French Place Names

 

Notre Dame on a Rainy Evening, 2014

Notre Dame on a Rainy Evening, 2014

Happy Bastille Day (for the 14th)!

I took the photo above in Paris, one rainy evening in October, 2014. As most of you will probably be aware, it shows the cathedral of Notre Dame, on the Île de la Cité. Mary and I were staying nearby on the Île Saint-Louis at the time, and I was out for an evening stroll after the rain.

I just learned that the father of the current French President, Emmanuel Macron, is an expert on cat sneezing! During our visit, we spotted this Parisian resident, not sneezing, but gazing out over the River Seine from a balcony on the Rue Chanoinesse.

Cat on a Ledge, Paris 2014

Cat on a Ledge, Paris 2014

On that occasion, we visited not only Paris (unlike President Trump’s seemingly imaginary friend Jim), but also southwestern France, and stayed for a while in the Dordogne, which is a beautiful and fascinating region that I’d never previously seen.

We stayed in the village of Bézenac, and visited several nearby locations. One of the best known of those is perhaps Beynac, which has been nominated as one of the world’s most beautiful villages. Perched on a cliff high above the village is the Château de Beynac, as shown in my photo below.

Beynac from below, 2014

Beynac from below, 2014

The opposite view, shown below, shows the scene from the walls of the Château de Beynac, looking down towards the Dordogne River. Incidentally, at one time in the Middle Ages, the near side of the river was in France while the far side was English territory!

Beynac from above, 2014

Beynac from above, 2014

Langue d’Oc & Langue d’Oïl

The South of France is often referred to as the “Languedoc”, and the origin of that name is linguistic. In medieval times, there were two major dialects of French, which were named according to their respective words for “Yes”.

  • In the North, the Latin expression for “yes”—hoc ille—had evolved into “oïl”.
  • In the South, the same Latin expression had become “oc”, hence the language was the “Langue d’Oc”.

All Those “Acs”

I was naturally curious as to why so many of the place names in the Languedoc end in “ac”. I assumed that it must refer to some characteristic of the settlements so-named, as for similar recurring endings in British place names, such as “ham”, “thorpe”, etc.

After we returned home, I bought a copy of a book that explains the origins of place names in that region: Origine des noms de villes et villages de la Dordogne (Cassagne, Korsak).

NomsDordogne

The book explains that the “ac” ending refers to the existence of a villa at the location during Gallo-Roman times. The Gallic names for such places ended in “acos”, which the Romans Latinized as “acum”. For example, the village we stayed in, Bézenac, was originally Bisenacum (the “villa of Bisenus”).

However, the Latin “acum” place name ending morphed into a modern ending differently, according to the region. For example, in parts of the North, “ac” became “ai”, such as in Cambrai, while in areas near Paris it became “y”, such as in Orly.

In a previous post, I described how the Roman name Eboracum evolved via several contortions into the modern place name York, in Northern England.

Perhaps I should have spotted that all those “ac” place names in Languedoc were really just that same “acum” ending that I’d already encountered in Yorkshire as a child!

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