How old is English?


I urge all people who (after asking Google or another search robot) land onto this page to read first the summary of this website. I can't repeat myself all the time..

[1] Let it be clear: a 'pre-Celtic language' means: we-don't-know. It's scientific rubbish. The only 'pre-Celtic' language to be found in Europe is Basque. Besides, Basque is not pre-Celtic but pre-agricultural. All other European languages (except Hungarian and Finnish which are related to Siberian/Uralic languages) are derived from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language. If you read the summary, then you'll know that 'Celtic' didn't exist as a specific language. click here for more

[2] Articles such as 'the' or 'a' became common after the Middle Ages.
OED: Oxford English Dictionary.

River Mersey

The etymology of Mersey is thought to be 'border river' from the Old English way of writing Maere's-ea, where maere is northwest dialect for 'mark' (border-pole) and ea is simply PIE for Water. A monk wrote in Old English: "Mersey means mark's-water (border river)" so referring to the fact that the river had just then been chosen to become the political border between the kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia.
Following his reasoning, the river would have had no name or another name before it became allegedly a 'border-river'. Such a thing is to be excluded. River names are the last to be changed, if ever. Rivers were the highways of the time, linking every place in their basins and certainly both banks. Rivers connected people. A river as a division was a rare exception (e.g. the Rhine during the Roman Empire). So, Maere's-ea is to be interpreted differently: mere's-ea or 'the mere's (lake's) water'. Indeed, the estuary of the Mersey looks very much like an elongated lake. The monk wanted to please his superiors by stating that they did well to choose that river as a border and exploited as a cheap proof the close similarity in pronunciation of maere = mark and maere = mere. The river did not last long as a border.

[4] The Roman writer Tacitus mentioned both. The medieval name was Temese.

Isis river

The Thames is also called 'Isis' in Oxford (and upstream). Some people argue that the 'Thames' is the contraction of 'Tame', a left tributary of the Thames, and 'Isis' (Tame+isis =Tamisis). Most etymologists consider this explanation as a fairy tale. What could be is that 'isis' used to be 'Isas' which could be the plural of 'Isa'. . The etymology of Paris (from the tribe Parisii) is explained as 'par isa' = 'close to the river' or 'people living on the river shores' (compare : ancient Greek 'para' = close to. 'Para' is a cognate to our word 'for'.
Interestingly, a British tribe, also called Parisii, lived on the riverbanks of the Humber. Although those people spoke a Germanic dialect, they were given the Brythonic name "river shore dwellers" = Parisii. They probably called themselves differently, like Humbrians. Note also that 'isa' in 'Parisa' is a Germanic word. The (now alleged) Gaulish Parisii had thus a Germanic name. No panic, I believe that this dated from the Bronze Age. It is well possible that the Gaulish Parisii spoke 'Celtic' when Caesar met them two thousand years later.

[5] We find exactly the same in modern Dutch:
kind (child) -> kinderen
ei (egg) -> eieren
Compare in German: Kinder and Eier.


[6] village

Thames & London

river Thames

The Thames has a wide estuary

Some British etymologists believe that the word Thames is pre-Celtic. [1] That is because no convincing 'Celtic' etymology could be found. Some will disagree and state the Thames means "the dark one", derived from the Brythonic word 'tam' = dark. But a number of counterarguments exist. To start with, linguistically it is inconsistent. And how dark was the water of the Thames? In Roman times, its water must have been clear, pure and full of fish.

There is also this strange coincidence that the place-name 'London' can likewise not be explained satisfactorily in Brythonic.

In the Middle Ages, the Thames was called "the London river" by sailors. Simple coincidence? Anyway, it is weird that London and its Thames obviously existed before the Romans came, and yet, no decent Brythonic etymology was ever found for this alleged 'very Celtic' city.

Richard Coates, one of Britain's best known etymologists, needs several pages to explain the etymology of 'London' and even then his explanation remains unsatisfactory for it feels too far-fetched, too artificial. Coates proposes a pre-Celtic word *Plowonida meaning 'boat river' or something similar.

But, rest assured, Thames has a far less problematic etymology and so does London, we found that in proto-Germanic. What say you? London was never portrayed as 'Celtic' let alone 'very Celtic' by contemporaries.

Thames = te + em + isa. In Latin : Tamesa or Tamesis.

On the Continent there are rivers called Eem (Holland), Amstel (A dam was build near the Amstel and the place is now called Amsterdam). The Eems (Dutch version) or Ems (German version) forms the border northeast Holland with Germany. Note that the ancient name for the Ems was Amesis. An Emme flows in Switzerland, compare: Emmenthal cheese.
There is a probable relation with ama (Latin), amei (ancient Greek) '(large) bucket (when fire)', a word also used in the Middle Ages for a measure of capacity for liquid things [Dictionarium Latino-Gallicum (by Fr. Noel) Bruxelles, 1828].
Amnis: Latin (a) stream, broad and deep river, brook, also abstr. 'tendency' (b) water [Dictionarium Latino-Gallicum].
Modern rivers with similar names include the Ems in Hampshire, the Emm Brook (which flows into the river Loddon and thence into the Thames). There is a major chance that Em(s) is an ancient Germanic word for big water body (Van Dale Etymology Dictionary).

The Amstel, the Eems, Eem and the Thames have in common their sudden widening of the river, their estuaries, where the river leads to or has a basin, a wide body of water.

Proto-English 'te' (aphonic 'e') has evolved from the old PIE-word *tho in modern English as 'at' or 'to' according to the context and region (OED) [2]. South-eastern Old English (Kentish) preferred 'et'.

The original river name was Ems or Ams : 'river-with-large-estuary'. The notion 'thames' (temse) referred to a specific spot along the river, namely the riverbanks in the London area (aT+Ems/Ames), as well as to the adjacent section of the river. The 's' at the end is 'isa', akin to the German river Weser.

The name Weser parallels the names of other rivers such as the Wear in England and the Vistula in Poland, all of which are ultimately derived from the root *weis- "to flow", which gave Old English/Old Frisian wase "mud, ooze", Old Norse veisa "slime, stagnant pool", Dutch waas "lawn", Old Saxon waso "wet ground, mire", and Old High German wasal "rain". (Wikipedia)
The Germanic languages have a odd habit to drop a leading 'w' in some words. The English word 'wool' is 'ull' in Swedish, 'wolf' is 'ulf' and 'word' is 'ord'. So, 'Weser' can have its 'w' dropped and becomes 'Eser', or 'Yser' (Belgium/West Flanders) or Isère (France/southeastern Alps) or Isar (Austria, Vienna), etc. [see right: Isis]. So, Temese referred in the centuries BC to a special place on the riverbank, NOT to the (whole) river itself.

Typical for natural estuaries is that their banks are regularly flooded, especially at spring tide. The height of this tide is difficult to predict as it can be combined with a northerly wind and storm. Building a house close to the water is hazardous under these conditions. So people searched for a settling place that was at the same time close enough and safe enough. This place is found more upstream. At a certain point, floods are reduced to a minimum. This place on the Thames river banks is the region of London. That river section was during the Bronze Age called 'Temse' or 'where the estuary (and its floods) begins'. The Ravenna Cosmography (see below) mentions TAMESE as a place, for it never mentions rivers.

Compound place names remained common in Old English according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The Romans wrote down the words as they were: compound words. An example is Dubris (Dover) : *duo (two) + *ofer (riverbank, shore). Compare with Dutch oever ; German Ufer = shore, riverbank. Notice that *ofer is a word only found in the Germanic languages. Thus Dover = double shore or spit. (more)

As more houses were build there, the place along the river became known as 'Lands (e)t Ames' (in modern English - see lower: London). The location became the most important point where the river could be crossed by ferry. Travellers eventually called the river itself 'Temse' and kept 'Lands' (in modern English) or (in Old-English) 'Landen/Londen' for the village.

When the Romans settled, the word Tamese was already used for the river itself.

The 'h' in Thames is a late affectation, the name is to be pronounced 'Tems'.

There is a city in Flanders, Belgium, located upon the river Schelde, that has the name Temse. In French: Tamise. There the river suddenly widened in ancient times, that is, before the river was captured (later) between dykes. The specific location of Temse on the river corresponds perfectly with that of London: where the estuary began.

There is a Temse in Germany, a short natural channel between the river Warnow and the Butzower lake (village of Butzow, Mecklenburg, north-east Germany). Here also it refers to a 'wide water body' (lake).

Etymology of Thames: 'aT (the) ames' = 'inhabited place where the estuary begins'. The Romans wrote: Tamisa or Tamesa. [4] The river would later (before the Romans came!) be named similar to 'the London river' as 'the Thames river'.


There is a remarkable similarity with the river name 'Humber'. In the first part we recognize the same 'ham'. The last part ('ber') means 'brown'. The animal 'bear' is also thought to mean 'the brown one'. A visit to the Humber will convince anyone of its brown colour. So, Humber = brown ham, wide brown water. A clear Germanic word.

As the word Thames shifted in meaning from the banks of the river to the river itself, the word 'lands' on the shore gradually replaced it. This could have happen after the 8th century BC. See next :


Nobody seems to know where the name London comes from. There is officially no etymological explanation for the Latin name Londinium. What is certain is that it was not the place of Mr. Londin. All names, including family names, had a meaning, and clearly 'Londin' means nothing, it's just a displacement of the problem. An alternative explanation is simple: Landen, if one accepts that the place-name was originally proto-English. 'Land-en' (aphonic 'e') is an ancient English, but still used in Dutch, plural for 'land'.

'Land' meant originally: an open space to build a home upon, the farmhouse with its surrounding grounds.
Ideal places were sandy soils, as often found near the sea. In the beginning, the word land referred mainly to the building, later the word referred to the terrain adjacent to the dwelling, that is the almost modern meaning. (See previous chapter Vindolanda)

The explanation would be perfect for the place where London is and quite logical. London must have been called Landen before the Romans came. Probably as a small settlement just before the widening delta of the Thames. A boat brought passengers to the other side of the river. The Romans must have found the location excellent and made a 'big' city of the former village (with a staggering 4000 inhabitants at its peak). For more about that figure, click here. The Roman bridge across the Thames provided the only way to travel north-south without getting into a boat in eastern Britain. The Romans latinised Londen into Londin and added '-ium' for declension purposes (for land <> lond , see below).

Place-names like Landen or with -land occur also in the other Germanic regions. The place-name 'Landen' replaced the earlier place-name 'Tems'.

This explains also the French version: Londres. 'Landen' with '-en' plural was not the only possibility. A more High German '-er' ('Lander') could also be used. In middle Dutch there was some sort of competition between '-en' plural and '-er'. Eventually '-en' would prevail in Dutch. There was a similar plural battle in England: child -> childer -> childeren (children). Some regions used more '-en' and some more '-er' plurals. Later, '-en' became standard (probably in the southeast) and people forgot that '-er' was already a plural [5]. The '-en' plural won the game, just before it was replaced by the now common (and French) '-s' plural. The French understood it was a plural, but must have obtained the name from '-er' users. So they added their own plural '-s' and pronounced it Londers or (today) Londres.

The Ravenna cosmography (700 AD - Vatican codex) refers to TAMESE as a place, not a river, just after LANDINI. However, Londinium Augusti is also mentioned. The Romans used a place-names list if they wanted to travel from one place to another. One could buy such a list. The Ravenna cosmography is thought to be a copy of a copy of a copy.... of several such lists which themselves were compiled to obtain a worldwide (from Ireland to India) road book. This adding up method is confusing and far from precise. The compiling monk had no idea and had probably never left his native Ravenna.
It is possible that Landini was Landen and the Kentish version for London. Landini was never attested as a stand alone place in Britain. The cosmography gives us three names for likely the same city: Londinium, Landini and Tamese. It probably just depended upon where you were in Britain.

There is a village near Brussels called 'Landen'. There are many place names in the Low Countries and Germany with the word 'land' in it. So, London as a place name is far from unique.

Around 1450 AD, English became an official language in Parliament (it had been French between 1215 and 1450) and as a consequence the Chancellery at Westminster decided to regularize the English spelling as a common written language was needed. Among the many words which received a single written version was the word 'lond' which became 'land', although this took a long time to settle ("The Adventure of English", Melvyn Bragg, 2003, page 98). Clearly, a significant proportion of the English still used 'lond' instead of the modern 'land'.

Therefore, London means 'the houses', as people originally (a few centuries BC!) referred to the few houses owned by fishermen, ferryboat men, helpers, merchants and some artisans (carpenters, smiths, etc) et al. These 'houses' were situated where the estuary began, at the time the most sensible place: the Tems-place. The full place-name would have been: "the houses at the Ems". Centuries later some people would continue to say 'Temse', not referring to the river but to that specific inhabited place just before the estuary and dropping the obvious 'houses' (=lands) word as has been suggested for a thorp [6]. But most others split both notions and one part became applicable for the whole length of the 'London river' and the other part became a sort of stand alone place-name which apparently just happened to be split by the river.

Note that the words land or lond (Londinium), tems (Tamisa) are words belonging to the Germanic language group. They do not occur in Brythonic (wrongly called 'Celtic'), nor in any other European language group. They were written down by the Romans long before the Anglo-Saxons set foot in Britain. Read the summary for more information about that.