Sunday, 11 January 2015

Origins of Place Names: Spain

Having blogged samples of my books on English place names and also examined the etymologies of the nations of the world and their respective capitals I thought it time I cast my net a little wider. As English place names share some links to other tongues it would be interesting to see if any of the elements contributing to our place names could be found elsewhere. This time we continue the tour of Western Europe and a look at the largest Spanish cities.

Madrid is associated with Magerit, the name of the Moorish fort which once stood here. This name is said to refer to 'the place of water', it standing on the Manzanares River. This would then be related to Celtic roots such as ritu, Old Welsh rit, Welsh rhyd, Old Breton rit, and Old French roy all meaning 'ford', together with the Celtic root magos, and Old Irish mag, meaning 'field, plain'. There is also the possibility of Breton ma meaning 'bear', which would fit with the legendary explanation for this name as 'the place of bears' and the Latin name of Ursalia. We should also consider the Roman Empire's record of the name as Matrice and subsequesnt control by the Vandals, then the Visigoths, and thereafter the eighth-century Islamic influence. Thus the name would mean 'tree' or perhaps better seen as 'giver of life' and evolved to the present name from Matrit, the earlier Mozarabic form. Mozarabic being the Romance dialect spoken in the areas of the Iberian Peninsula dominated by Arab cultures.

Barcelona is seen as Barkeno on a coin found here. Greek sources speak of Barkinon, in Latin Barcilonum, and later Barcenona. Note the latter form, which explains the abbreviated form of the name as 'Barna', only the famous football club should ever be referred to as 'Barca'. The name is gnerally held to be derived from the Carthaginian founder of this place in 230 BC, Hamilcar Barca, although this has yet to be proven conclusively.

Valencia was founded by the Romans in 137 BC as Valentia Edetanorum. The latter element refers to the Edenti, the peoples who were here before the Romans arrived. The Latin walentia means 'strength, valour', either used to refer to this 'stronghold' or, if this is used more as 'valour' refers to the Roman soldiers who fought the battles here.

Seville is first recorded by the Phoenicians as Spal where it is thought to mean 'lowland'. Later this was Latinicised as Hispalis, then Arabic Ishbiliyya, and Greek Sebille. These changes are purely down to phonetic spelling and pronunciation, thus the original meaning of 'lowland' remains.

Zaragoza has a name evolving, as with that of Seville, purely through phonetic spellings and pronunciations. To the Romans it was Caesaraugusta, clearly named after the emperor Caesar Augustus.

Malaga another Spanish city with a likely Phoenician base. Here it is from malahah or 'salt', understood as where the catch of fish was salted prior to transportation. Later the Roman influence as Malaca brought about the evolution to the present form.

Murcia is certainly Roman in origin, although whether this represents Murtia and a personal name ot Myrtea meaning the plant 'myrtle' is uncertain. It would make more sense to be the plant as it had culinary, medicinal, and ritualistic uses.

Palma is still easily seen as meaning 'palm trees' and was named as such by the Romans, although this was their translation of the earlier Phoenician name of Tamar .

Bilbao's origins are disputed, with almost as many explanations as there are historical listings. Perhaps this is Basque bil-ibaia-bao giving the location of 'river and cove'; or Spanish bello vado 'beautiful ford'; or the two settlements of billa meaning 'stacking' and what is now Bilbao La Vieja from vaho 'mist' or 'stream'. However all of these have one thing in common - water.

Alicante is of Phocaean origin, this a Greek city on the western shores of Anatolia. In 325 BC they knew this place as Acra-Leuca 'the white summit'. The Romans knew the place for the same feature but called it Lucentum 'shining', this later becoming al-Akant by the Arabs and giving the present name.

Cordoba was known as Kartuba when the Carthaginians were here, this meaning 'the City of Juba', thus honouring the Numidian commander killed in a nearby battle. Under Islamic rule it became Qurtubah, itself possibly a misunderstanding of the previous name as from the Arabic karta-tuba 'big town'. Early as these records are, the place must have had earlier names as it was settled before 3,000 years ago when the district was known as Tartessos by the Greeks who were exploiting the mineral resources here. Yet even this pales into insignificance when compared to the dominance by Homo neanderthalensis from around 42,000 years ago. Neanderthal Man had a spoken language, we can only wonder what they knew their home as.

Valladolid has a number of explanations, all agreeing the first element refers to its position in a valley. Perhaps this originated as a Celtic 'valley of waters'; or Arabic Ballad Al-Walid where the named individual was Al-Walid ibn Abd al-Malik, an Umayyad caliph; or even Vallisoletano 'one of the sunny valley'.

Vigo is almost certainly from Latin vicus 'a small village'.

Note the spellings of the places are English as the piece is written in English.

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