12 August 2010

Toponymic notes (1): Valentia

It's summer time and the temperatures are getting high around Valencia. I can enjoy the sandy Mediterranean  beaches near my home, which is quite good, but sometimes I wish I were in a place with milder weather, somewhere in the mountains or further north, for example on this beautiful island off the southwest coast of Ireland (picture taken from here).
Beautiful, isn't it? And refreshing. The funny thing is that this place is actually called... Valencia, like my home town. The complete name is Valencia (or Valentia) Island, also Dairbhre (= "place of oaks"), in Irish. The question is: Why is there a Valencia in this corner of County Kerry? It's difficult to imagine the reason, but there must be one. I'll go into the details later. First, a little digression.

The best known 'Valencia' is the one I live in, in eastern Spain, but there are others in this country and also in France, Portugal and Italy, with variations like 'Valença' or 'Valence'. The original form derives from Latin Valentia, used by the Romans to name some new settlements (the Spanish one was founded in the 2nd c. BC), but in some cases, e.g. Valence d'Albigeois (Tarn, France) or in Valencia de Don Juan (León, Spain), the place-name was coined at a later age as a calque on the original model, for reasons of beauty or prestige. Later on, it was also exported into the Americas (for some curious US examples take a look at this post from Vent d Cabylia, a blog I usually read).

What about the British Isles? The other day, reading a book about Romano-British place-names, I made an interesting discovery: by the end of the 4th c. AD, the Roman Emperor Theodosius decided to reorganize the province of Britannia adding a new sub-division in northern England that he called Valentia, probably as a tribute to Emperor Valens. It seems that the capital was Carlisle (Rivet - Smith, 1979: 46). The name of this territory can be found in some classical texts but it disappeared from common use.

In England there are nowadays a couple of place-names with a 'Valence' element in them. One of them is Sutton Valence (Kent). Its name derives from a French noble family that settled in England in the 13th c. They were called de Valence, after a small French village in France with the same name, in Poitou-Charantes. (On the right you can see a picture of Saint Mary's Curch, in Sutton Valence, taken from this web page).There is also a small village in Hampshire called Newton Valence. I haven't found information about its etymology, but I guess it must also have a medieval origin from a noble family.

Now, let's go back to our green Irish island. Its name is certainly not from Roman times (Ireland, or Hibernia, was never a Roman province), and there are no links with any noble familiy from medieval France. So where does this 'Valencia' come from? According to Mills' Dictionary of British Place Names, it derives from the Irish words Béal Inse, with the meaning "estuary of the island". The present form of the name is probably influenced by the Latin ones, but, as we have seen, its origin is completely different. And quite unexpected! As usually happens in the world of toponymy, a place-name is definitely not what it seems.

- Mills, A.D: ( 2003). Dictionary of British Place Names. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Rivet, A.L.F., and C. Smith (1979). The Place-Names of Roman Britain. London: Book Club Associates.


Anonymous said...

Regarding "Béal Inse" when you include the definite article (an) the name becomes: An Bhéal Inse

Phonenetically in english this would resemble "On Vale-In-sha" as an Irish person I've never heard it pronunced like Valencia in Spain. In general it's prn as Val-en-cha and generally spelt as Valentia.

Here is a mp3 file of prn of An Bhéal Inse in irish (northern dialect):

Jesús Sanchis said...

Thanks for the comment and link.

I found this Irish place-name in Mills' Dictionary, and in that dictionary (p. 478) it is spelt with a "c". Then, when I found the web-page with the image of the island (the one that you can see in the post), the spelling was also "Valencia". It is true, however, that the spelling "Valentia" seems to be more common, and it seems to be the more official one.

In any case, both "Valencia" and "Valentia" are the latinized (or Romance-like) forms of an Irish word, and, as such, are good examples of place-names that might be misleading in etymological terms. And that is of course the main point of my post.

JoseAngel said...

Regarding the name "Valentia" there's a curious story to be told. Pliny the Elder's NATURAL HISTORY (book III) says about the city of Rome that "it is a sacrilege to pronounce its second name except in the mysteries of ritual ceremonies. Having been kept rigorously hidden with the best and healthiest observance, Valerius Soranus made it public, and was soon punished. It is not inadequate to mention in this respect the case of an ancient cult instituted mainly because of this secret. The goddess Angerona, who is offered sacrifices on the twelfth day before the January calends, has her statue with the mouth tied up and sealed." The editors of the Gredos translation add a note, to this effect:
"The 'second name of Rome' apparently was, according to Servius, 'Valentia' a supposed Latin translation (an inverted translation) of the translation into Greek of 'Rome' ('Rhomé', meaning 'strenght'). Soranus, a former Marian, took refuge in Sicily, fleeing Sulla, and was executed there by the praetor, Pompeius."

The second name of Rome may have been a secret, but the Romans did not seem to think that the law of silence should apply to the naming of Roman colonies as well.

Jesús Sanchis said...

Yes, the story of the secret name of Rome, apparently 'Valentia', is quite curious. I read about it for the first time in this article by Xaverio Ballester.

David Fried said...

I post here with some trepidation, because I am no linguist. But I often see explanations of toponyms like the one offered for Irish "Valentia": "Estuary of the Island," presented with a conclusive air. Excuse me? What does this even mean? Rivers have estuaries; islands don't. I mention this because the etymologies given for many toponyms often strike me as equally nonsensical, and yet so much of the study of recent prehistory depends on them.

But in this case, apparently the name remains transparent to a speaker of modern Irish Gaelic? What do you understand it to mean, Anonymous?

Sebster said...

Querido Jesús,
I have been reading your very informative and interesting blog on language origins and etymology in Britain - there are so many theories and arguments I am only just beginning to develop an understanding of it all!

As I come from Winchester, Hampshire I immediately thought about the name of Newton Valence. I have a book somewhere called the Place Names of Hampshire published by the Hampshire Society, but it is buried in a box somewhere! So a quick google search gave me this article


in which it states that the manor of Newton was given over to William de Valence in 1249, giving the name Newton Valence.

I hope this helps with your interest in the name of Valentia!
I will be reading more of your blog and if there are any questions I'll contact you.

Muchas gracias,

Sebastian de Gange

Jesús Sanchis said...

Sebastian, thank you very much for your comments and link. This confirms my initial guess: Sutton Valence and Newton Valence are both connected to this medieval family from France, called 'de Valence'.

AlfredRussel said...

Hi he arribat per casualitat seguint un fil sobre Valentia, però no solament m'ha semblat un blog magnífic sinó que fins i tot m'he permés la llibertat d'enllaçar-te en una entrada. Felicitacions i moltes gràcies!

Jesús Sanchis said...

Alfred, benvingut al meu blog i gràvies pels comentaris. M'he llegit la teua entrada, que m'ha resultat molt interessant: pel fil conductor que uneix tantes illes en principi allunyades i per fer-me descobrir, encara que siga un poquet, un món per a mi totalment desconegut: el del coleccionisme de moluscs.
Veig que el teu blog està en plena activitat, no com el meu, que roman en hibernació. Espere, però, tornar a publicar alguna cosa d'ací no molt.

Anonymous said...

In the Gaelic language there is no letter V. However, many words sound as though they have one. This is because the language calls for a change in sound under certain circumstances. For instance, lets say your name is Michael. In Gaelic your name would be Micheal. This is pronounced mee-hall. However, if I were to call you (i.e. I am looking for you) I have to add a letter H to your name and would say " a Mhichael" . This is pronounced; a vi-heel. Similarly Beal (mouth/opening) is pronounced - bale. When an H is added, for similar reasons,it supersedes the B. The BH becomes V, and bale becomes vale. This change, or addition of the H, used to be denoted by a single dot being placed above the letter (in these examples the M or B), but this practice has faded since the 50's. The question posed by another, as to why Beal Inse would mean mouth of the island, can be answered as follows; in Gaelic many words are descriptive. For instance the name for a dog is "madra", and the name for a fox is madra rua ( dog red) . Just like orange is a color and a fruit, no one considers this when they use the word. Similarly Beal Inse translates into " mouth island" but should translate to " mouth with an island' or " opening with an island" The general idea is that everyone understands, without having to add every word needed to describe it. When ask by English speaking visitors they would have said "an bheal inse" (the mouth/opening island). They would not have left out the word "the" in this use of Gaelic. Had the English person been standing on the island with the Irish speaker, when the question was asked, he would have been told "Beal Inse". The difference in Gaelic between asking what is THAT, and what is THIS, and no one would be asking this question today because Baylincha is not in Spain.

Anonymous said...

Anything to do with the Spanish armada?

Jesús Sanchis said...

I don't think so.