present Scottish/English border
- to advance the Survey of Scottish Place-Names, making available data for the study of the history of language, settlement, environment, social organisation, and the use and perception of landscape.