Friday, 5 February 2016

Finding happiness and joy in Breton and Cornish place names

Happy and joyful seem to be words that crop up in quite a few Breton and Cornish place names, but not in Welsh (it appears).
There are a package of Breton place names whose derivation is far from obvious. As is usual when this happens, a saint is wheeled out (or invented) to provide an origin for the place name.

Kerlouan, Poullaouen and Tréflaouénan are examples. St. Elouan is proposed as a patron for all three. Suggestions are that he must have been active in these parts (even though he does not seem to have been active in any other parts). His name is stretched to fit his etymological purpose and St. Elouan becomes Elwyn, Eloan, Louen, Luan, Louan, Elven, Elvan and Elonay.

The saint in question appears to have had foundations in Cornwall but moved to Brittany where he later died. His tomb is at Saint-Guen (Cotes d'Armor) and his feast day is on the last Sunday in August, but he has no other sure foundations in Brittany. The three places suggested as being other haunts for this restless (and relatively unknown) saint suggest he covered significant distances.

The historic names of the three communes are:
KERLOUAN-Finistère (Kerlouen, 1330) ;
POULLAOUEN-Finistère (Ploelouen, 1330) ;
TRÉFLAOUÉNAN-Finistère (Trefflouenan, 1446)

The real problem is that the ‘saintly’ toponymy does not do the job. All of the names in their medieval forms suggest an orginal louen or something close. St. Elouan or Eloan seems to be stretching things a bit.

What seems to fit rather more closely is ‘happy’ or joyful’ which I list here in the three Brittonic languages in their three historic forms:
  • Old Breton: louun; Middle Breton: louen/laouen; Modern Breton: levenez, ‘happiness’, joy’
  • Old Cornish: louen/lauen; Middle Cornish: lowen; Late Cornish: lo(o)an
  • Old Welsh: le(g)uen; Middle Welsh: lleuen; Modern Welsh: llawen

The match is perfect when you look closely at the medieval names and the ‘middle’ period  etymology.  

‘Happy’ and ‘joyful’ seem to be quite strange words to describe forts (ker), parishes (ploe) and villages (tref). But they are not unknown and nor is bod/bos, 'dwelling'.

Here are three Cornish matches (with historic forms in brackets):
BELLOWALL (Bolowan/Boslowen); BURLAWNE (Bodlouen); TRELAWNE (Trelouen)

In modern Breton we have two further matches to compare to the etymology above:
TRÉFLEVENEZ-Finistère (Trelevenez, 1630) ; MERLEVENEZ-Morbihan (Brelevenez, 14thC).

In Welsh I am still looking for examples- it’s possible a few will turn up later. 
But maybe the Welsh (like their dragon) are just a miserable lot!

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