Monday, December 7, 2009

Place Names Rock

L.G.C. Smith

Place names are my research passion. When I've been to a place that moves me, a place that begs me to write a book set there, I go to maps. I trace rivers and hills, valleys and plains. I learn their names. Over and over I hear them in my head. I chant them under my breath, and soon a story takes shape, a tale born of a particular landscape in a particular time.

Then I dive into history and archeology to see if what I'm dreaming up makes sense. One such saga I've spent a lot of words and years developing came out of the landscapes of western Cornwall where one line of my mother's family originally came from.

Oh, the research orgy that ensued. I became fixed on the end of Roman Britain, even though all I knew about it was that it had existed. I'd have been hard-pressed to give more than the most general dates. I didn't know much about Cornwall, either, but the place names sang in my head. Crowan, Crenver, Perranuthnoe and Drym. Helston, Germoe, Marazion and Hayle. Gwinear, Godolphin, St. Ives and St. Erth. Gwithian, Goldsithney, and Gweek. More. Many, many more.

I started with the language, working my way up from the little Shire Books sold in every tourist haunt, the ones filled with Cornish place name elements, to what
ever I could find on the structures and sounds of Cornish as it had been before it died out in the late 18th - early 19th centuries. Then I branched into Breton and Welsh, and, eventually, into proto-Welsh, or the p-Celtic British dialects spoken in much of Britain before the Anglo-Saxons came. Even with a pretty hard-core background in linguistics, I found it rough going.

The history, archeology, and folk lore angles were easier, but Cornwall didn't appear in many Roman-era records so the history was thin. The Roman road network that reached into so many corners of Britain didn't seen to have made it out to Land's End. They probably used boats. Archeology was more promising, but again, there were very few Roman finds. Iron Age village
s were better represented, like the one at Chysauster, so at least there was something. It appears that Cornwall was, at the end of Roman Britain, well removed from the hustle and bustle of Roman administrative, civic, and commercial activity.

This was all perfect for the historical fantasy books I was writing. I needed a backwater, the butt-end of the Empire, where passionate men and women were free to indulge ambitions and emotions unchecked, though not unaffected by civilization.

Yet for all the study I've done in this area, there is one tidbit that tickles me all out of proportion to its relevance to my novels -- which is zero. But it came out of my fascination with place names.

Somewhere in the midst of all this research, a friend told me that one of her ancestral Cornish names was Trecembo, which sounded a lot like Tregembo, a place I knew of in western Cornwall. I remembered Tregembo Hill because my sister, my parents and I were nearly flattened by a speeding semi in the middle of the road there, which was far too narrow for a large truck to be taking at sixty. Anyway, I deduced that my friend's family must have originated at a place called Trecembo in eastern Cornwall. Based on all my research, I knew that people continued speaking Cornish in the west much later than in the east; as a result, sound changes continued to take place in the west, leaving older forms of the language fossilized in eastern Cornish place names.

The [g] in the middle of Tregembo must have originally been the [c] found in Trecembo (pronounced like /k/). The prefix, tre- is quintessentially Cornish, meaning 'home place' or 'farm,' frequently followed by a personal name or a descriptive term.

I recall thinking about all this while brushing my teeth one night. I ran the words over and over in my head. Tregembo Hill lies in the sharp, almost ninety-degree turn in the River Hayle. When I finished brushing, I put my hands on my hips and repeated the two names over a few more times. They sounded awfully similar to something else that I couldn't quite put my finger on.

All of a sudden, I found myself imagining the map of Tregembo Hill just east of Relubbus. I saw the same angle in my elbows in the mirror, and I got it: Akimbo. A bent elbow. Tregembo. Trecembo. The place where the river bends like an elbow. Different prefxes, same root. I checked my Welsh and proto-celtic dictionaries just to be sure. Yup. -cambo comes from a root meaning bent or crooked.

The word 'akimbo' seems to have baffled etymologists. I'm convinced it's not derived from Swahili or Dutch or whatever else the official Word Wizards posit it might be. It's an old British word that came from either Cornish or Welsh, or whatever came before them.

How fun is that?! Research. Ahhh. I love it.


Shelby said...

THAT is a fascinating story of yours. Absolutely fantastic I tell you. I so get that--that is how I process "thinkings" as I call them.. and it is THE most fun to discover treasures.

Tom Neely said...

Just imagine the the google searches you'll turn up on now having used the phrase "research orgy".

Great post. I love hearing people's journey from creative inkling to book or song.

Sophie Littlefield said...

Oh....people, this is just one tiny small example of how smart our L.G.C. is. She is our secret weapon. She has taught me not only to plumb words for their sounds and meanings - especially, as she says, the place names - but to *hear* them differently.

Every time I start a new book, I tell her about the names I am thinking of and we talk about everything from where they came from to the emotions they invoke in the speaker.

But I feel duty bound to tell you all that we are not sharing her. We are keeping her plenty busy with our own endless queries, thank you. Recently a tussle broke out among the pens for L.G.C.'s attention, and that's, y'know, in the family - i hate to think what would happen if we had to contend with far-flung fans and researchers!! :)

L.G.C. Smith said...

Sophie, you always have great names. You only need Lisa to point out that four of them all begin with B. I never notice that.

Dana Fredsti said...

Ooh, I love finding out the origins of various words! This one is a doozy!

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