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June 25, 2023 by Mark Knight
(Main image: the River Dove east of Uttoxeter, photo courtesy Mark Knight 2023)
Language is a mutable and changeable thing, our dialect and syntax changes over long periods of time and we are constantly inventing new words or adopting words from other languages. Local words and dialect words sometimes become lost as our language becomes more and more homogenised. We have lost many of our ancient names for features that were once important to us – field names for example, or names for old lanes and roads; even place names can sometimes change over time. There are some landscape features that have very ancient names, still used even where their meanings have been forgotten. Rivers are a good example of these ancient names.
In some instances, these names date back very far into prehistory, others are more recent – although still very old indeed. It is the case that some of our most ancient words are those that give names to our rivers. These names have changed very little over long periods of time and their roots can sometimes be traced to a language no longer spoken but which is the root of most modern European languages. This is the Indo-European language, which was a common language spoken between about 6,500 and 4,500 years ago and from which some of our river names are directly descended. Some, a very few, major landscape features pass on their names to newcomers and incomers and although their meanings are not understood, the word remains. Interestingly, many of our river names have changed very little over the millennia. Linguists studying the etymology of words have been able to reconstruct some of the Indo-European language and from this we have been able to understand some of our ancient river names. These languages did not have a written form and have been reconstructed and are therefore subject to change and revision as studies continue.
Figure 1. The River Trent near Yoxall. Photo courtesy Mark Knight 2022
Here is a list of the river names and tributaries of the River Trent in our project area, with the meanings attached. I have added an abbreviation after each, *IE means Indo-European, OE means Old English. (A * before a word indicates that it has been etymologically reconstructed by linguists). It is interesting to note that generally speaking, the larger rivers seem to have retained their much older Indo-European root name, whereas most of the smaller tributaries have an Anglo-Saxon name.
Anker = the winding one (?) (*IE) The origin of the name Anker is not well understood, and a tributary of the Tame rather than the Trent directly. Included here to demonstrate the difficulty of reconstructing some names.
Blithe = the pleasant one, or the gentle one. (OE, my etymology)
Derwent = river in the oaks, although an alternative derivation gives us the meaning ‘winding’. (*IE)
Dove = the black water (cognates dubh , and the Welsh Towey).
Mease = the marshy one (OE mersce), or possibly the winding one (related OE word maze with the sense of winding tortuously).
Penk = perhaps from the *IE ‘to drink’ (*IE) The origin of the name Penk is not well understood, and a tributary of the Sow rather than the Trent directly. Included here to demonstrate the difficulty of reconstructing some names.
Sow = the tranquil one. (from the*IE with the meaning of water with a characteristic stillness)
Swarbourne = the dark brook. Swar- = swart or dark, bourne = a small river, sometimes a brook or stream. (My etymology from the OE).
Tame = the dark one (*IE)
Trent: For my discussion on the complex meaning of the river name Trent, please see this blog:
When the Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain they found an ancient people, the Britons, speaking a Celtic British language from which modern Welsh is descended. Both are Indo-European derived languages in origin which had separated from each other in the distant past. So, for example, the river Swarbourn was so named by the Anglo-Saxon incomers, but the root of the word is still Indo-European; the name is of Anglo-Saxon derivation but ultimately has its roots in the Indo-European language. Swar- is from the AS swart, meaning dark (from where we derive our modern English word swarthy, (Indo-European *swerd, with the same meaning), and Bourn is AS for stream, (cognate with the Scottish word burn, with the same meaning of a fast-flowing stream), ultimately derived from the Indo-European root word *bhreu.
Other words given by the incoming English survive in field names; for example, several fields by the River Dove near Uttoxeter bear the name Ouze, again ultimately deriving from the Indo-European language but applied in early or middle English and meaning ‘water’ or ‘watery’. A River Ouse flows through York and together with our own River Trent forms the Humber Estuary. The Great Ouse flows through Cambridgeshire and drains the fens into the Wash.
Figure 2. The River Dove near Marston on Dove, courtesy Mark Knight 2023
If it is the case that our river names are so very ancient, then we might reasonably expect similar names to be used across the entire area that the Indo-European root language is found. This is indeed the case, with words and river names that are similar or even identical to British river names across Europe, through Iraq and Iran and into northern India. Additionally, they are similar to each other too, with similar or identical meanings – although as might be expected, there has been plenty of time for the words to mutate a little. Despite the separation in time and space, some are the same names, others clearly identifiable as coming from the same root. For more on this see Robert Ferguson’s book The River-Names of Europe. Although based on Sanskrit rather than Indo-European and written in the 19th century, and with many later authors adding understanding or modifying Ferguson’s interpretations, it remains a comprehensive comparison of river names across Europe and beyond.
Figure 3. The River Trent looking towards the Trent Bridge, Stapenhill. Photo courtesy Mark Knight 2023
When we speak the names of these rivers aloud, we are breathing life into a language no longer spoken but which still resonates today, one spoken by our distant ancestors and the earliest people to arrive in Britain following the receding ice; a sobering, and yet somehow uplifting thought.
Dr Mark Knight
Cultural Heritage Officer
 Ferguson, R. The River-Names of Europe. Williams & Norgate, London and Carlisle, 1862. Unpaginated
 Ferguson, R. The River-Names of Europe. Williams & Norgate, London and Carlisle, 1862. Unpaginated, see chapter 4.
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