THE CELTIC NAME OF BLENCOW
From notes by Andrew Breeze, University of Navarre, Pamplona 2002
Blencow in Cumbria has a toponym which has puzzled scholars. Comparison with Welsh and Cornish suggests we have Cumbric and part-Cumbric forms here, respectively meaning 'hollow of (the) summit' and 'ridge-top valley'. Welsh Cau = 'Hollow'.
Great Blencow and Little Blencow face each other across a bridge four miles west-north-west of Penrith, Cumbria. Their name occurs in 1231 as Blenco, where the first element is Brittonic *blain 'end, summit', as at Blaenau Ffestiniog in Snowdonia or Blaenau Gwent in South Wales. But the second element has been obscure.
Yet there is reason to take it as a Cumbric equivalent of Welsh cau and Cornish cow, both meaning 'hollow'. This element is best known from Glasgow in Scotland, attested in 1136 as Glasgu, in 1165-78 as Glascu, in the fourteenth century as Glasgo, and so on. Though the etymology here 'quite uncertain', researchers are sure that the meaning is 'green hollow' with mutation of original c to g. This has a Cornish parallel at Kynance Cove near Lizard Point, lying at the foot of a ravine attested in 1325 in Penkeunans 'head of (the) hollow valley'.
Cornish *cownans 'ravine' and the name of Glasgow thus point to a meaning 'hollow of (the) summit' at Blencow. This certainly suits its location. Blencow lies in a hollow by the river Petteril, itself with a Cumbric name perhaps referring to Roman centuriation (suggested by the curious rectagonal lay-out of local roads, noted even by 18th century antiquaries). The summit referred to would be the conspicuous peak (height 1185 feet) above the village of Greystoke two miles west.
Blencow 'summit hollow' is not an exciting name, even if one of its elements is also found at Glasgow 'green hollow'. But, if the above explanation is correct, it allows us to see the form more precisely as evidence for Celtic survival in Cumbria, where Cumbric (a Brittonic or language similar to Welsh) was spoken perhaps even as late as the twelfth century.
Anton & Christopher Blencowe
For the complete, fully referenced article Email editor @ blencowefamilies.com The origin of our name often causes controversy.
Cumbria is an ancient land and before the Romans arrived the people would have spoken Brythonic. Around the 5th century AD, the language spoken in northern England and southern Scotland had developed into a dialect of Brythonic known as Cumbric which is a branch of the Celtic language that includes Welsh, Breton and Cornish. It is close to Old Welsh, which as we go south, picks up a more Cornish influence. It was widely spoken well into the 12th Century when the folk of Cumbria were set apart due to the 1138 Battle of Standards which separated each group by language.
However, as Neville Howard in his talk to us at Greystoke Castle last year iterated that a far stronger influence in ‘Our’ part of Cumbria on the modern dialect was Old Norse, spoken by Norwegian settlers who probably arrived in Cumbria in the 10th century via Ireland and the Isle of Man. The majority of Cumbrian place names are of Norse origin, including fell, dale, force and beck.
Old Norse seems to have survived in Cumbria until fairly late but gradually mixed with Old English through the Middle Ages. It would probably have hung on in the fells and dales (both Norse words) until much later.
One of the lasting characteristics still found in the local dialect of Cumbria today is an inclination to drop vowels, especially in relation to the word "the" which is frequently abbreviated and in sentences sounds as if it is attached to the previous word, for example "int" instead of "in the" "ont" instead of "on the". Another common addition to words is the letter y. Cumbrians often change the way a word is sounded by adding a y as in byat = boat and cyak = cake.