Sunday, 7 November 2010

Mountains, Hills and Ranges

One of the pieces I was asked to produce this week explained the origins of some of the more elevated regions of the planet. On the scale of the human lifetime hills and mountains are eternal and thus it is no surprise to find the names are generally older than the majority of settlement names. (The same is also true of rivers.)
In writing books on place names I've often come across hills composed of a number of elements, each from a different language and clearly showing successive cultures had no idea what the existing name meant and added their own. Examples include Bredon Hill in Leicestershire (there is another in Worcestershire), where the first name was Celtic bre meaning 'hill'. When the Saxons came along they added dun and referred to it as 'the hill called Bre'. Later Middle English hyll was tagged on to refer to 'the hill called Bredon', although really the name means 'hill, hill, hill'. Pendle Hill on the Cheshire/ Lancashire border is identical in meaning, while Torpenhow Hill in Cumbria actually has four elements all meaning 'hill'.
Elsewhere the highest point on the planet is the summit of Mount Everest, named after the Surveyor-General of India Sir George Everest, the Tibetans refer to it as Chomolungma or 'the mother goddess of the earth'. Kilimanjaro is an extinct volcano in East Africa with a name from Swahili kilima njaro or 'the mountain of the god of cold', even today the summit is covered in snow all year round, a strange sight in equatorial regions. Another volcano, and one which is still very much alive, is Mount Etna, a name from Greek aitho or 'burn'. Vesuvius is another famous European volcano, this is from Old Scandinavian fesf meaning 'smoke'.
The Andes is a rangle of mountains running down the western coast of South America which derive their name from the Inca word anta or 'copper', referring to the deposits of the ore to be mined here, or from a Quechuan Indian anti simply meaning 'east'. The Alps dominate the high regions of Europe, possibly from Celtic alp 'rock, mountain' although Latin alba 'white' is equally plausible. The Himalayas are not only the largest chain of mountains in the world but also the youngest. Two potential origins and meanings here, Sanskrit hima alaya would give 'the snow abode' or the deity Shimalia is said to be 'the goddess of the white mountains'. The Urals form the border between Europe and Asia. Possibly Tatar ural meaning 'girdle, belt', it may also have taken the name of the Aral Sea and thus 'island' in the sense of higher islands in the flatter surrounding plains.
The Pyreneesdivide France from the Iberian Peninsula and is derived from a Celtic ber or per 'point, summit'. The Appalachians run down the east coast of North America and have a name from the native American tribe which were found here, the Apalachee. Mount Athos in Greece is from thoos 'sharp, pointed'. The range known as the Atlas Mountains is one of the best known origins, a reference to the Greek Atlas, the god who supported the world on his shoulders. The Cascade Range takes the name of the many waterfalls on the nearby River Columbia.
Origins of the Carpathian Mountains is thought to be Thracian or Illyrian, similar languages referring either to the inhabitants the Carpi or from karpe meaning 'rock, cliff'. The Antarctic volcano of Mount Erebus took the name of the vessel of Sir James Ross which discovered it, the Erebus took the name of a Greek god associated with darkness. Closer to home Scotland's Ben Nevis is from the Gaelic beinn-nimh-bhatais or 'the mountain with its peak in the clouds'. While the tallest Welsh mountain has an Old English place name, Snowdon meaning 'the hill with snow'.

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