Friday, 10 November 2017

What do Aberdeen, Inverness, Proust and Quimper have in common?

The Picts dominated eastern and northern Scotland up to the 10th century. Although we know little about who the Picts were, we can guess from place name evidence that the now-extinct Pictish language was closely related to Brittonic languages such as Breton, Cornish and Welsh. Pictish settlements, for example, often had Brittonic prefixes such as Aber and Lan, as well as Pit-, a uniquely Pictish prefix indicating a portion or share of land.

Aber is a common place name prefix in both Scotland [Aberdeen, Arbroath (Aberbrothick), Aberfeldy, Aberlour, Applecross (Aporcrosan)] and Wales [Aberdare, Abergavenny, Abertawe (Swansea), Aberystwyth]. Although it also occurs in Cornish and Breton, it is relatively rare.
Aber means either the mouth of the river or its confluence with the sea and/or other rivers. It comes from an older Brittonic form ad-ber  [ad- , 'to, together’; beru- 'flow']. So Aberystwyth (on the west coast of Wales), for example, is at the confluence of the Ystwyth and Rheidol rivers, and the Atlantic Ocean.

And what joins aber and inver is a deeper Indo-European root: *bher-, 'bear, carry' with other close linguistic cousins:
Indo-European: *bher

Aberdeen, 500 miles away in the northeast of Scotland, stands on the Pictish site of Aberdon, at the mouth of the the river Don. Because the river Dee is only two miles away it has been suggested that the name is actually a phonetic confluence of the two rivers. It is also an unequivocally Pictish name with clear Brittonic roots.
Inverness, 100 miles further northwest, is situated at the mouth of Loch Ness. No aber here but the origin of inver is very similar to aber. Inver is the Anglicised spelling of the Scottish Gaelic/Irish: inbhir/inbhear: in, 'in or into'; bhir/bhear, 'carry'.
Place-names with inver- predominated in the Dalriada highlands and islands of northwest Scotland where Scottish tribes from Northern Ireland settled from the 6th century onwards. As the Scots expanded so too did the inver- prefix as it gradually replaced pre-existing abers. By the 10th century the Scots and Picts had merged forever and place names remain the only clues to earlier settlement patterns.
In Brittany aber is rare but not unheard of [Aber-Benoît, Aber Ildut and Aber Wrac'h] -see video Finistere- Land of the Abers

The Breton root word Breton: kemper ‘confluence/conflux’ [Gaulish: comboro; Welsh: cymer] is much more common. The 'ke' in Breton or 'co' in Gaulish became 'qui/que' in French. The root *bher is the same as for aber- and inver-  with the com- suggesting 'with, together'.
Quimper, (originally Kemper Corentin), the capital of Finistère (see Quimper), is at the mouth of the Odet and at the point where the Steir, Odet and Jet rivers meet.
Other examples in Brittany include:
QUEMPER-GUÉZENNEC Kemper-Gwezhenneg [Kemper, 1235; Quemper-Guezenec, 14th C] Quemper-Guézennec is at the point where the Leff and Trieux rivers meet. Guézennec could relate to Saint Guéthenoc, son of Saint Fragan and Saint Gwen; although this may be the name of a local Lord. Cf: Quimper, Quimperlé (Finistère).
QUEMPERVEN Kemperven [Kemperven, 1330] ‘Riversmeet’
From B: kemper ‘confluence/conflux’ and B: aon/aven, ‘river’ [Cornish: auon/awan; W: afon]. A number of rivers flow through this area but the Guindy and the Stéren meet inside the commune. Cf: Quimper, Quimperlé, Pont-Aven (29); Arrowan (Cornwall); Aberavon (Wales).
COMBRIT Kombrid [Combrit, 1223] ‘Confluence’. From Gaulish: comboro, ‘confluence’; [Welsh: cymer; Breton: kemper]; and Latin: -etum, collective suffix. Combrit is in the middle of a double confluence between estuary of the River Odet at Benodet and the natural sea harbour between Pont L’Abbé and l’Île Tudy. Cf: Quimper, Quimperlé (29); Rhydcymerau (Wales); Camborne (Cornwall); Combres (Languedoc); Combrée (Loire).
QUIMPERLÉ Kemperle [Kemperele, 1220] ‘Ellé Junction’. From Breton: kemper ‘confluence/conflux’ and the river Ellé. Quimperlé is at the junction of the Ellé and Isole rivers.

The Gaulish word 'comboro', which also includes the meaning of intersecting valleys, is a common place name element in France and can be found in Combres (Eure et Loir, Haute-Loire); Combrée (Maine-et-Loire); Combrailles, Combronde (Puy-de-Dôme); Combressol (Corrèze); Escombres (Ardennes).
15 minutes' drive away from Combres (Eure-et-Loir) is the pretty town of Illiers, sitting in a valley crossed by the Loir (a tributary of the Loire) and the Thironne. Illiers was where Proust's 'Aunt Léonie' lived.
He spent a lot of his childhood here and it is is exquisitely described in his "À la recherche du temps perdu".
In honour of this Proustian connexion the town is now called Illiers-Combray. And like its name twin neighbour it has the topography to match its toponymy. It is immensely satisfying to derive meaning from a fictional place name, particularly one which reveals deep Celtic roots.

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